have been asked many times why I keep complicating my life and drag so many instruments with me from stage to stage: various historical banjos, autoharp, guitar, dulcimer, harmonicas, bones, spoons, wash-board, jew’s harp... Most times I answer that I enjoy the wide variety of their voices, that I like to introduce people to the things I love, even though they are uncommon or forgotten nowadays. After all, I don’t know which instrument I would choose if I had to pick just one of them.
I have devoted a lot of my time to banjo, but there are times when I am tremendously fascinated by the primitive sound of a simple jaw harp and I feel that I cannot fully surfeit the depth of its message. And the other sounds do something similar to me...

M. Ž.   

Haiti banza: This is how it all started, the grandfather of the contemporary banjo. This pumpkin predecessor of banjo was brought to America along with black slaves from Africa. Some say it was in the beginning of the 18th century, some quote even the 17th century. Banjo of those days was known under lots of different names, such as banjar, banga, banza or banjoe and had either three or four strings made of horsehair, guts or plant fibres.
Martin’s instrument is an exact replica of Haiti banza played by black slaves on Haiti. Haiti banza is one of two oldest extant examples of instruments used by black slaves that survived from the times of slavery till the present day.
Martin received the precious banza as a gift from an American musician, enthusiast and maker of gourd instruments Bob Thornburg and we have to say that it is a true rarity not only in the Czech Republic.

You can see Martin playing the haiti banza hereaudio sample

Enlarge the picture / Haiti banza

Minstrel banjo: From the 1830s the original gourd body of this instrument began to be substituted with round wooden rim, the skin head was stretched with a metal tension hoop using several hooks. This instrument has soon begun to spread throughout America along with a new way of entertainment – minstrel show.
Martin’s minstrel banjo is a copy of the unique instrument held by Museum of musical instruments in Markneukirchen, Germany. This so-called „tack-head“ banjo has got heads from both front and back side, both of them attached with dozens of metal thumb nails. The instrument could only be made thanks to understanding and kindness of the museum.

You can see Martin playing the minstrel banjo hereaudio sample

Enlarge the picture / Minstrel banjo

Traditional „open-back“ banjo: Instrument that survived from the second half of the 19th century till today. By the end of the 19th century it was played by classic musicians using finger style. A new period in the life of open-back banjo began with folk musicians from southern part of the Appalachian Mountains. Their playing styles were called „clawhammer“ and „frailing“ which originates in the very old technique called „stroke style". This instrument is most times mentioned with the distinctive „old-time music“.
The banjo in this picture was produced with the help of renowned maker Pavel Janišš from an old tenor banjo of unknown brand. Martin himself has made the original pearl inlay on the head and fingerboard and given it a romantic name of „Mountain Bell“.

You can see Martin playing the open-back banjo hereaudio sample

Enlarge the picture / Traditional „open-back“ banjo

Mountain banjo: A true mountaineer was able to make a banjo out of anything he possessed: an old wooden or metal box, for instance (we also know about a banjo made from a chamber pot). His buoyant melodies were really vigorous if the instrument was covered with skin from a groundhog, snake or a cat and the strings were made of guts.
Martin’s authentic mountain banjo was made according to original manuals of old-time mountaineers from Kentucky, Virginia and other mountain states with the help of joiner Jan Tomsa.

You can see Martin playing the mountain banjo hereaudio sample

Enlarge the picture / Mountain banjo

Bluegrass banjo: Banjo that you can hear nowadays played in bluegrass and country bands is an outcome of a long-term development of the instrument. Massive tonering and resonator are parts of the instrument. It is played with three fingers using finger picks. Accolades for spreading the three-finger style and the instrument itself belong first of all to one man - Earl Scruggs.
In this picture you can see a banjo called „Marhon“ – result of several years of banjo science and experimenting here at Country Home.

You can see Martin playing the bluegrass banjo hereaudio sample

Enlarge the picture / Bluegrass banjo

Autoharp: Autoharp is actually a chord zither originating in Germany, around the town of Markneukirchen. Its name was made up by a tradesman Charles Zimmermann who also spread it among masses. Autoharp was adopted by folk musicians of the Appalachian mountains in the first half of the 20th century and it has become an essential instrument for traditional music ever since.
The pictured autoharp was made by master George Orthey from Pennsylvania who has made it for Martin based on his special requirements.

You can see Martin playing the autoharp hereaudio sample

Enlarge the picture / Autoharp

Mountain dulcimer: This instrument was born in Appalachian mountains (many times it is also called „Appalachian dulcimer“) and inspired by memories of immigrants from Europe. German „scheitholt“ can be considered its oldest direct ancestor. Its shape kept on changing throughout different places and times. Nowadays, two types are prominent: „hourglass“ (pictured) and „teardrop“.
Martin plays the McSpadden mountain dulcimer produced in Ozark Mountains in Arkansas.

You can see Martin playing the mountain dulcimer hereaudio sample

Enlarge the picture / Mountain dulcimer

Guitar: About one hundred years ago guitar has been introduced in the music of mountain people, for the contemporary country music it is almost indispensable. That would not be possible without enthusiasm of such legends like Jimmie Rodgers or „Mother“ Maybelle Carter.
Martin’s „Gibson Original Jumbo 1934“ is a part of historical collection witnessing the Great Depression of 1930s. It originally came to market in 1934 under the simple name of „Jumbo“. This was also the start of the history of Gibson guitars with large body (known nowadays as „dreadnoughts“). Promotional materials from that time say: „This greater body size produces a heavy, booming tone so popular with many players who do vocal or small combination accompaniment for both personal and radio appearances.” Ironically, this marvellous guitar was only being produced for two years in limited amount – in the years of depression poor musicians had to put money into modest food and musical instruments were not in demand. „Jumbo“ was originally sold for 60 dollars. Some Jumbos have ended in hands of „singing cowboys“ and pre-bluegrass musicians, including Charlie Monroe. This guitar is also unique by having the same depth along the whole body. Its sides and back are made of mahagony, top is made of red spruce.

