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 freecycle.org 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 musiciansfriend.com 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 banjohangout.org 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.

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