JOHNSON CITY(March 4, 2013) ˗ Kevin Zollinger can play the banjo, guitar and bass. He is a member of a band, and he is also a high-achieving engineering technology student. His unique talents allow him not only to play musical instruments, but to use his engineering skills to build them.
Zollinger began banjo lessons while he was in high school. When the Gray resident entered East Tennessee State University, he was a Fine and Performing Arts Scholar through the Honors College. He chose to major in engineering technology, with a minor in bluegrass music. His banjo lessons continued.
As an undergraduate student, Zollinger built three electric guitars, including two guitars given to ETSU presidents Dr. Paul Stanton and Dr. Brian Noland. As a junior, he decided to use his diverse talents to create a banjo as his honors thesis project. While Bill Hemphill of the engineering technology faculty leads successful classes in building electric guitars, no one had tried a banjo.
“The banjo’s major wooden parts are the neck, rim and resonator,” Zollinger explains. “I started working on the neck first, and it turned out to be the most difficult part. I had to keep starting over.” Eventually, he tried his hand at the other two parts, and as he learned to conquer them, he gained insight into the successful building of the neck.
Zollinger’s project does not merely involve the beautiful banjo he made for himself, but the entire manufacturing process, including the tooling needed to make banjos. He learned to bend wood and how to use the computer numerical control machinery in the engineering technology lab to create the three sections so they would fit together perfectly.
Completing the project, from sketches to foam models and through many trial-and-error attempts, took about a year and a half.
“I worked on it at night,” Zollinger says, “and straight through one summer.”
The result is a unique banjo made of walnut and maple, with intricate inlay of laminated abalone shell.
Zollinger was asked to participate in the Posters at the State Capitol project recently. Students from across the state were invited to display their research for the benefit of state legislators.
“I met with State Senator Rusty Crowe,” Zollinger says, “and with my state representative, Micah Van Huss. But it was also exciting to talk to students from other engineering programs and see what they are doing.”
Now that he can play his self-made banjo, Zollinger is not resting on his laurels. “I’ve already thought of 10 modifications I’d like to make on the next banjo,” he explains.
Lab technician Sam Shafer assisted with the project. Known as the “pit bull” of the program for his tenacity, he contributed many hours to the banjo project. He has an extensive knowledge of boats, which helped when an understanding of fiberglass was needed.
Bill Hemphill was Zollinger’s advisor for the project and takes pride in his student’s accomplishments. He says, “I tell my students ‘prepare yourself to be lucky,’ and that is what Kevin is doing. His many skills and interests give him the flexibility to be qualified for many types of employment. Now that he has the means of making banjos, he may opt to go into business for himself someday.”
“What employers value most is the ability to communicate well and solve problems,” Hemphill adds, “and Kevin has mastered those skills.”