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How to Build a One-String Vibro Fiddle - 1937


This 83-year old article from Popular Mechanics offers a different take on an electric one-string guitar. Instead of using electricity to amplify the string, it uses the power to create a tremolo picking contraption by hacking a doorbell clapper mechanism. The instrument is acoustic, but it has an electric “picker.” It’s a perfect invention for any diddley bow player to get the Dick Dale “Miserlou” or even "Flight of the Bumblebee" sounds!

Additional builder's notes by Shane Speal appear after the original plans.

Parts needed:

  • Pine board, 4 feet long x 3/4" x 4" wide

  • 6" steel rod

  • Rubber chair tip

  • Blocks of softwood

  • Guitar Tuner

  • Fretboard of thin wood

  • Sheet brass as frets

  • Doorbell unit that includes the bell striker, transformer and doorbell button

  • Guitar pick

From Popular Mechanics, Dec 1937

Here’s a one-stringed musical instrument that can be played wherever 110-volt current is available. Principal parts required are a sounding board, a steel guitar string, a doorbell and transformer with push-button switch and a few odds and ends of brass and steel rod.

  • The sounding board is a length of 3/4 in. pine, 48 in. long and 4 in. wide.

  • One end is tapered for a comfortable hand-hold, the other rounded as shown.

  • A hole in the lower end of the board takes a 6-in length of steel rod, one end of which is fit-ted with a rubber chair tip.

  • Blocks of softwood form a bridge for the string, which is tensioned with a key from an old banjo or guitar, and fitted into a tapered hole in the upper block.

  • The fret board is of thin wood grooved at right angles for strips of sheet brass all cut exactly the same width. These are placed at distances to give the proper pitched notes of the scale. Some experimentation will be necessary due to the variations in the sounding board.

  • The ball of the striker is slotted to take a celluloid pick as shown.

  • The switch controls this action nicely. Holding down the push button slurs the notes , while releasing it between notes gives a staccato effect.

Shane's notes:

1. First of all, here's a video showing an antique Edwards doorbell, which is probably a similar type of unit that used in these original plans. Notice how fast the clapper moves.

2. The original plans do not say much about the fretboard. You could simply salvage a fretboard from a junk acoustic guitar, prying the fretboard from the neck. (Make sure to copy the scale length of the original guitar to your Vibro Fiddle design. Or if you want to create your own fretboard from scratch, these plans appear to use a 23" scale. Using standard guitar fretwire, cut the frets at these measurements:

Scale length courtesy of the fret calculator.

3. Although this instrument utilizes an electric doorbell, the instrument itself is acoustic. You could add an electric pickup to it. I would suggest placing the pickup as far away from the doorbell clapper as possible so that it won't pick up motor sounds. If I decide to make one of these, I will position the slapper close to the bridge and the pickup near the 12th fret.

Happy building!


ps. if you build one of these, here's an appropriate cover tune:


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