Adventures in traditional music

A blog documenting my education and progress as I learn to play traditional Irish music on tenor banjo, mandolin, whistle, bodhran and hopefully one day, mandola, bouzouki and more.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Finding an instrument to play - A little of this and a smidgen of that

 When I was a wee lad, I had a thing for two instruments; drums and banjos. Whenever I saw a fretted instrument, I thought "BANJO". I was a little kid, what did I know? 
But the drums were what I really latched onto. And a drum, or at least a toy drum was the first instrument I was given. Later I had practice pads and snare drums to learn with. I had a guitar for a while too that my uncle taught me to play a Robin Trower riff on but for some reason I just didn't stick with it. There was also a brief time that I played a recorder flute which I was actually very good at. And there was a trombone I played for a year or two as well. I liked the uniqueness of the trombone, the way you had to slide it to change the tone. No other instrument was like it.
Once I got into 8th grade I was playing drums in the school jazz band. I had pretty good chops back then. While in high school I had my first and only drum set. Like most kids I wanted to be a rock star but of course I was too busy being a rebellious punk to get really good or find a job to finance buying a better kit. So at about age 17 the drums went away and so did any aspirations I had to play music for about 25 or so years.

As I mentioned in my previous post, sometime around '97 or '98 a girlfriend and I had gone to an Irish pub looking for a good plate of fish-n-chips. It was then that I discovered traditional Irish music. I also discovered the bodhran and made what is considered a stereotypical mistake.
I loved the drum. I loved the music. And now I wanted to start playing drums again so I got a tipper and just practiced on a pizza box. The following Christmas my girlfriend bought me a bodhran for Christmas which I started to beat the hell out of.
I thought I'd gotten pretty good. So I went to a session. Oops! I went home and practiced some more and went back. Oops! again. I didn't know what I was doing wrong but I was definitely not welcome. So I stopped going to sessions. But I kept playing.
I eventually found out about the general disdain for bodhran players thru a trad irish music website that will go un-named. And oh baby, I fired right back at them! I was pissed. It's still a sore subject with me and I've little tolerance for bodhran haters. Narrow minded elitist eejits they are. Want to pick a fight with me? Start ripping on a bodhran and bones player. I'm yer huckleberry!!

OK, so a few years go by and along comes a bonus from work. So I get the bright idea to buy a guitar and "learn the tunes" as some of my detractors would say. I went down to a local music store that was having some huge mega blowout super saver... Sunday! Sunday!! Sunday!!!... type sale and bought two guitars. A six string and a 12 string. The 12 string I returned almost immediately. It was junk. The six string I kept and I started to learn little things here and there. Mostly basic chords was all. I bought several books which included cd's to learn from but it was a struggle. I just couldn't seem to find what I needed to learn to accompany traditional tunes. In fact I couldn't accompany much of anything really.

One day I decided that maybe I would record what I was playing. That somehow it might help. I brought my guitar into the kitchen and placed it on a stand next to me. Then proceded to configure my computer to record with some free software I downloaded and a microphone an aquaintance had given me. I was messing with the mic connections and swiveled around in my chair... bump - CLA-TWANG-crash. The unthinkable had happened. I'd knocked over my guitar and the head stock had snapped clean off. It was unrepairable. My heart just sunk. All I had left was an electric guitar that I didn't really care for. I told the story to my parents who lived a few blocks away and I thought that was that. I was unemployed and didn't have the money to buy a new acoustic guitar.

Several weeks went by when my mother called me to ask if was busy the next day. She said she had something she wanted to show me in town and it was a surprise. So I went along and we drove down to Sebastopol where a music store was that carried traditional instruments and we went inside. My mother explained who she was and the guy behind the desk went into the back and pulled out a hard case for a Martin guitar. I said "Hey great, I could use a case when I finally get a guitar." The guy looked at me and said "This is more than just a case."
My mother proceeded to tell about how she went on and put up a post about her son(me) who had broken his guitar in an accident and how he was so broken hearted because he was studying traditional Irish music and needed something to play. Someone responded to the post by contacting the administrator of the freecycle forum and stating he had a guitar for her son, but he didn't want anyone to know who it was. He wanted to stay anonymous... and the guy behind the counter opened the case.
I was absolutely floored. I couldn't believe what was happening. I now was the proud owner of a gorgeous 1992 Martin D18-V guitar. But I still couldn't play for shite.

