My mother, with her wisdom honed during the Great Depression, often said to me that: “Poor folks have poor ways.” and: “Make do with what you have.” These words describe not just household chores (When is the last time you darned socks?) but what inventive, often impecunious, musicians have been doing for a long, long time. That’s why we see all those examples of so-called “folk” fiddles, banjos, guitars and—yes—ukuleles made by poor folks with what they have at hand.
Discarded cigar boxes, ham or coffee tins, mixing bowls, motor oil cans, old wood hoops, or even hospital bed pans (sanitized!) have all been used to make the sound boxes of various stringed instruments including ukuleles.
While these cobbled-together instruments made of man-made materials function, sound decent, and—often—look pretty good (?), there is another category of “found” materials I’m going to muse on today—those found in (or wrested from) nature.
Natural materials, such as bone, skin, and shell, have been used for various bits and bobs of lutherie for generations. They have been used both functionally like bone or ivory nuts and saddles, as well as skin banjo heads, or decoratively like tortoise shell and mother-of-pearl.
Next, here’s my very own, mother-of-pearl decorated “Snowshoe” Art Deco tenor!
Now let me dig into another and broader category of natural materials used in luthiery—sound boxes made of “shells,” of one sort or another. Here’s one in my collection that I built a few years ago.
While renewable plant materials, such as dried gourds and coconut shells are easy to find and work with, there is yet another category of shells I must touch on (albeit with trepidation) as an essential part of this topic—the shells (unlived in, of course) of turtles and even armadillos.
Now, my intentions are not to offend any of you gentle readers who are vegans, vegetarians, animal rights-ers, or who simply might be squeamish with the thought of using large and recognizable parts of no-longer-living creatures to form our favorite little instruments. Suffice it to say that what I am about to muse on is in the form of acknowledgement rather than advocacy! Be that as it may, now is the time to opt out if you must. Otherwise, soldier on!
And, by the way, I have no idea where—short coming upon some road kill down Texas way—one could find an armadillo shell that could be put to luthier use today. I have not, of course, asked our good friends at Google about sources for these, but turtle shells are a tad easier to locate and can be found from time to time on eBay. But, who knows what’s out there in the dark corners of the internet! Anyway, more about these so-called “critter shells” further along in this musing.
But first, lets look at coconut shells and hollow gourds which, by the way, are totally different animals, so to speak. These are readily available, renewable resources to say nothing of being a lot easier to scrape out, clean up, and prepare for luthiery!
A dried gourd is, by far, the easiest type of “shell” to work with. Simply find a good, solid one and trim it off, add a skin or wood head, fix a neck to the whole thing, string it up and—Bob’s your uncle!—you’re ready to strum.
I don’t know if these “double headers” sound better but they sure look craftier!
Now, here’s a pretty good tutorial on banjo ukes made from gourds. Click or tap on the next image to learn a bit and, perhaps to become inspired!
Click or tap on the next image for some good fingerpicking on a gourd uke.
Now here’s some really sweet clawhammer picking on a fretless gourd banjo. Click or tap on the next image for a look and listen.
Coconut shells are a much harder substance than a gourd and thus a bit trickier to work. Also, sometimes two or even three need to be fitted together to make a decent sized sound chamber. They clean up pretty well, however.
As an aside, here’s a bit of a coconut shell mystery that I stumbled across in my internet searches. After pondering a bit, my uneducated guess is that the next image must be of some sort of coco-coronavidian “face mask for two” or something like that. Needless to say, your thoughts will be appreciated. Alas, I digress.
Quickly moving on, coconuts work quite nicely for a ukulele and can be polished up to a really glossy, deep brown finish. These are usually topped with a thin wood head like our usual ukes. Here’s a nice antique coconut uke and some fancy strumming. Click or tap on the next image for a look.
Here’s some nice strumming on a double coconut uke, amplified, no less! Click or tap on the next image for this one.
How about an old chestnut of a coconut song from England, strummed on a uke. Click or tap on the next image for this carnival treat.
Leaving our thoughts of coconut shells and icy pina coladas behind, let’s drill more deeply into our topic of the day starting with the shells of an Armadillo (Spanish for “little armor-plated critter” or something like that). These have been used for generations in Mexico and South America for crafts and, more particularly to us, luthiery.
While armadillo shell ukes can be found, armadillo shells have been used traditionally for those South American cousins of the ukulele, the “charango”–a small, ten-stringed instrument similar in configuration to the “tiple” that was a popular cousin of the ukulele back in the 1920s.
The cleaned and dried Armadillo shell is formed into a bowl-like chamber and the rest of the process is much like the gourd or coconut examples. Many YouTubes exist but, alas, mostly in Spanish—except for the music!
Tap or click on the next image for some strumming on an armadillo shell charango.
Next is a rather fast-charging charango piece from Bolivia. Click or tap on the next image for a listen. Lucky for us, the music doesn’t need a translation!
Now for those of you gentle readers who have stuck with me so far into this musicological exploration, we shall move on to turtles! Turtle, or tortoise, shells can be worked in just about the same way as the armadillo. Plus, turtle shells are readily available even on eBay! Take your pick and bid away.
I think that these look a bit less gruesome than armadillo shells but, it’s all a matter of taste and, I am sure, sound quality. As an aside, and if you can find or make some, turtle soup is traditional and quite tasty. I don’t know about armadillo soup or stew, however. Again, I digress.
It might be a bit easier making a uke out of a discarded turtle soup can but, moving on, here’s a nicely crafted example of a turtle-shell uke. In my aesthetic opinion, the heavily grained oak compliments the texture of the shell quite nicely. As to tone and playability, who knows!
Now, here’s a bit of strumming on a turtle-shell uke. Click or tap on the next image to hear what this sounds like.
Here is a nice, soprano sized turtle-shell uke nicely played. Click or tap on the next image for this one.
Needless to say, the so-called “critter” and natural shell instruments are a rare breed in the world of ukuleles, but they can be found in most collections of folk instruments and, as we have seen in the various YouTubes, are used by some performers today.
So, if you are adventurous, and not the least bit squeamish, keep your eye out for road kill and see what you can make do.
On the other hand, seek out a good looking gourd or a couple of sturdy coconut shells and craft a little nature into your strumming.
As a final treat, here’s a uke of wood made to look like a shell. A whole different critter! Click or tap on the next image to see this facsimile critter in action.
Now there are not that many songs out there in music land on the topic of gourds, armadillos, and turtles that ukulele players have espoused or covered.
Sadly, no ukulele version of this Texas favorite but here is a “turtle tune” with Northampton connections! Click or tap on the next image for a ukulele version of this local “folk song.”
Stay safe (particularly when walking across highways), stay sequestered in your shells, and STAY TUNED! Oh yes, and wear an appropriate mask!