The 'Jomama

a fretless baritone 5-string banjo sculpture



The 'Jomama is one of the few instruments I've ever made entirely for myself. This wooden-topped banjo/oud creature was the first (hopefully there will be more!) example of my work to combine my love of lutherie and my passion for mask-making, both of which have been nearly life-long interests. I made my first papier mache puppet heads at age 9, and as a teenager did a lot of wooden carvings of faces. Around the time I began to build guitars I also was doing mask performance with Vermont's Bread and Puppet Theater and a couple of other groups that used masks extensively. I began making my own masks and always wanted to incorporate those techniques into instruments.The 'Jomama has a sculpted back that combines three creature-faces cast in industrial strength papier mache (see the construction page for more on this process).


The top of the 'Jomama is Engelmann spruce, the neck is California black walnut and the fretless fingerboard is ebony. The hardwood friction pegs are each painted with a face on either side of the peg knob or button.

Originally, the 'Jomama was conceived of as being built as much as possible from recycled or simple, hardware store materials. To compliment the papier mache back made of recycled grocery bags, the strings were a combination of nylon monofilament fishing line and "weed-whacker" chord. Eventually, as the instrument came to be a personal favorite for playing on, I replaced the two rather inferior sounding weed-whacker strings with a harp string and a nylon core acoustic bass guitar string. The three highest-tuned strings are still fishing line. The sound I was going for was that of some of the African, gut-strung predecessors to the banjo, and especially an Ethiopian banjo-like instrument called the krar. Something about that sweet, plunky, primitive sound touches my heart; I think I did manage to capture a bit of it in the 'Jomama's thumpy warmth. The combination of the nylon-string plunk and the liquid glissandos of fretless playing gives the 'Jomama a voice that is truly it's own, but with an ancient quality that is primal and deeply familiar.

I play the 'Jomama using techniques based on some of the old styles of banjo playing that developed in the rural southern Appalachian mountains. I tune the four full length strings, from lowest to highest, D-G-d-e, and the short 5th or drone string is g, an octave above the 3rd string. This very mysterious Em/G tuning is an old banjo tuning that I learned as a teenager as "Flying Indian" tuning, called so after an old tune of the same name. It has become the default tuning for the 'Jomama, and in it I play a combination of old traditional banjo pieces and my own original songs and tunes, all with the sweet plunk of grocery bags and fishing line.