This year in 3rd grade I decided to have the kids make a simple single string instrument called a canjo.

I did a little research on the net over the summer, trying to find plans that I could understand and were simple in design.  I came across a video by Mr. Mefford that showed a more complex canjo.

He responded to a comment I made on his video about making a simpler version for my 3rd graders by making a a whole new video just for us!

We began sanding our canjo necks on the 3rd week of 1st quarter and completed our build on the 3rd week of 2nd quarter. The kids have enjoyed playing the canjos so far as we are preparing a song for the Christmas program.



There is a long list of things I will do differently if I endeavor to make canjos again next year.

1. Cut construction time down.

If I took out the measuring of the frets and just gave them a template to mark with I could get back at least 2 days of class. I will need to make sure I have 6-8 templates to keep things moving along.  \

2. Pick a string that works.

I added so much work to my build this year by making a change from my prototype with out testing it. I built my prototype canjo this summer using fishing line for the string because it was cheap. The instrument played very quietly (which I thought might be a plus with 20 kids playing at the same time) and I was worried that the fishing line might too stretchy to hold a tune. So I found a donor that bought us enough .014 gauge guitar strings to use instead. When I installed those strings though the frets that we had marked for the diatonic scale no longer played the correct pitches. Not an option! So I removed all 60 installed strings and installed fishing line instead. Good news is that fishing line is easier for the kids to work with as I actually had a few students break their steel strings on the first install. Fishing line doesn’t kink so no breakage issues. I have, however, had to tune all the canjos before each of the last 3 classes. Today was the first day that some of the canjos were still at least in the correct pitch area. I’m hoping they will settle into a pitch so I won’t have to tune them before every class! I have ordered some classical nylon guitar string and will be trying that next.


3. Use centers to construct the canjos. Everyone could start out sanding then I could add a center on each class so that the kids could move on when they were ready.

4. Kids have checklist or rubric of some kind to carry around with them so that they could track both where they are and the quality of the work. It was difficult to make the rubric this year as I did not know exactly where our problems would crop up. I also need to think up some sort of system to easily distribute these documents in each music class though.

5. Use the HS ag class. The HS ag teacher has let me know that she would be willing to have some of her classes cut, belt sand and bore the tuner holes. I just need to get her the pallet wood in the spring so that they can be ready for our fall build. My husband did all of those jobs this year and I don’t wish to do that to him again.

6. Sharpie maker or ink pen frets. This year I used a wood burner to burn in all the fret marks. The kids couldn’t do this step so it took forever!!! I thought the burn marks would give the kids something more tactile than just a pencil  mark. It does but the difference is so small that it is not worth it.

7. Class set of canjos ready to go at the start of the year. I would have liked to start making some actual music earlier in the year but there were no instruments ready. We did start learning songs but I really wanted them to PLAY something not just sing.

8. Can covers made of fancy tape. This year I started out asking the students to make paper can covers that they decorated. The kids had a hard time making the covers neatly (edges often overhung the side of the can by quite a bit and cuts where messy) and getting them wrapped around the can tight enough that they wouldn’t come off. Even when installed well the paper still ripped easily. Next year I will by rolls of fancy duct tape from the Dollar Store or NAEIR and let the kids go to town. It will be faster, last longer and look nicer.


Things I am enjoying about this unit so far:

1. I get to extend our learning of small/high and big/low from our instruments of the orchestra unit in 2nd grade by talking about frets and string length.

2. Kids are getting to MAKE something that they can take home and make music on cheaply.

3. Kids are getting to sand, hammer and install screws. It really doesn’t get more exciting than that in 3rd grade!

Brenda Muench

music educator tech specialist

You may also like...

1 Response

  1. Angie says:

    Glad to see an overview of the project! So innovative. I love it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *