Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Tools of My Trade (the other strings)

Now we come to some other beauties. These are instruments that usually have a special and unique sound. Again, with a couple of them, I don't play them as well as I could if I were to devote all my time and energy to perfecting them. Except then I would starve and what fun would that be. Some of these are what I would call niche instruments. Or sometimes, the extras that someone gets when they hire me instead of a whole other musician.

I'm no Bill Monroe or Ricky Scaggs on the mandolin, but when one is needed for a song or two, I can bring along my Fender FM-63S, which is a medium price, yet totally serviceable instrument. It sort of matches my playing. Every now and then I'll be working on a song with someone and I'll just get this irresistable "go get the mandolin" moment. It's always nice to have one handy when that happens.

I'm about the same with the violin. I have one that was my Irish great-grandfather's. No labels, no make or model and stuff. It's just a totally servicable instrument. It has decent tone, would sound better if I was better. I got pretty embarrased with it a couple of weeks ago. We were doing "Garry Owen" to be a theme song for a show on NPR. The fiddler that was scheduled blew the session off and I tried to fill in on short notice. The upshot was that I sucked out loud. I was consistently flat with my intonation, couldn't finish a phrase strongly to save my soul and ended up having my fiddle lines mixed out, I should have known better than to try it on such short notice. With a couple days intensive practice I would have been able to put down something worthwhile. As it was the producer was pretty glad that I at least tried to give it a shot, didn't put up a fuss or pitch a fit when it wasn't up to standard.

My Da was a jass bass player, I have his old 1950's Kay 3/4. It still sounds great. I also have a 1968 Fender Jazz Bass and a Washburn acoustic bass guitar. I'm not Jaco Pastorious or Lee Sklar, but a lot of producers find that it's easier to have me lay down the bass lines before I put the guitar or other tracks on top of them.

My banjos are different though. I have two of them and they are totally different instruments. The 5 string is a custom job. Made by the Bowen Brothers in Mussle Shoals Alabama. They are a couple of old grits who make the finest banjos in the free world. To get one you send them a plaster cast of your hands and a 30 minute tape of you playing. They build you a banjo. The coolest part of this is that when they are finished they don't bother with giving it a model number or anything else that cliché instead, they name it. Mine's Susannah and I adore her. I am totally self taught on the 5 string, I don't play with picks and I am pretty adventurous when it comes to what I'll attempt on it. I even play Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time. Believe me, it works. My tenor banjo is a big ass Gibson. I'm no hero on it, but I can damn sure anchor a Dixieland band without embarrassing everybody. Again, this is another one of those things where somebody I'm working with might want it one or two times a night and it's just nice to have the option.

I also will bring an Autoharp if they ask me. I play it Mountain style with fingerpicks and can do bass and melody lines. I think they sound great, so do most people.

That's pretty much the arsenal that I bring to the battle. I figured out a long time ago in this business that someone who can get the job done on a lot of instruments in a lot of styles would get more work than somebody who played one thing, one way no matter how good they are. If it's jingle work, I can get you the 20 seconds you need on just about anything with strings. If you give me a week and a chart, I can put down your track at any level you want.


Blogger pissed off patricia said...

Such a talented man. Good for you. The only thing I'm good at, as far as music is concerned, is listening to it :)

2:51 AM  
Blogger Pogo said...

Fascinating stuff on yoru instruments - those Martins are pretty special. I ordered some Shaller machine screws and a fixed bridge for my strat on your suggestion - should have thm soon. Thanks for the advice. So, if I wanted to go find some of your music, where would I go?

7:29 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

don't be ashamed at all for being a listener. if it wasn't for listeners i would be so totally out of work.

for the last 15 years i've mainly been doing jingles and the odd sound track for tv and movies in the studio. most of that's out west and local. there's some earlier stuff but most of that is out of issue. a lot of the work i did was also live touring. i used to be a monster on the vegas/tahoe/reno circuit. two week stands in each city, then repeat, then get another gig, do the same thing. i've always been a pretty mid-level worker bee.

8:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


did you check out that link I sent you for Brad Davis?

here it is again in case you lost it.


yo soy Horsedooty!

10:00 AM  

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