I had managed to organize a session at my local pub which rather than becoming an Irish trad session, became an acoustic blues and folk session. And despite finding someone kind enough to teach me blues & folk guitar for free, I could barely wrap my head around the "12 Bar Blues". It was frustrating. But I kept strumming.

Around the same time, a friend who was a fiddler gave me a mandolin. It was a cheapo extra one she had that she didn't use because she had a much better one. AT LAST I had found something I could understand and learn with. Melody was EASY!!! It's right there, all laid out for you. Nothing to interpret. No chords to figure out. All you have to do is follow along and practice, practice, practice. Ya know, it's kinda funny but that's exactly what I was doing with my bodhran. Go figure! (those fiddlers are soooo full of it) Harmony backing on guitar or zouk is waaaaaaay harder than melody.

So I managed to learn a few tunes on the mandolin; Old Hag You Have Killed Me, The Kesh, Whiskey Before Breakfast and one or two others plus the basic melody of a few "Celtic-folk-punk" songs. But that was about it. Ok, I admit it, I'm no prodigy. Not a lot of natural talent here. But I was having a good time. And I still would strum my guitar a bit here and there.

A few months after I was given the mandolin, I bought one of my own. Nothing expensive. It was one of those Rogue mandolins you can buy off for $50 bucks. But lemme tell ya, after I took the time to set it up properly, it was sweet! I thought I was hot shit. LOL At least I looked good at the pub, sitting on the patio outside sipping a pint with my mando in my hands.

Then came the move to Texas. I moved in with this individual who claimed over the phone he was some kind of contractor working on building a new county jail. Upon arriving in Austin I came to find out he was merely a laborer and a drug addict/alcoholic with sticky fingers. I feared for the safety of my Martin guitar so I gave her to my parents, who also had moved to Austin, to hold for safe keeping. Now I wasn't able to play guitar at all and only my mandolin was kept so I could at least play tunes. I'd convinced my roommate the mando was cheap and wouldn't be worth anything to a pawn shop.
After the loss of my wallet and several tools to Mr. Sticky Fingers, I moved in with my parents.

And the Martin sat in it's case, largely ignored. I was just playing the mandolin. But I wanted something more. Maybe a better mandolin... maybe I'd just sell the guitar and pay off an old debt... maybe... maybe I'd trade my guitar, something I'm not playing for something I will play.  So I put up a post on asking for a trade for a nice tenor banjo. A couple people responded, but I was looking for someone local so I could safely make the trade in person. Then Mr. Mike Keyes contacted me. I knew of Mike and his solid reputation and knew I could make a safe trade with him. So after several e-mails and one poorly timed phone call(sorry about that Mike) we agreed to trade my Martin for a 1926 Vega Style M Tubaphone he had. The banjo arrived on Christmas Eve '09.

I can't tell you how much I enjoy this banjo. But in the first few months of owning it, my repertoir of tunes has at least tripled and I'm learning faster than I ever have. A new tune every week right now. I'm stoked!

More details to come! Stay tuned.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Musical influences

I probably first noticed the music I was listening to when I was around 4 or 5, maybe sooner. Hell it was a long time ago! Anyway, my mother played a variety of music. We had everything in the house from the Kingston Trio and The Pentangle to The Beatles or John Denver.
I mention the Kingston Trio and Pentangle because they were my first introduction to traditional/folk music. I still listen to a the Pentangle. Cruel Sister and Basket of Light were what my mother had on vinyl and now what I have on CD. There's so much talent in that band, as I look back on them, knowing what I know now, they were truly amazing.

Music was always on in our house. We didn't have a TV for a long time.
As the 70's progressed we listened to a lot of Beatles, Pink Floyd, Robin Trower, Moody Blues and Van Morrison, James Taylor and Cat Stevens.
Mom & Dad had pretty good taste in music. It's really a shame they don't listen much anymore.

