The Nail Organ / Violin, Part 1

I've decided to try building a nail organ with a view to gigging it at an event I'm speaking at anyway in the spring. Here's a bit of background and where I got to this afternoon.

If you have a piece of wood and some nails lying around, you can make a very simple musical instrument. Just bang the nails into the wood at different lengths and pluck them with your fingers.

Of course, this doesn't sound too good. There are two other ways I know of to make the sound usable. One is to use a violin bow, producing a nail violin:

Here's a bit of information about them -- they date back to at least the 18th century:

The other is to put rosin directly on your fingers and stroke the nail-heads rather than plucking them, which results in a nail organ:

Of course, the instruments are the same, although the layout of the nails will change depending on how you expect to play it. Bill Wesley seems to be the master of the organ-style approach -- here's a video about how he does it in case that's of interest:

I wanted to build one of these because I wrote a bit about it in the book The Thin Veil of London, which I co-wrote with Robert Kingham (more info on this and our partnership here).

The creepy, scratchy tone and impossibility (for me, anyway) of accurate tuning makes this an interesting diversion from guitar, where everything is pristine and perfect unless you push it away from that deliberately.

I decided to spend this afternoon making a prototype out of whatever I had to hand. I found a little block of MDF for a first try -- a long way from a hardwood but it would have to do for a soundboard. The only nails I had in were tiny panel pins; I'm such a hack at DIY that I use screws for everything.

Banging the nails into the board and taping a piezo to it produced the Mark I prototype:

It proves the concept but that's all. The nails are way too small and thin for the organ technique to work well, and when bowing the hair gets tangled up in them, producing a nasty squark and forcing me to stop and detatch it. I lost lots of bowhair that way today.

One thing I learned from doing this is that building this thing might be cheap and easy but I'm also going to have to learn to play it. The organ approach, which is really the one I like, requires a delicate touch and a movement somewhere between stroking and plucking. It isn't easy, especially when multiple fingers come into play.

Fortunately I'd ordered a bag of dancer's rosin in advance -- a good coating of this is essential for getting anything at all out of the nails when played this way.

The Mark II prototype will be based on a box from a moderately fancy bottle of port wine. This already sounds better acoustically -- it may only be plywood but at least it's wood and the box shape provides a bit of amplification.

I'll be using this to try out different nails etc so it's a work in progress. One thing I tried was a quarter-circle of panel pins on one end specifically for bowing:

This seems to work very nicely, although the problem of getting the hair tangled in them remains. Another thing I tried was a big screw, and I'm delighted to say it seems to work well. This would make tuning a lot easier, so I might "cheat" and use screws instead.

I've ordered some supplies -- some more piezos, lots of screws and a box for the finished article. I'll probably post a follow-up if I discover anything interesting, or if someone manages to record the show.

One thing I'm unsure about is amplification. The nail violins and organs were always very intimate instruments that don't put out much sound. Right now the piezo is going through my board and into my guitar amp. This isn't practical for the gig I intend to do, where I'll want to be very portable (I'll be on public transport and might have other stuff to bring as well). I plan to build a little preamp inside the box and maybe plug it into the venue's PA or even the music system, but I'm considering playing the gig acoustically. If I do that it will be agonisingly quiet, but I quite like the idea of that.