Landing (Again) On The Guitarmac
My mother bought me an acoustic guitar when I was about nine or ten years old. It was one of those mail-order jobbers that came in a cardboard box, no case, with a pitch pipe and a chord sheet. I loved music but I did not love pain. Looking back, the thing might've had an extremely high action and just needed to be set up. All I know is that I practiced my G, C and D7 chords long enough to burn them into my memory and then promptly switched to playing one note at a time, like a bassist. I remember picking out the bassline for "Georgia On My Mind" (the Willie Nelson version) and playing it for a family friend who remarked, "that ain't 'Georgia On My Mind'" until I sang along with it and then he conceded that it could very well be "Georgia On My Mind." I don't know whatever became of that guitar, whether it got sold or given away to someone who would actually use it, but it faded from existence at some point and not much thought was given to it.
Over the next several years, I'd participate in elementary, middle school and high school bands playing clarinet, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet (a clarinet so big that you could store a body in its case, not that I would know or anything.) It's a monophonic instrument, one note at a time, and that's the only kind of music I knew until teaching myself piano at the age of 13. At some point, I borrowed a craptastic Mustang copy electric guitar and attempted to thrash out some of the emerging hard rock influences that were invaded my puberty-stricken brain. That particular road led to the discovery of the power chord and would be the one qualifying factor that led me to co-found Crazed Bunnyz with Marc Plainguet and Sean Harrison in 1986. How serious a move was this, anyway? So serious that the guitar pictured above is that same crappy Mustang copy that I borrowed from classmate John Stewart (no relation to the Comedy Central retiree) some years earlier. He eventually demanded it back and I bought a brand new Fender Squire (it can be heard on the Crazed Bunnyz album "Blutgasse) that was turquoise and had a whammy bar. I'm not sure what happened to that one either. Probably got pawned during my po' days of the late 80's.
For some reason, guitar just wasn't speaking to me and it might've been based on a lot of things careening through my head at the time, most namely laziness without a firm musical direction. Plus, I'd already progressed enough with the keyboard to bring what was in my head to the outside world. That was important. The music inside of me needed to get the hell out. Pronto. I had no time or money for lessons, just a burning desire to create. Looking back on those impatient days of wasted opportunities, I can only be happy for extreme curiosity and invention that allowed me to stick with music even if I was doing it on the cheap and easy. Interestingly enough, I discovered the mountain dulcimer in 1986 and, because it was easy, took to it immediately and began using it in recordings. I may have never had a lesson, but dulcimer and piano were the two main paintbrushes that I was using on all of my sonic canvasses.
Flash forward to 2010, which will give you whiplash if you think about it, and I've made mountain dulcimer my main instrument, a decision made in 1999 when I formed Mohave. Sure, I would pick up someone's guitar every now and again, mess with it, quickly put it down, because I still had this mindset that it was too hard and, now, too late to do anything of merit with it. Even my bass-playing never really got anywhere after playing with Teacher's Aide back in the 80's. I just wasn't interested in holding my hands in those terrible positions. It was at the first annual Indiana Dulcimer Festival, I believe, that Folkcraft Instruments owner Richard Ash gave me a Druid Moon ukulele that the company was now manufacturing. Folkcraft had signed me as an endorsing artist two years earlier and had been building me some killer dulcimers as part of the deal. Somewhere along the line, they began making dulcileles (ukuleles with a dulcimeric fretboard) and I had one of those that I picked up and noodled on a bit before quickly putting it away in frustration. Now, here was a straight-up ukulele being given to me and I wasn't sure what to say besides, "thanks, Richard, but I don't play ukulele." And then came the seed of lightning that I believe truly split open my musical worldview and opened the door to an incredible world of discovery and color.
"Well, you should probably learn since you're teaching at our very first ukulele festival," he replied.
Now, when Richard came up with the Indiana Dulcimer Festival and wanted me as a teacher, that made perfect sense. But why get a dulcimer player to teach at an ukulele festival? In hindsight, through some conversations recalled with Richard, he simply believed that I could pull it off over the course of a year and would be a good teacher for the instrument. Butch Ross was also tapped, but he's not only a mountain dulcimer player - he came to the instrument from guitar, so that choice made sense.
So, with a deadline looming and a strong desire to not leave Richard looking foolish for hiring me, I set to practicing my ass off. Not only would I be teaching beginning ukulele, I'd also be performing two 30 minute sets on the thing as well. Nothing like pressure to get results.
As it turns out, pressure is an awesome motivator and by the time the first annual Midwest Uke Fest came around, I was playing the freaking ukulele. Funny thing is, I rather enjoyed it. The nylon strings weren't rough on my fingers and the spaces between strings made it kinda easy to fret notes. It was small, sort of easy to hold without a strap and I could play lots of tunes once I learned a handful of chords. I thanked Richard later for putting me on the spot and he smiled and said "I knew you could do it."
Not long after that, I published "Method For Chromatic Mountain Dulcimer" which is the only book of its kind on the market. Though the mountain dulcimer is traditionally diatonic (a seven-note scale), the community has been gradually adding half-steps to the instrument in order to have more melodic and chording options. Going "full chromatic" along with my continuing ukulele studies was getting me back to the more complex harmonic elements of my keyboard-playing, something that had fallen by the wayside when Mohave became my focus. There's never any need to use every color of the rainbow when painting a picture, but the "what if?" option gets a backhanded slap if your rainbow contains only primary colors.
