Feb 4 2019

Veering off into left field – to build a marimbula

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This is a long way from xylophones and propane-tank drums, but I’ve really enjoyed building cajóns and – for the first time – a marimbula.

Quick demo and walkaround

The marimbula is a Caribbean instrument, descended from the African kalimba, and generally functions as a bass. As you’ll see in the video at the bottom of the post, I first experimented with a 6-key marimbula built onto the back of one of my cajons, just to figure out the basics of construction.

This one is a 16-key marimbula – which I’ve decided has about three too many bottom-end keys and perhaps one too many high-end keys, as the sound quality falls off quite a bit at the ends of its scale. Next, I might try building one like a piano keyboard (with two layers of keys in white and black) centered in the middle of this scale.

The tuning has been kinda challenging – I finally settled on D – but I’m tuning it slowly by ear because the digital tuning apps can’t handle all the overtones it puts out. Anyway, it’s a helluva lot of fun to play – particularly on a nice, resonant wood floor – because it’s easy to play, and the notes send vibrations through your butt and up your spine. I take great satisfaction in building instruments that create physical joy along with pleasant music.



Jan 16 2019

Building cajóns – all of a sudden

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The old-timey title for this post could have been:

The Wisdom and Benefits of Contemplating a Temporary Shift from the Traditional Norm for This Institution in Materials, Methods, Design and Construction of Multi-Purpose Acoustic Percussion Instruments:

Or, a “Box to Bang On”

Because this post is about a kick in the head. A total world-shifting creative non-sequitur from all this demanding, burly, unforgiving metal I’ve been working with for so many years.

All of a sudden I’m building cajóns. Out of wood. Where did *that* come from.

Lemme back up a bit.

I’ve been goofing around with the idea of combining disc gongs with a sound box like the one I built a million years ago for my very first xylophone.
I wanted to explore: disc arrays, resonance, materials, instrument playability.Here’s a sketch: —->

And then it occurred to me that the cajón (a sit-upon box drum with  roots in Peru and on loading docks everywhere) is such a perfect blend of structural integrity and resonance – like musical furniture – that if I could build one strong enough, it could do double duty as both metallophone and drum.

Gee, that sounds like a lot of work.

Maybe just start with building a good cajon to see if it’s easy enough. So, after digesting half a dozen how-to’s on YouTube and stealing some of the most interesting design ideas into my plan, I started my first.

Here’s a ragged build log:


Sep 10 2018

Percussion cruise to Sonic Runway and beyond

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A percussion cruise is a pretty simple pleasure: Invite people onto the roof to play the drums and gongs, and drive across the Black Rock Desert.

As I drive, happy sounds drift down – people lazily striking the gongs, and chatting passionately about their burns.

The first part of this clip is the sound of a cruise we did on Tuesday afternoon, and the latter part is part of XyloVan’s set at Sonic Runway – friends from Liminal Labs joined random Burners on the roof and around the xylophones to play.

Unfortunately, the mixer crapped out so the roof percussion drowned out the xylophones, but the sound was enough to trigger some beautiful patterns on the Runway.


Feb 17 2017

Tonepod 2 – A new, more-portable hank drum design

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(edit: I quit Facebook in 3/2018, which accounts for the missing videos.)

So, I make these musical drums out of up-cycled propane tanks. Click through for a demo video (and the build log) for Tonepod 2, the new model. Making this one, as with the others – gave me tremendous joy – which is good because the process takes about 40-60 hours and fills our basement shop with dust and noise. And yes, I might be able make one for you. Inquire here.


At this point, I have already safely emptied the tank of propane and washed out the residue of methyl mercaptan (the nasty stink agent that lets you know when odorless propane is leaking). (Seriously, don’t use any tool on metal until the propane is safely gone). I’ve cut off the handle from the top and the base ring from the bottom, and ground off the welds, and now I’m grinding off the rest of the paint before cutting … Continue reading


Aug 9 2016

#7 – the Rat Rod

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I’m not much of a player, but here’s a demo of a drum in C-minor – This is the seventh drum I’ve made out of a 20-pound propane tank.

The discarded tank came into the shop in a thrashed, rusted-out pale blue, which looked amazing.

So I kept much of the original paint, cleaning off only a ring of the steel at the tips of the tongues. I then added a pinstripe ring around the hexagonal key (low-C) in the center, painted on a stylized “7”, which I limned in Sharpie – and sprayed 3 or 4 coats of clear enamel over the whole thing.

I made two major design improvements for sound – I cut out a resonator hole in the tank’s bottom (around the valve, just inside the handle).

And I’m experimenting with a new deadening material – recycled bicycle tubes wrapped around all the way around the tank to keep the body from ringing and drowning out the keys.

So far, so good!


Jul 2 2016

Fireball XL-5 – the build log

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IMG_8197I made Fireball XL-5 for Mykal Burns, a video producer, roller derby enforcer and erstwhile percussionist. The build went something like this:



If you would like me to make a drum for you on commission, the price is $300 – $250 if you bring your own empty propane tank. Contact me for details.


May 15 2016

“Green Destiny” – How to build a propane tank drum

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If you would like me to make a drum for you on commission, the price is $300 – $250 if you bring your own empty propane tank. Contact me for details.


Jun 26 2014

Gongs all made!

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gongsJust a quick one – these are the gongs we made for our Indiegogo supporters, mind all engraved and ready for their fittings. It’s not too late to get one of your own!



what is ed easier way to pay online!”>

A $150 donation to our big Burning Man project nets you a hand-engraved gong with your slogan Or inspirational quote of choice, a dowel chime, machined aluminum block pendant and slice pendant, crew patch and sticker. Just Paypal us at factoid@well.com and tell us your inscription in the comment field and we’ll get right to work on it for you! Thanks so much to all our gong-level Indiegogo supporters!

Check out the demo video!


Aug 25 2011

Bits and bobs – 3 days till liftoff

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Because an art car is never finished.

I disassembled all the light arrays from XyloVan 1.0, and I’m reassembling them onto the light bars I made for JANUS. This involves testing all of them, clinic including the flasher circuits …

… and then screwing them down. I’ll wire everything up later today. (It’s stupid-o’clock in the morning right now).

I also cut a stencil so that I can spraypaint warnings (PLEASE DON’T CLIMB HERE!) that discourage people from trying to scramble up onto JANUS’ “shoulders,” which are built to withstand the playa winds and sun, but not a 238-pound Java developer full of Fuzzy Navels and good cheer – let alone a 5-year-old child in a Wolverine costume.

I then cut a frame for the stencil out of an old TV carton and put the whole thing together with Gorilla Tape (accept no substitutes!)

I’ve also been drilling out a few discarded xylophone keys that I plan to mount with the drums that will be installed on the Cloud Deck so that people riding on top will have more instruments to play.

Chugchugchug.


Sep 6 2010

Well and truly burnt

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I don’t think I ever could have imagined the response to debuting an art car. But what a rush.

We just got back a few hours ago, illness full of the glow of meeting hundreds of cool people who found themselves sudden, happy xylophonists in the wastes of the playa.

We’re also short on sleep, having driven all night and unpacked and cleaned all day, so time to crash. More photos and videos will follow here as I process them – If you played the van out there, we really want to hear from you.