I remember when my 1st grade school teacher asked us to each bring a record to school and we would play one song from each person. I heard a lot Jackson 5, The Osmonds, The Monkees, etc. When it was my turn I played "One of These Days" from Pink Floyds "Meddle" album. My classmates where saying what amounted to WTF? My teacher just smiled HUGE.

Later, like most kids my age, I turned to the commercialized sounds of KISS and eventually Van Halen, Rush and other hard rock bands. Van Halen was my favorite. They were the kings of hard rock.
I was also introduced to "heavy metal" about this time. The album was Judas Priest's "Unleashed in the East" and the song was "The Green Manalishi (With The Two Pronged Crown)" And the damage was done! LOL I listened to metal for many years afterward.

Into the 1980's, along with hard rock and metal, I also was also listening to the "new wave" sounds that MTV was playing. It was different but familiar too. Bands had fused elements of punk rock with disco to come up with something kinda unique. Conventional electric instruments were being played alongside synthysized sounds.

There was a lot of great music being made. But those years of really GREAT "80's music" really only lasted from '79 until '84. After that it was really just bands re-hashing the same old sounds. Music got kinda dull again. By 1986 I had joined the Army and it was about that time I got into Jimmy Buffet a bit and started appreciating acoustic guitar. I was feeling the need for SOMETHING different.

The late 80's had few truly unique bands and it wasn't until '89 and '90 that some new sounds were being heard. I had just gotten out of the Army and was enjoying being back in Southern California. Primus was a favorite. Jane's Addiction and Nine Inch Nails were cool too. And of course there was Nirvana. Holy crap what a ton of bricks the Nevermind album was. Soundgarden and Pearl Jam had a great sound as well. Metal as I knew it had just been shot in the head.

But as soon as the novelty of Nirvana and Pearl Jam began to wear off, rock-n-roll went and changed again. Rap started sneaking it's way into my hard rock. And I HATE RAP. You can't spell C-R-A-P without R-A-P. And I started turning the radio off.

Sometime around '97 or '98, I suggested to my girlfriend that we should go out and get some old English style fish-n-chips. She told me she didn't know of any "English" fish-n-chips but she did know of a good "IRISH" place. So we went to the "The Rose", an Irish pub in Santa Rosa, CA which served a great plate of fish-n-chips. The Rose also had a great selection of beers and hosted live bands on a regular basis. As fate would have it, the live band playing that night was a locally based Irish band called "Atlantic Shore". They were absolutely awesome. What a great band! The music was fast, and before I knew it, we had abandoned the game of darts we were playing and were totally paying attention to the band. We each bought CD's they were selling from the stage. Ten years later, traditional Irish music has taken over my cd collection. I'm totally hooked on it.

Irish, and Scottish, traditional music is to me what rock-n-roll used to be. It was all about the musicianship. It had intensity and fire. It could be raucous and loud. It was also honest. Real music played by real musicians on real musical instruments. The music, by it's very nature is so intense that rock-n-roll bands have really been around for decades that have been influenced by it. One that has been around the longest is probably Jethro Tull. But more obvious bands with an Irish slant to their music are The Pogues, Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys.

Oh yeah, didn't Jethro Tull beat out Metallica for "Best Metal Band" at the Grammy's the first year they had the category? YES... like I said, the music is intense. By the way, the members of Jethro Tull would tell you they are NOT a metal band. Most folk wouldn't argue. What were the Grammy folks thinking???
And speaking of Metallica, they recorded a traditional Irish folk song as well. "Whiskey in the Jaro" or more properly titled "Whisky in the Jar".

So I'll end this blog entry with my current musical obsession; The Bothy Band.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Post #1

This is the first post in my new blog.
What will follow is a short history of my musical journey and how I got to where I am today. As the blog progresses, I'll be noting my thoughts, experiences and lessons learned in the pursuit of becoming a competent traditional music musician. There may be a few distractions here and there as well since life isn't all about the arrangement of tones into a tune. But I'll try to keep my posts pertinent to music or at least how my experiences effect my music.

OK, enough said. Let's get this thing started.

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