One Of Those Moments
How was your weekend?
I hope it was good for you, the first break into a new season on the calendar for most or maybe you plowed right through it doing the daily grind. However you spent it, may its blessings exceed its curses.
The intention was to drop a blog every day, but my weekend came at the tail end of a four-day stretch of fun gigs that, while highly enjoyable, dropped me, instead, like a cannonball into bed and sleep wouldn't let go until a full recharge was received. Read: I slept in on Saturday and Sunday. There were three shows in Homosassa; two at the Riverside Resort and one at the Homosassa River RV Resort Wednesday through Friday. Wednesday's show was cut short by a spectacular storm front that chased artist and audience off of the upstairs deck at the Riverside Crab House (but not before said audience helped this artist hump all the gear into the building with nary a drop landed. That is a supportive crowd for ya. Thanks again, guys!) Thursday was a two-hour show and Friday was so rowdy that I extended the set past when I usually play last song and ended up being a six hour show. When the music is moving, and so are the people, it's really hard for me to let it go, especially when the connection is strong.
The connection was certainly strong on Saturday as I drove two hours down to Bradenton and enjoyed a great evening on The Deck At Perico Island; a nifty place for a house concert that is a house which was actually owned by Mitch Miller not too long ago. It's a beautiful home with sweetly spirited landscaping and a stage on the titular deck overlooking a deep, blue pool which served as the best seats in the house for a show with my friends Michelle and Scott Dalziel. I met Michelle at Charley Groth's Sunshine State Acoustic Music Camp a couple of years ago and we clicked after jamming out some tunes. I met Scott at the Sarasota Folk Festival and the three of us have sat in with each other on sets at festivals over the past two years, but have never shared a bill like this before, so it was a great time. It also marked the first time that I'd seen the duo since their near-death experience with an 18-wheeler earlier this year. It was good to put my arms around them, tell them I loved them and to, once again, enjoy their incredibly powerful music. So often, we just don't get that chance after major accidents. The husband-and-wife team remarked upon that during their set; being able to walk away from a life-changing experience like that sure changes your perspective on the day to day.
After the concert, there was some jamming going on and I had the opportunity to meet some of the folks who had come out for the double-bill; really amazing people who have lived extraordinary lives. That's one of the best things about house concerts in a nice, informal environment. You have the chance to visit and to connect with people in a way that's not possible at other venues. After awhile, I found my way over to the jam area and sat in. Fun stuff all around, especially bouncing ideas off a guy named Rick Schettino, who was aces on a guitar. That's an instrument that I've never truly gotten. I taught myself how to play piano by hanging out in the chapel every Sunday after church and staying there all day until evening service. One day a week turned into two days and then finally, about four days a week where I'd head to the church and just bang around, trying to understand the relationships between notes and the flavors of different chords. The first song I taught myself was "Nobody Home" by Pink Floyd and it was a decent introduction to colorations and the concept of listening to changes within the framework of sound. I was foggy on the concept of notes, but somehow was able to grasp the intervals of half steps and whole steps which, on a piano, are very easy to see as the keys sit side by side. With instruments like guitar, bass guitar, etc., the strings are side by side, but they're all tuned different and I just could never wrap my head around that. I played guitar in Crazed Bunnyz, but it was all root-five stuff, just power chords because that's all you need with punk.
It wasn't until a few years ago when Richard Ash of Folkcraft Instruments gifted me with an ukulele, with the sneaky intention of having me teach the instrument at the inaugural Midwest Uke Fest, that I began to process the intervals and crunch the numbers necessary to play a fretted instrument with the fretboard facing away from you. As a mountain dulcimer player first and foremost, it's easy to work with a diatonic scale that you're looking down upon; it's almost like piano with only three intervals to be aware of. Ukulele has just four intervals, so it was actually a lot easier than I thought. None of this glomming and muting and avoiding that comes with messing around with six strings. Or so I thought.
Last month I bought a baritone ukulele with an eye towards writing a method book for the entire choir's range of ukes. I've done pretty good with the ukulele and now use it for songwriting and performing. While the soprano, concert and tenor ukes are usually tuned GCEA (going away from the player), the baritone ukes are typically tuned DGBE. I'd heard that this was the same as the top four strings of a guitar but didn't really give it much though until Saturday night. Spying a guitar, I picked it up and, avoiding strings 5 and 6, began picking out some stuff that I knew on ukulele.
It hit me like a ton of bricks.
In all my years of farting around on the instrument, banging out power chords and screwing around with lead lines, suddenly, I was playing something that sounded like music. Suddenly, I was holding a guitar and actually singing songs over complex color chords. For the first time in 47 years, I was a guitarist. I just sat there with my mouth hung open saying "holy shit!" a lot until I finally got over it enough to pick through some more tunes. I still had no clue what to do with those other two strings, but the mystery was pretty much all gone, thanks to my expanding of the musical universe with the ukulele. It was an incredible moment and I'll always remember where I was and what the circumstances were that led up to it. Those lightbulb moments that people talk about? That was definitely one of them.
Which got me to thinking. Why do mountain dulcimer players play in DAD tuning? Why do most people stick with the modal tuning of the instrument's early history when we've got extra frets and don't play truly modally much anymore anyway? The chord voicings of DAD leave much to be desired, placed in such a way that the notes are spread out far apart like the holes in an old stretched sweater. Close voicings create the lush textures that truly make music exciting and, besides 1-3-5 tuning, which is even less attractive to the non-retuning dulcimer crowd than DAA, we've got nothing that anyone is using with any sort of regularity. Unless you're a maverick and have decided that you just need to try something different. Guitarists use alternate tunings all the time, as do other instruments. Just experimenting with different combinations in order to get different voicings and tones based on scale length. My head was reeling as I drove home on Sunday and quickly restrung my chromatic mountain dulcimer to DGBE (moving towards the player.)
Since the bass string is furthest away, all of the chord shapes have to be reversed (something I'm messing with and trying to process today.) Also, I'll probably need a different gauge on the 3 string due to its placement within the scale. But, I'll be damned, this is a four-string equidistant set up, fully chromatic, that I could learn to live with. I know some people use DADA, but there is that 1-5-8 interval again - the shrill octave leaves you with big gaping holes in the chord. DAD is useful for very many things, but I'm starting to think outside the modal box a bit now. The colors that I get with four strings are titillating - I want to live in that world more often.
Usually when we're climbing the mountain of knowledge, our faces are towards the mountain as we grab fistful after fistful of purchase, ever aiming for the top. I always tell people to stop every once in a while, turn their back to the mountain, camp for the night and enjoy the view from your vantage point; look at how far you've come. You will definitely know when it's time to turn around, get a handhold and begin climbing again. Held up by the ropes of experience and encouraged by the guidance of others, reaching the peak depends on the size of the mountain and your particular level of endurance. Rest assured, though, that when you reach the very top and survey the landscape, it will always include another mountain that's taller. And it will taunt you. You'll want to climb it. And you will.