The ukulele is full of pretty colors and only four strings. Most pretty color chords are simply made up of four notes, so there's none of that string avoidance, muting and other such complications like you get with guitar. Pretty soon, I had graduated from standard uke to concert size and then finally got a tenor uke that I fell in love with. Tuned AECG between all three, I had spent a lot of time memorizing chords and getting used to moving them around. Then, one fateful day, I got my hands on a big baritone ukulele. It's tuned EBGD, but I could use the same chord shapes as on the other ukes and, man, what a fantastic sound! Feeling the vibrations against my chest and wailing on this thing was a real eye-opener. Then, someone dropped the bomb:
"You know, the baritone uke is just the first four strings of a guitar," they said.
I stopped whatever it was that I was doing, looked over at the nearest guitar, picked it up and, using my chord shapes and avoiding strings five and six, began playing stuff that I knew and holy crap I'm playing guitar! I just sat there for a while, playing tunes and occasionally exclaiming "I'm playing guitar!" and drooling while the folks around me nodded patiently and replied, "yes, Bing, you are playing the guitar." I don't think they realized that this was the first time in my life that I wasn't just banging around on the thing. It was with an informed approach that this piece of wood was now singing in my hands and the neurons began to fire at the speed of light.
It was on the run-up to the International Blues Challenge that I began studying blues guitarists in an effort to translate their styles onto the mountain dulcimer and resonator mountain dulcimer. It was an arduous, yet enjoyable, process that really got the gears turning upstairs. I finally realized that trying to decipher the technique of a guitarist without knowing the instrument was like watching them at a distance through a telescope. In order to truly understand the mechanics of playing blues guitar, I had to become a blues guitarist. And then I took a step back, remembering my childhood of shortcuts and instant gratification, and said, "I need to become a guitarist who plays the blues."
I began talking to guitarists online, inquiring about what kind of axe to buy and what to look for. I researched different brands and models, trolled the used instruments sections of online retailers and happened to luck upon a used Breedlove AC25/SM with case at a Guitar Center in Winter Park, Florida for $349.
It was in great shape. I bought it. Took it in for a set-up with a master guitar tech (thanks, Dean G.!) who also validated my purchase ("you got a great one.") Blues great Hawkeye Herman, who had counseled me on my quest, gave me a week's free tuition to JamPlay and I'm on the site every day taking lessons with full intention to buy a subscription. Ironically enough, my beginner instruction comes from friend and fellow mountain dulcimer player/instructor Steve Eulberg. In fact, many mountain dulcimer players are fantastic guitarists and I'm looking forward to picking their brains and, for the first time, really getting solid teaching on an instrument because I'm self-taught in everything else. We are all eternally students, but it's so much more effective when you've got guidance and feedback in a learning environment.
Many people have responded to my seemingly sudden decision to pick up the guitar with a mixture of celebration and puzzlement. They don't know that this has been a very large full circle trip from the instrument during my formative years till now. No longer will I sit and watch/listen to a guitarist remaining removed from the licks I can steal and no more will I pass guitarists in a jam session when I can sit down and pick up a few things by reading their hands. It's one of the most popular instruments in the world and I've been literally ignorant of it for all this time, possibly missing out on development that would've helped me in other areas of music. But I'm not going to dwell on that. Everything happens for a reason and everything in its time. What's important is this: I'm learning guitar and I'm having fun. I'm also forcing myself to have a better study ethic and this is helping across the board with all the other instruments. Another thing - finally able to sit in the (for now) electronic classroom and be led through the fundamentals is giving me clearer insight into teaching, a profession that I stumbled into at some point in my career and have had to wing ever since. It's so win-win.
But more than that, it feels so damn good against my chest as I hold it close, caress the strings and let the vibrations carry me away. Nothing I've played in my entire life feels like a guitar and now I know why people are so passionate about it. It makes it easy to become one with the music. I have no plans of abandoning mountain dulcimer. No way. I've dedicated almost 30 years to the instrument and, though I still strive to grow and improve, I feel proficient enough so that it serves as my strongest voice, musically. But I'm setting a goal for myself to become not just a good guitar player but a great guitar player because the knowledge and experience that I acquire will not only fortify my dulcimer playing, it will also lead onto some of the other instruments that I've shied away from but will now engage. And as a blanket effect, my grasp of music theory will benefit from all the various formulas that make each instrument unique. Beyond music theory, there is only specific technique when moving between ukulele, guitar, dulcimer, mandolin, harmonica, cello and whatever else captures your ear and your heart.
Some people go their whole lives just playing one instrument and there's nothing wrong with that. But my new friend Hawkeye shared an anecdote with me that really made a lot of sense, not only about playing multiple instruments but possessing multiple models of one instrument. If you think of each different instrument as a brush, then think about a painter that uses just one brush. Sure, there are those who do, but the very best and most expressive artists have a number of brushes to choose from. Big brushes for coverage and tone, little brushes for detail and finesse, long, short, fuzzy, stiff, wide, narrow, textured and made of different materials, their collection of brushes allows them a broader range of techniques to realize their art. Think of your instrument as your brush and then imagine the possibilities.
As for me, all I've got is a new guitar, three chords and the truth. The rest will come later.