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Tin Can Instruments – Ramkie

When the British took South Africa from the Dutch in 1815, they imported technologies brand new to the Africans who lived there. The tin can, first patented in 1810, was especially well received – not only as a readily recycled container for food and water, but as a newer, louder, and more brilliant resonator for stringed instruments. The most noteworthy outcome of that revelation was the ramkie, a plucked or strummed instrument related to lutes, guitars, and ukeleles.

The traditional ramkie is based on an oil can. Cooking oil? Motor oil? Who cares! If it has a pleasant “ping,” it will do very nicely. Cookie tins, round or rectangular, are less traditional – but often produce a superior sound.

Once the can has been selected, the builder must create a workable neck for the instrument. This is not terribly difficult. A length of 1″ x 2″ filed and sanded to round the back corners a bit will do nicely. It always is better to send the neck straight through the can and affix it to both top and bottom than to try to affix it to the top only – if the neck is attached only to the top, and the can bends a bit, the strings will be too high off the fingerboard.

When sending the neck through the can, keep it one-quarter to one-half inch away from the side of the can that will serve as the sounding board. If the neck is touching the sounding board, the sound will be dull and unpleasant. Glue a 1/2″ x 2″ fingerboard to the neck as shown in the illustration. Drill holes at the top of the neck to accommodate friction pegs – tapered pegs like those used for violins. Drive one or more round-head screws into the base of the instrument, where the neck is joined to the bottom of the can, to anchor the strings at the other end

It may help to add a “nut” – a notched piece of hardwood to hold the strings in place – at the top of the fingerboard. Any thin piece of notched wood will serve as a bridge. Size it so that the strings lay close to the fingerboard, but do not rattle against it.

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