The Bluegrass Dojo

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I remember when karate really hit the big time, back in the seventies. The cold war was in full swing and people were fascinated with secret agent stuff. Everywhere you looked, on TV or at the movies, secret agent heroes like James Bond were beating up on the bad guys using special fisticuffs. It was so powerful you could break stacks of boards and bricks just as easily as you could break bones. Pure magic. People wore Hai Karate after shave. Bruce Lee made a fortune in the movies and David Carradine starred on the small screen in Kung Fu.

I used to watch Kung Fu a lot. But the show got pretty boring after a while because they always took too long to get to the good stuff (the fighting). Just once, couldn’t the guy just walk up to the bad guy and say “Hi, I’m Kung Fu. Wanna fight?” Instead there was a lot of tedious prelude with flashbacks that had the hero learning how to catch butterflies from his teacher’s hand so that he could go out and put a whoopin’ on the bad guy later on, (after all the commercials).

I eventually lost interest in that show, but I did sign up for a karate class later on in life and I enjoyed it. My black belt teacher Lee San impressed upon me how the mental discipline and focus was just as important as all that other flashy stuff. I learned about how the ranking system for karate practitioners, from white belt novice up to black belt master, was developed from the observation that a new student started with a clean white outfit (or gi). Over years of training the student’s uniform turned eventually to brown and then black. Over those same years, the student’s abilities matured in parallel with the darkening of the gi, thus the ranking color scheme.

What does all this have to do with bluegrass? Where is this “bluegrass dojo” referred to in the title of the piece? Well, I’ll tell you. I discovered the bluegrass dojo concept at Grass Valley just last week. On my way to a workshop, I dropped off my mandolin with master luthier Michael Lewis. I thought the mandolin needed a tune up and one of my concerns was a strange spot on the lower side of my fretboard. It looked like a water spot and was about the size of my little finger, right at the top near the nut. I was worried that the spot might eventually damage the mandolin, but Michael assured me that it was just normal wear on the finish and would cause no problems long term. I left the mandolin with him to tweak a few other minor things and headed off to the Michael Cleveland workshop with my fiddle playing son Ethan (who is a huge Michael Cleveland fan).

Assisting Michael at the workshop was his bandmate Jesse Brock, the IBMA mandolin player of the year. I noticed right off that the neck on Jesse’s mandolin is exactly the same as mine. It’s a slightly wider Gibson neck also used by Sam Bush. As I looked closely at Jesse’s mandolin, the neck looked really strange to me. In the late afternoon light, I at first thought that he must have put duct tape or something around the back of the neck. I figured that maybe he had modified the back of the neck to make his position changes smoother or something.

After scrutinizing Jesse Brock’s mandolin for a while, I finally realized that the unusual appearance of his mandolin was no duct tape. It was a really huge water stain. Just like mine only way larger! I kid you not Jesse’s water stain extended from the nut clear on down to the body of the mandolin! I still cannot imagine how much playing it would take to rub that kind of thing. It truly boggles the mind.

Of course you have only to hear Jesse Brock play to know that he is a top flight black belt in the bluegrass dojo. But if you look at the back of his mandolin you can get precisely the same information. I know some instruments are different, but you might want to carefully check out the instrument of the next stranger you sit down to jam with. If the banjo, guitar, etc looks really worn, you might want to hold onto your seatbelt!

And keep practicing. Maybe someday you’ll progress from a seventh fret water stain master to a ninth fret sensei.


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