(Editor’s Note—Yes, we had one once upon a time. Eleven years ago to be exact. His name was Kyle Abbott, he was a teenager…a YOUNG teenager…and his monthly column opened up wide the eyes of a certain segment of the northern California bluegrass community who were…this may be hurtful to some, grandiose to others, annoyingly obscure to still more people…ready for a glimpse of the future. Case in point—an April, 2004 primer on bluegrass instruments and one additional axe that would ever so gradually insinuate itself into the genre Bill built.)
Hi there! Well, I see no need for further introduction…
As you may know, the fine folks at Family Tradition HQ (including yours truly) try to encourage beginners to play music (or at least an instrument) whether they like it or not. This guide will help you choose your instrument.
First off, a stereo is not an instrument! So you can’t use that in your resume. In jams, if you drag out that ol’ Victrola, you’ll mostly just get frowns. Next, if you know you’ve got rhythm (ask your next door neighbor because believe me, he’ll know) and you like to stand up, your best bet is the standup bass. However, if you can’t stand up for too long and don’t own a bar stool, there’s also the guitar. Both instruments are good if you’ve got big fingers. Of course, for those people who have small fingers or got liposuction on their digits, a smaller instrument with a thinner neck might just be the ticket. Try a fiddle or mandolin. Years ago, when Luke and I first got our very own stringed instruments, I was drawn to the mandolin because I had small fingers. Plus, it was dirt simple—well, the chords were at least. I messed around with it and used open chords. Much later, when my fingers got longer, I learned closed chords. My point is, start off simple and work your way to the more difficult stuff.
One quick word about guitars: Years ago, I used to think the guitar was the dumb man’s instrument. Of course, at that time, I hadn’t tried playing guitar and thought that, while not specifically reserved for dumb people, it was an instrument the any idiot could play. Then I started doing a lot of picking on the guitar, which was challenging but fun. Later I learned some chords and strums, and after that I found out about cross-picking. That practically took over my picking style. (It made picking simpler as well ‘cause I could cross-pick through the whole break). So much in fact, that at a Halloween jam party, I dressed up as George Shuffler. Of course, now the novelty has worn off and I use less and less cross-picking. Anyway, so my respect for the guitar has grown somewhat—although my attitude on guitar players hasn’t changed.
Oh, and another thing: If you have played before and are an experienced player/picker, don’t get too good on your instrument. If you get too good, your picking may lose its soul and character and then you start sounding like everybody else and are left with a bunch of noise. Beginners should keep this in mind as well. If somebody tells you that your playing leaves a lot to be desired, just tell them, “I’m not bad, I’ve got character!” Next month, I will be discussing more of this. (that’s called a teaser)
Finally, let me discuss an instrument not often considered in the bluegrass world. If you live at Family Tradition HQ (as I do) you know that we are always trying to find novel ways to make music more accessible to the common man (like Pa). We have found that beginners usually don’t want to spend a wallet-full on an instrument they may later find isn’t what they want to play. You don’t want to invest a fortune if you aren’t unsure, right?(*) Well, the idea came up that we could teach people ukelele. Pa thought that it would be a good instrument for kids and cheapos. Luke thought it wouldn’t fit into the Bluegrass world. I thought, “Who shrunk the guitar?” Since I’m not gonna take sides here, I’ll tell you the good and bads about introducing the ukulele into the mainstream Bluegrass world.
Let’s start with the positives. 1) It’s a very easy instrument for kids and beginners. 2) It’s not inferior, meaning it’s mellow (at least the one I played) and you won’t break up a jam with it. 3) It’s cheap! Smash it on stage like the pros and it’ll only cost you 25 bucks! 4) It’s a great traveling instrument. 5) On Halloween, you can dress up as a grass skirt and carry it along! 6) By holding a ukulele, you automatically have an excuse to drink a Piña Colada
Now, let’s go down to the negatives. 1) It’s a girly instrument! I mean look at the size! This is Bluegrass! You got to have big things! Look at the bass! The guitar! The banjo! The banjo player! 2) The strings are nylon. Come on! That’s so classical! 3) I dunno. I guess the main point is that it goes against the Bluegrass’s unwritten laws. Even though most of the laws are a bit uptight, ukelele still doesn’t fit in. I mean do you eat a Sashimi with pretzels? You get what I mean.
Well, that’s about it. So in conclusion, there’s nothing wrong with taking up more than one instrument. Even though they are all different sizes, learning one will help you in another. I’ve noticed my banjo playing has helped my mando picking which has helped my guitar strumming. So don’t be afraid to juggle a few instruments at once (if you know what I mean).
Now for the joke of the month: A drunk is driving through the city and his car is weaving violently all over the road. A cop pulls him over and asks, “Where have you been?” “I’ve been to the pub,” slurs the drunk. “Well,” says the cop, “it looks like you’ve had quite a few.” “I did alright,” the drunk says with a smile. “Did you know,” says the cop, standing straight and folding his arms, “that a few intersections back, your wife fell out of your car?” “Oh, thank heavens,” sighs the drunk. “For a minute there, I thought I’d gone deaf.” Heeyyooo!!! That’s enough.
(*) A more modest investment might be to invest in Kyle’s String’s, Picks ‘n Wallets fund: Giving real strings to needy Abbotts everywhere.