How to make a Ghost Phone

Draft as of July 2, 2008.

Comments for clarity are appreciated.

gerg listens Ghost Phones Currently, I’m obsessed with analog telephones. I don’t know why. My last obsession was with the severed hands of mummies, but let’s not get into that. Today it’s phones. And these Ghost Phones are fun. The idea is simple: hide an MP3 player and its headphone inside an arcane analog telephone, and you can listen to someone talking to you! Yes, you!

But before we start unscrewing things willy-nilly and stuff, let’s think. Take a moment and breathe, yes, and let’s try to understand the analog telephone. I strongly encourage you to find out about analog phones and how they work. I hate re-inventing the wheel. I'm all into research. Trust me, it’ll help.

Here’s a simple start…

But hey, do your own research. You’ll learn something amazing in the process, and you’ll be an enormous bore at the next party! You’ll be geek-tastic!

Now that you’re just a font of information on analog telephones, it’ll be easy to modify one.

Let’s look here at my first Ghost Phone, The Judy Phone. The Judy Phone Table

Materials for all the phone stuff:

  • 1 Dial telephone, modified
  • 1 Speaker from MP3 headphone, with cord
  • 1 MP3 player, playing a 30-minute custom edited monologue
  • 2 female insulated spade lugs (for earpiece)
  • 2 male spade lugs (for headphone jack)
  • Electrical tape to insulate connectors
  • Tape, or something, to cover hole in bottom of phone for MP3 player slot


  • Screwdriver
  • Wire cutter/stripper/spade lug crimper (all in one!)
  • Saw or Dremel or metal shears, whichever.
  • First-aid kit

And then all the props:

  • 1 Telephone table, white metal with custom garishly upholstered padded seat
  • 1 Vodka bottle (glass), Gordons, 1 quart
  • 2 Vodka bottles (glass), Seagrams, 1 pint
  • 1 Tonic Water can
  • 1 drinking glass, garish gold/black pattern, 8 oz.
  • 10 glass pill bottles, custom labels, 3 types:
    1. Los Angeles (Mayer Drug Co.) (2)
    2. New York (Luft Drug Store) (2)
    3. London (Palladium Drug Co.) (6)
  • 1 scarf, garish black and colored print, large
  1. 1. Record and load the MP3 player:
    1. 1a. Decide on which Ghost you want to summon. Think of who the ghost is, and who they’re talking to. Set a scene. All my Ghost Phones are first person: the ghost totally monopolizes the conversation…and just never lets you get a word in edgewise. Although the ghost might even ask a question, they either answer it for you or they just continue talking. But this is just for me. I’m sure you can create a different purpose…a different intention. A different scene. Yes.
    2. 1b. Record your audio, or cut it from some source, and be sure to cut together as long an audio file as possible (Adobe Audition is amazing). 5 to 10 minutes is minimum: you want to audio to be longer than your audience’s attention span. For example, the Judy Phone has 30 minutes of audio (o.k., i know, no-one's attention span is 29 minutes, especially not for Judy, but I thought, what the hell. So I went overboard.) On the opposite end of the spectrum, The Nixon Phone has only 6 minutes of audio. But i consoled myself by thinking that no one would EVER listen to Richard for that long. (As a side note, just so ya know, it was one of the most tedious and boring audio editing tasks i've worked on. Jeese.) Anyway you never want your audience to hear a repeat; that’s just sloppy dreamsharing. Also, it might be nice to filter the audio so it has the same limited frequency-range of a telephone, but it’s up to you.
    3. The Judy Phone MP3 Player 1c. Get a small, cheap MP3 player. Something simple, tiny, and less than 1 gig if available, since it’ll only be used for this project. And just so ya know, i stay away from internal non-replaceable batteries. They tend to die in the middle of a performance and then the only way to fix it is to spend a couple hours waiting for it to recharge. Impossible. Good places to find players are: thrift stores, a search on eBay, a web-search under a couple of words like oh, I don’t know, "cheap MP3 player", or sometimes a big-box retailer has ‘em as specials. Just yesterday i saw a wall of High School Musical and Hanna Montana MP3 players at some big store. So, if you just wait for Hanna Montana’s 15 minutes to fade as rapidly as Billy Ray Cyrus’, you'll find her custom MP3 players stuffed on the racks at a bargain bin. Just you wait!
    4. 1d. Load the MP3 file in the player, (it helps if the only file on the player is your Ghost Phone audio), set the player to permanent loop/repeat, press play, and you’re set.
  2. 2. Replace the speaker in the earpiece:
    1. 2a. As you unscrew the telephone’s ear piece, you’ll see that it’s screwed into the wiring by 2 spade lugs. Unscrew the earpiece and toss it away. Throw it on the ice at the next hockey game. Or hide it in a clothes dryer and run.
    2. Breaking the earpiece 2b. Take the headphones which work with your MP3 player and break off one earpiece, one achy breaky earpiece, leaving as much wire as possible. Keep about 3 inches of the wire pair, strip each wire to about ½".
    3. 2c. Crimp 2 insulated female spade lugs, then plug the spade lugs together.

      Crimping the terminals Crimping the terminals

      No bare wires should be visible…check for shorts. Wrap it up with electrical tape or something.

  3. 3. Connect the audio jack to the telephone’s terminal strip:
    1. 3a. Take what remains of the broken headphones, cut off a foot or so after the plug.
    2. 3b. When you have 2 wires from the headphone jack, trim the wires to about ½" and crimp on male spade lugs.
    3. 3c. Take the cover off the phone and look for the main terminal strip. It’s under the handset cradle. I’m pointing to it with my favorite yellow screwdriver. See?

      Main terminal strip

      Note: most phones are different, so some experimentation will be in order.

    4. 3d. Since it’s fun to keep the handset working so the voice cuts off when the handset’s placed in the cradle, trace the 4 wires from the handset (two are for the earpiece, two are for the mouthpiece), down thru the cradle switch, down onto the main terminal strip. This might be multimeter-time again, i don't know, well, it would just be easier. But if ya still don't got one, get clever and go primitive: turn the MP3 player on, touch your 2 MP3 male lugs to the 4 handset wires on the main terminal strip and listen for which 2 wires on the terminal strip are for the earpiece. Screw the lugs into the terminal strip.
    5. Inserting the MP3 player3e. All that remains is to cut a hole (with a saw, Dremel or metal shears: dealer’s choice!) in the metal base of the phone so the MP3 player can be hidden inside the phone. Maybe you could make a door. I just cover the opening with duct tape. But you’re more talented than I am, and have better skills.

You’re done! The MP3 player should play thru the earpiece when lifted from the cradle.

The Judy Phone off the hook Yes, the MP3 player must run constantly. It might be possible to connect a switch so that the player turns on when the handset is lifted from the cradle, or perhaps the phone has a remote switch, or how about hooking up a motion sensor so that it automatically turns on when someone gets within proximity, but I’m not into any of those tasks. Yet.

shredding the phone cable Another thing I like is to take the existing wall cord from the phone and rip it, shred it about a foot from the phone itself. It makes it all a bit more mysterious. And I am ALL into mystery.

pill bottleAnd, since I’m into creating mysterious environments, and I’m into making art projects far more interactive, I try to create scenes for the phones. A specific table that the phone rests on. Appropriate props around it. Things that enhance and deepen the story of the Ghost talking to you on the Phone.

It’s more than just a phone with a dinky MP3 player inside. It’s a strange dream, shared. And it’s wonderful I can share this one with you!