When he took the stage at Chapel Hill’s Nightlight a few weeks ago, Zeke Graves didn’t draw much from the moody electronica he crafts as Datahata or from the spectral electric guitar improvisations heard on last year’s Chthonic Journey. Instead, the multifaceted instrumentalist performed a set of traditional folk music on a collection of banjos—some made by established craftsmen, others carved by his own hands.

As a complement to this week’s “Instrumentalist” feature, Graves gave us a crash course in the tools and techniques of making and playing banjos, how his electronic-music background sparked his instrument-building interest and offered a glimpse into his forthcoming set.

Building banjos:

I’ve made seven banjos. I started playing some banjo, and at the time I was interested in studying folklore. I was kind of toying with the idea of doing some kind of grad school or something, and the path I started going down had to do with people who make their own instruments, and kind of the DIY aspect of that.

Years ago, I’d been interested in circuit-bending, modding pedals, building electronic things and stuff like that, so I already had the idea that I could dig in and actually do this stuff myself and create my own sounds that are not sounds out of a box.

Running with that, I was listening to a lot of old blues music from the ‘20s and ‘30s, and I was reading interviews with these guys, and a lot of them would say the first instrument they ever played was some variation of a one-string. It would be some piece of wire tied on the side of a shed or on a piece of wood, some kind of improvised thing, and just playing with a bottle or something.

So I built a couple of one-string instruments, built a cookie-tin banjo and just started going from there.

I did a workshop with this guy named Jeff Menzies, who is a really good gourd banjo builder, and that’s where I got all the basic info I needed to get going.

On his first gourd banjos:

This is the first one I built in that workshop. It’s just a gourd that you cut, a goatskin head and cherry neck. Traditionally, you would use gut strings, but these are a synthetic version.

It’s got more of a plunky kind of sound. It’s fretless, too. The sliding thing is awesome, I really like that. It’s where you start getting into the zone, in between the notes and stuff.

You start with a plank, and carve it out on a bandsaw and then use rasps and files to shape it down. It’s a really slow process. Obviously, there are a lot of ways you can mechanize it and speed it up, but the way Jeff teaches it is that you do everything the slow way, by hand. The nice thing about that is you can’t hurt yourself very badly, and if you start getting into power tools, it’s one false move and you pretty much ruin the piece.

When I started making these, I was really gung-ho about making them and then maybe trying to sell them. Then I realized that, realistically, I can only make about two or three of these banjos a year, and there are other things I want to be doing. My plan right now is just build like two a year.

This is a pre-1800s sort of style. At that time, white people didn’t play the banjo, it was totally an African folk instrument. Once white people started playing it, it kind of started taking more of the shape and using a rim.

The bridge is held on by tension. It’s kind of tricky because people always make fun of banjo players for not being in tune, but it’s the nature of the instrument. Every time you hit the strings, the whole bridge moves. But that’s the cool thing about it, too.

Trial and Error:

This is part of a more recent one that I’m working on right now. I have the rim out in the workshop and I’m actually soaking the skin right now that I’m going to stretch onto it later today. So I’m actually getting ready to sell two banjos pretty soon, which I’m excited about.

Your more modern banjo has a whole tensioning system, kind of like a snare drum. These are just tacked on, so a banjo’s already very sensitive to changes in the weather, and these are even more so. I’ve taken these to fiddle conventions and stuff in the middle of the summer when it’s humid, and if you have it outside in the middle of the day, the head is going to be totally sunken from the humidity. But as the weather changes it can get really tight again. Every once in a while you may have to re-stretch the skin.

Actually, this one that I’m doing now, I put a head on it and I accidentally left it in the sun—which is just stupid—and then the head broke.

On the craft of building and playing banjos:

Banjo’s interesting, too, because compared to guitar, it’s very much an artisan, craftsman kind of thing. There are some manufacturers that are kind of cranking them out a little bit more, but it’s much more of a craft-oriented thing. I thought that was cool. I liked that approach.

This is a pretty nice modern old-time style banjo. It’s made by this guy Kevin Enoch, who I think got started in the ‘70s. He’s one of the more established banjo builders now. Like, I don’t think he even builds these anymore, he has someone else who does the building. The stuff he does now is just very, very custom with a lot of fancy inlays and stuff. This is really bare bones, but it’s also fretless up to the seventh fret. It still has kind of a plunky sound, but it rings a little more.

For some reason, once I started playing, I knew that I was interested in fretless, more of that sort of sound. When most people think of the banjo, they think of something that’s really tinny and kind of metallic and annoying, but the banjo doesn’t have to sound like that at all.