You can see Martin playing the guitar hereaudio sample

Enlarge the picture / Guitar

Harmonica: Harmonica as we know it today first saw the light of day in the first half of the 19th century in Europe. In 1821 German citizen Christian Buschmann took out a patent for an instrument called „aura“ that had steel reeds placed in small channels. Czech workman called Richter also played an important role in development of harmonica. The instrument that he helped to construct in 1825 enabled players to play both by exhaling and inhaling. Its diatonic tuning pattern became the base of today’s harmonica. German producer Matthias Hohner put money on the success of harmonica and succeeded in establishing a world-wide monopoly.
By the middle of the 19th century, the harmonica could be bought for a few cents in convenience stores all around America. First of all, it found a lot of advocates in the South where it was called the „french harp“.
Most harmonicas in Martin’s collection are Hohner „Blues Harps“.

Martin hraje na harmoniku zdezvuková ukázka

Enlarge the picture / Harmonica

Washboard: Washboard used to be an everyday tool of housewives of the old ages. In our civilised world of modern laundry-women you can see washboards mostly held by musicians.
Martin plays a little washboard called „Zinc King“ (model number 703) produced by company „National Washboard Co.“ in the United States in the 1920s. „The Stradivarius of musical washboards,“ says one of the most prominent personalities of today’s old-time music David Holt about this very model. David has also had a major influence on Martin’s playing style and after all, Martin’s washboard also has an original old-time tin cup attached. These accessories make the rhythm tapped mostly using thimbles even more diverse.

You can see Martin playing the washboard hereaudio sample

Enlarge the picture / Washboard

Musical Saw: „I have used a saw daily for the most of my life, only not for playing music. I included it in my collection of musical instruments at the beginning of 2008, having been enchanted by the late master player Charlie Blacklock (who deceased in spring of the same year). In summer of 2008 the mysteries of playing the saw were explained to me by the wonderful Ivan Stiles in Pennsylvania. And right after that I used a saw in my next recording. Most commonly people play the saw with a bow or a hammer. My musical saw was made in Sweden by Sandvik company.“

You can see Martin playing the musical saw hereaudio sample

Enlarge the picture / Musical Saw

Mouthbow: The oldest string instrument and one of the oldest instruments at all. First settlers in Appalachian mountains presumably took the idea of playing the bow from Indians. Other version of the story gives credit for spreading this instrument to black slaves. Anyhow, this instrument entered the western culture in America.
Martin’s bow was made by John Huron from Tennessee from sassafras wood.

You can see Martin playing the mouthbow hereaudio sample

Enlarge the picture / Mouthbow

Bodhran: Or irish drum from Martin’s collection was made by Malachy Kearns, in Ireland naturally.

You can see Martin playing the bodhran hereaudio sample

Enlarge the picture / Bodhran

Jaw harp: Metal version of jaw harp was known even to the old Romans. It is a small undemanding instrument – easily fitting in pockets of first settlers sailing on ships from Europe to America. You can hear the sound of jaw harp on soundtrack of many animated movies.
Precious jaw harps in this picture belong to Martin and most of them were made many years ago in England.

You can see Martin playing the jaw harp hereaudio sample

Enlarge the picture / Jaw harp

Bones, spoons, limberjack or limbermule, whimmy diddle, paper bag…
Some other examples of musical instruments sounded by hands of Martin Žák. They are embodied memories of old-time folk players and times before television when people had to ensure their own entertainment.

Martin mostly plays limberjack from dulcimer maker Keith Young from Virginia. These dancing men are hand carved from native American walnut (dulcimer scraps actually - so naturally they have music in their bones).

Rhythm bones are among the oldest musical instruments of the world. Their golden age was the second half of the nineteenth century in America when they were used during minstrel shows.
Martin uses bones made of various materials (animal ribs, wood, stone…) and various shapes. At many of his shows you can see him playing the „Percy Danforth Minstrel Style Bones“ made of white oak wood reclaimed from a 100-year-old Michigan barn, that was pulled down to make way for progress. The second pair of bones played by Martin during his performances was setting pace at square dances in the 1890s. That is at least what Martin was told by the fella who the bones are from. Bone players are very rare these days. Percy Danforth is one of Martin’s heroes, as well as Aaron Plunkett. Martin also found great inspiration in the „world of bones“ of Scott Miller from Missouri.

You can see Martin playing the bones hereaudio sample

Enlarge the picture / Bones, spoons, limberjack…

And also a stylish train whistle,
being played by our little son Kubík.

You can see Martin playing the train whistle hereaudio sample

Enlarge the picture / Train whistle

We offer you original programs with traditional country music and period instruments targeted at clubs, schools, summer camps etc., as well as concerts, festival shows, music for museums and open-air living history museums, musical lessons and seminars. See more information with video click here.

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devoted to old-time country music of Martin Žák and his band Stará Almara.

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Martin Žák would like to thank everybody who showed him the way, first of all
Wayne Erbsen, David Holt, Mike Seeger, Pete Seeger, John Hartford, Janette and Joe Carter,
Laura Boosinger, Will Keys, Michael J. Miles and other old-time heroes,
including the ones whose names are now gone with the wind.
And also Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Gordon Lightfoot, Merle Haggard, John Denver…
© 2009 Martin Žák