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Is there an etymologist in the house? No….no not an entomologist. I don’t need to know about bugs but rather what’s bugging me (pun intended) is the origin of some musical jargon associated with my instrument, practice space and skills.

Axe – woodshed – chops. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think most of you know what these words describe in a musical lexicon but for my mother’s sake (yes she is a regular monthly reader) let me clarify.  

Axe refers to the actual instrument you play. Usually, one would hope, without any sharp edges, as musicians can be a little clumsy at times.

The woodshed is a solitary practice space. It can be a real woodshed or rather a more metaphysical place and time where a musician can spend time alone working on their chops. The caveat is that, you need to bring an actual axe (see above) to the woodshed even if the woodshed is a metaphysical space as, at least in my humble opinion; you can’t improve your chops by thinking about playing your instrument, even if you do the thinking in a real woodshed.

Chops describes a players technique and endurance on their axe which, in theory, comes from spending time in the ‘shed. Originally this term referred to horn players and their embouchure. The stretch to bluegrass context is tenuous here but I really wanted to use the word embouchure.

I had my research assistant (Goggle) look up the origins of these terms and there are references to a number of different origins for each term. However most research point to jazz players as the first to use these. Over time the terms were grabbed by hip rock musicians and finally seem to have matriculated to most musical genres (and to many other disciplines as well.) I wonder though, does the oboe section in a symphony orchestra talk about their chops? Maybe they do. I don’t know but I bet they talk about good embouchure.

Why bother with all this nonsensical jargon, you might ask? Well, I have just started a couple of new ‘projects” which will require some work on my part to make sure my chops are up to the task.

I have begun playing with a new bluegrass band. So new, that we are still nameless. A couple of guitars, a mandolin, the prerequisite 5, a dobro and of course me on the doghouse. (Sorry, I’m just trying to keep this jargon thing going a little longer.)
Stay tuned. Our debut is coming soon to a beer joint near you.

I’m pretty confident of my bluegrass chops but am spending some woodshed time on “sticking the note” to keep these guys in line and in making sure my bass lines are adding to the sound. Mixing metaphors a bit, working on “sticking the note” requires getting out the metronome and this could be considered akin to your dad taking you to the woodshed for some corrective therapy…..if you get my meaning.

The other new project I’m working on is more of a bluesy / folksy deal with a few hints of swing jazz thrown in. This project really has me needing to ‘shed’ a lot. I am playing with a very long time friend and musical coach; a very talented guitar player/ musician. The premise is to develop a repertoire that we are very tight with and then add some other players and soloists. We meet weekly to play for a couple of hours with me getting homework assignments that get me to the “shed” frequently so my chops are up for the next session

This different repertoire takes me out of my bluegrass comfort zone and that is both exciting and stressful. The stressful part is the old dog / new tricks thing. For the record, (or so you don’t miss it) I am beginning my 67th revolution around the sun on Monday. Being at the age where senior discounts apply also means one may be set in their ways, making adding “new chops” a challenge.

A little while back while trying to expand my chops for some gigs (there is that word again), I coined a phrase I used with my colleagues. I called myself Popeye (in relation to my bass playing) because, as I told them, “I yam what I yam”!!

While my newly mindful self acknowledges the stress, my choice is to embrace the exciting parts of both of theses projects. I’m looking forward to playing gigs with my new bluegrass band and I’m also really looking forward to pulling together the other project that takes me out of the comfort zone.

You’ll have to excuse me now. I am grabbing my axe (believe me it’s a big one) and heading to the woodshed (it is the best woodshed anywhere, believe me) to work on my (already incredible) chops.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist a little political humor this week.

Next month we will be exploring the etymological origins of the word gig. No! I think not. Hopefully another hook comes along before December.  

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