Saturday, November 6, 2010


I've found this picture which shows the Satonge in pretty good detail. It may or may not be Roger from the band Staff Benda Bilili, but he is playing the Satonge, which is simply a stick, a tin can and a guitar string.

I'm no stranger to lutes, being a fan of first the quasi-westernization and electrification of the Gimbri by Justin Adams, once playing with Robert Plant in the band Strange Sensations, where the Gimbri gives a workout on the classic Hey Joe, the likes of which immediately endeared me to this instrument.

From there, I got an Angolan instrument that is more similar to the Satonge, but with four strings and a large carved wooden bowl with a large tanned animal hide tensioned over the hollow face of the bowl, and instead of tensioning the strings via the neck as with the Gimbri, you do it via the large drum/animal head attached to the face of the large lute. Just as you can play a rhythm on the Gimbri surface, so can you on the Angolan instrument, whose name escapes me at the moment. I'll update with the name off of the customs receipt from when Mrs. El Fisho brought it back from one of her many world travels.

Both the Gimbri and the Angolan instrument use gut strings, which I have kept on the Gimbri but which broke on the Angolan lute several years ago and were replaced with artificial sinue, which does a great job. If'n I had a clue what kind of gut strings they used on the Angolan lute, I'd find some more, and maybe some Portugese expat working over there will have pity on me and find me a music store with some gut strings and mail them to me, happily reimbursed by me.

So I'm not new to trying new musical instruments. As a percussionist, and not merely a drummer, for 4/5th's of my life, I like all kinds of percussion instruments, and am particularly intrigued by the simplicity of this lute. It seems to sound like an electric guitar, and gets various voices and tones based on the playing of it.

I found some more hints at another blog discussing their music, and it's a good read, and first the excerpt and then the link below it:

"Behind them is a young and entirely acoustic rhythm section, and to top it all there are the weird, infectious guitar-like solos of Roger, a teenage prodigy who plays a one-string electric lute ”satonge” he designed and built himself out of a tin can. The satonge, which consists of a guitar string tensed between the drum of a tin can and a wooden bow inserted in its base. Melodies are created by plucking the string with one hand while the other moves the bow in and out, changing the tension of the string."

So the above may answer a few of the questions I had already written below, but certainly not all of them. I'll be doing a few emails to these folks, particularly the band management, and see if they'd do some interview questions via email and their managers for me here. We'll see about that.

I give myself until next weekend to have a functioning, or at least make the attempt(s(s) to have a function Satonge, sans electronics. I'm not in the building phase yet. I've got the guitar string, in fact, many of them, and I have all kinds of tin cans. I just need me a stick that is basically shaped in a "U" with about a six or seven inch gap in it.

And there are a whole lot of gaps in my knowledge base about just how to build one of these.

So what I want to do is build a Satonge, or more likely, several models of them since so much is unknown to me about their construction. I have a variety of pickups and transducer acoustic guitar mic and even a small condensor mic that will easily fit inside the smallish sized tin can because THE BIG ATTRACTION of building this one string lute is the electrified sounds this kid Roger is getting out of it. Some sound like a Slide guitar, while otherwise it sounds like a guitar or an electrified lute. Some very cool sounds and the press and articles and reviews speak to a multitude of tones and indeed, sounds that can be made with this highly simple instrument.

Besides, it can be electrified, Clyde, and that means it can be processed through various reverb or guitar effects to make even more interesting sounds. A little distortion, a little phase shifting, some delay, various types of reverb...the possibilities are endless and sound kinda cool.

What's more, send it through a computer into pro-tools or Ableton and see what you can attach to it as far as other sounds go.

Being a white male American, and putting something together off the top of my head, I must pontificate the various materials and methods of construction of this item which I know little about, whereas when Roger the Satonge virtuoso built his first one, it was likely quickly slapped together without much of a thought.

And so I'm already overthinking how to build this device.

So instead of going into my yard and finding a green branch of sufficient size that I can bend, here in the middle of fall with winter approaching, and I think about WHAT KIND OF WOOD I should be looking for. In my yard, it's not likely I could find a bent branch of the right size within reach with a ladder, as I've never seen any bent branches on my trees like that, but I'll likely have to go to the woods to find something the right diameter and length and rough shape and most importantly, type of wood, although it is possible I could bend a green piece of wood dry it a bit and form it as I need it.

Chances are, the wood that Roger made his Satonge from the living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is not growing in my area in Texas. I don't know what kind of wood he used.

There's a post about it on kind of a webfeed site, and he says it was a tin can, a guitar string and a piece of bent wood. As I said, chances are at the time, he didn't give much thought to it, when he made his first Satonge. He used any old guitar string. But what was the tin can made of?

Does it make a difference what the tin can is made of? I know from being a drummer for 4/5th's of my life, and a musician in general, how the characteristics of sound and resonance have everything to do with what an item is made of. Great cymbals are a mix of certain types of metals, and crappy cymbals don't use that mix. Great drums and guitars made of wood with all kinds of variables that affect and effect how that wood vibrates and thus transduces sound when amplified.

So I'm really going to try to make this easy and not overthink it. I have no information available, either in words or in picture format, showing:

1. How (if at all) the stick that forms the the post for one end of the guitar string
is attached to the bottom of the tin can.

2. I don't know if either end of the tin can has actually been removed. Maybe a punch can opener was used to make a small hole to take whatever was in there out. More likely, the bottom and/or top is open. The youtube video showing a mic cable running into the inside of the Satonge doesn't clearly show if it's going in the top or the bottom or what.

3. What size guitar string is used?

4. How does the other end of the guitar string attach to the tin can, or does it somehow attach to the other end of the stick instead of the can.

5. What kind of transducer or microphone are they using to mic the Satonge, how and where it is attached, and what is the signal path after leaving the Satonge? Does it go straight into an amp, or direct to a board? Any effects used on the amp? And what kind of amp, because I assume he and the band have to hear his playing?

So many questions, but it's quite fun to think about it.

My best guess at this point is what my first prototype will be.

The Goals: To make each part resonate as much as possible. I assume the mic'd sound of the Satonge comes from inside the can, where the string vibrations would resonate the can at different frequencies, or simply broadcast the vibration of the string at different frequencies based upon the tension applied to the stick and string.

After that, it'll be easier to tell where the sound is coming from and where the best place to put a mic/transducer to capture that sound.

1.The can is open at the top. A small hole is drilled for one end of the string to be tied to (or alternatively, strung down to the end of the stick inside the can.

2. the other end of he string will be somehow attached in some way to the stick.

3. mic placement inside the can will initially be trial and error using some sort of foam double stick tape for mic placement.

4. The end of the stick that is inserted into the can will be via "church key" openings in the bottom of the can. Alternatively, the bottom of the stick could be attached via screws to the can bottom itself. It would seem like this might transfer vibration as well, somewhat like a guitar neck, but it could do the opposite. I'll just have to see how this works.

I'm open to any suggestions.

1 comment:


    The Basics of building a Satonge