Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Five-Minute Blog: Mandolins

I decided to play the mandolin suddenly. I woke up one day in the death throes of my dissertation, right before I graduated, and I knew that the cure for all the weariness and pressure was to learn something new so I'd be the beginner again and not expected to be good...and I knew, that moment and for no apparent reason, that what I needed to learn was the mandolin.

I asked Joe's Uncle Ronald, who is a fiddler and guitarist, if he knew where I could get one, and he produced from his back room not one but TWO mandolins, one a very nice Epiphone, which he sent me home with to learn on. (As a testament to what a musician and instrument guy he is, he said, "Do you want to learn the sitar while you're at it? I have one back there. Got it at an estate sale in Stidham." Who else in Eufaula would have a SITAR?! Not to mention find one at an estate sale anywhere around there! But I digress.)

So I started trying to play using chord charts from the front of a tablature-writing book from my metal days. I printed some Scottish songs from the internet. But I can't learn instruments from books. I learned to play guitar sitting out under pine trees with my father, and later, hanging out with metal guys in music stores. So I looked around for a person to teach me. I was in western Oklahoma, but I couldn't find one. And now I'm in upstate New York, and I still can't find one. Every mandolin player I see says, "Oh, you don't want to learn from me. I don't know what I'm doing." As they stand there, Bill Monroe like, whipping out breaks and solos.

I sure still sound like a beginner. But I love the mandolin in a way I never even loved the guitar. I want to actually learn to play it...theory and all, maybe. At least more theory than what I know on the guitar, which is little. (Okay, none. I just know the names of chords. That's all.) I am joyous when I pick up the mandolin, even though I know the badness that is coming. I can sit there playing a new Scottish song, counting the notes out loud like we did in drumline as I play. And, weirdest of all, I want a thousand mandolins...even though I'm not good at playing them yet.

I never was one of those guitar players who wanted lots of guitars, even though I've managed to inherit and marry into plenty. I just need enough instruments to play what I need to play, and then I'm loyal to them and wear holes in them because I have bad picking technique. But the mandolin...I want an F-style, an A-style, a possum belly, a dark one, a pumpkin-colored one, a lighter one, a deep-sounding one, a tinny-sounding one, one with inlays, an old one, a new one, a Kentucky, a Gibson, a Lore, a handmade one with no name on it...I want a whole wall of them, and I don't understand this compulsion at all. The little beauties are more expensive than guitars would ever think about being, so I'll never have the wall 'o mandolins...but I'll keep wanting it. Weird.

I have one mandolin. My Uncle Bob, the trucker/biker, bought it for me as a graduation present because he is an incredibly perceptive and thoughtful man. It is a red-colored Kona. That's a brand from Texas, and the people here in New York ask about it when they see that. They like that it was made there, and so do I. It's not a great mandolin, far as quality goes, but it is beautiful, and it works, which is the key. I'll probably buy it a friend one of these days...a Kentucky with one of those necks that make me instantly sound better.

But for now, I just play the one I have. I take it to bluegrass gatherings here and hope for the best, and rarely get it, as I am one bad mandolin player...and I don't mean that in the 1980s way in which "bad" means "good." I have a friend here, Patty, and we are both learning. She's better than I am. But I like sitting by her and trying what I know, and learning what she knows. I like being the little spark of sound amid the guitars.

Someday, I won't even have to bring a guitar if I don't want to. I can just bring the mandolin, the tiny little, easy-to-carry mandolin, and play that all night. People will be glad to see me because there are usually plenty of guitar players, but a mandolin is special. But for now, I play at home, stick to two-finger chords in public, and hope for the best.

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