Instrument Maker Finds Life Calling In The Scraps Of The Past

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“I use gourds, coffee cans, beer cans, cigar boxes, gas cans, cookie tins, frying pans, copper pipe, and anything else I can find that will make a sound for my instruments,” said instrument maker Jim Morris. “I prefer using hand tools to build these instruments because it connects me to how instruments would have been made hundreds of years ago. It’s a slower, almost meditative process that I find quite satisfying.”

Jim Morris has been making music for most of his seventy years. For over twenty years, while he worked as a government employee in Washington, DC, he played electric guitar in bar bands in DC, Virginia, and Maryland. After retirement he worked in a furniture factory making chairs and tables for $6.75 an hour, learning basic woodworking skills that would soon come in handy. “Shaping a piece of wood into the neck of an instrument or another part is making something useful from scraps,” he said.

He discovered oldtime music when he moved to Hampshire County, West Virginia around 2005, and it led to an interest in making music in a different way, by building musical instruments. His first source of inspiration was a banjo made from a frying pan made by Gus Cannon; Cannon had made the instrument as a young teenager and taught himself to play on it before going on to Cannon’s Jug Stompers. Morris also saw a cigar box fiddle in an engraving of a Civil War encampment, and set about to recreate what he saw.  

“My first homemade instrument was the cigar box fiddle,” Morris said. “Then I found that taking an item that was destined for the landfill and making it into a playable musical instrument was extremely satisfying for me.”

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Since then, Morris has made fiddles, guitars, mandolins, banjos, ukuleles, spoons, penny whistles, basses, and an instrument made from a beer can he calls a canjo. Morris estimates that he has made over 35 fiddles and a total of 400 instruments in his home shop so far. Each instrument takes between 20 and 30 hours to complete. All his instruments are playable and have a unique sound. As proof, there’s the Junk Mountain Stringband, a band Morris performs in with friends, all on homemade instruments, most made by Morris.

“I think homemade instruments, especially those made from whatever is on hand, helps put oldtime musicians in touch with the mindset of folks from many years ago whose music we try to keep alive,” Morris said. “Oldtime musicians of the past may not have had the means to purchase a professionally made instrument, so they often made them from whatever they had available. Making and using nonconventional instruments, especially when attempting a historic reproduction, is a way to tap into how these tunes may have sounded long ago.”

He first learned about making musical instruments from a book in the Foxfire series of magazines and books about folklife and rural skills, and liked that instrument making was a long held Appalachian tradition. Later he found an internet-based group of instrument makers who led him to Cigarbox Nation, a website where one can find all the information needed to make homemade musical instruments.     

“Most of these instruments are made to be tuned and played the same as conventional instruments,” Morris said of his creations. “Figuring how to comfortably hold some of them, like gourd fiddles, can require some adjustment. The sound of instruments made from gourds, cigar boxes, and biscuit tins is often quieter and some have different tonal qualities than conventional instruments.”

His instruments have also helped Morris connect with the community around him. “I have 12 oldtime music students and teach mandolin, guitar, banjo, and bass at Honeybee Music in Romney, West Virginia,” Morris said. I also sell my instruments at the Hampshire Artist Co-Op in Romney.” At the Co-Op he leads a monthly music jam and teaches ukulele to a large group of beginners. He is among the oldtime musicians who meet at The Cabin in Romney, where several folks play his homemade instruments (“Jim turns junk into instruments that sound great,” said fiddler Andy Herbaugh.) Morris joined his friend and neighbor Josh Haza to produce his latest recording of music, Junk Mountain (Questionable Records), all played on instruments Morris has made. Morris and Haza are also bandmates with fiddler Dakota Karper in their neotraditional band, Hay Fever

 “Anyone, if they want to, can make a perfectly playable instrument. It doesn’t take a whole lot of woodworking skills. You can make it as crude as you want or make it with as much finesse as you want. There are a lot of internet resources on instrument building and parts are readily available,” Morris said. “I’ll continue to build and play instruments as long as I am able. I’ve finally found my life’s calling: making instruments out of junk.”  

Jim Morris can be reached at morbanjo@gmail.com. His YouTube channel, morbanjo, has videos of most of his instruments.

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