Thursday, August 16, 2012

Let there be music...eventually

"What do you want for Fathers' Day?"
She, in cahoots with my two sons, posed this question over fourteen months ago as FD 2011 approached.
I truly am the man who has everything, so my usual reply to such questions is something like "world peace" or "a gallon of milk, because I think we're almost out." But last year I really did have something in mind. And while I knew it was something I'd probably end up choosing and purchasing myself, It was fun letting them think they were finally getting the old man something he wanted.
A mandolin.
For both the uniformed and disinterested, a mandolin is a small, eight-stringed member of the lute family, most often heard in traditional folk, bluegrass and country music. I was interested in owning one because I like the way it sounds, and because hauling one on our crowed-car travels seemed a lot easier than packing and protecting a full-sized guitar, which is often like inviting another person along for the ride in terms of the space it takes.
It's been nearly 50 years since my first encounter with a stringed musical instrument. It was a Sears Silvertone nylon-stringed classical guitar that my brother was about to receive for his birthday. While in college, both he and my sister had become avid folk music fans. Jim eventually became quite adept at finger-picking the five-string banjo, while my sister's instrument of choice was a mellow-sounding baritone ukulele, aptly called a "buke." The candles were lit and the unwrapped guitar about to be presented, when my dad thrust it into my hands.
"Here," he said. "Play 'Happy Birthday.'"
Now, I was not, in any way, shape or form, a prodigy. But for some reason, I intuitively knew how to pluck that simple melody on the bottom string of the guitar, so I did.
Big deal.
Well, actually it kind of was, for me, at least. Because, from that moment on, I was hooked.
Soon enough, I had a guitar of my own, and pestered my older siblings into sharing the chords and lyrics for every folk song they knew. When the Beatles and the rest of the British musical invasion struck our shores, I quickly got an electric guitar, and spent the next few decades playing both rock and roll and rhythm and blues before settling back into the mellower, acoustic-guitar groove I'm in now. The mandolin, I thought, would be a nice addition to the collection of instruments I've gathered over the years, which includes a couple of vintage guitars and an ancient banjo that I kind of learned to pick years ago.
But first, I had to find one.
There just aren't quite as many music stores around as there used to be, and those that are, like the great little shop that recently opened in Galva, don't necessarily feature a full line of mandolins to pick and choose from. I found plenty of them for sale on the internet, but I have been unable to convince myself to purchase any kind of musical instrument online, feeling sincerely that you've gotta touch, feel, play and listen to it before you can possibly make the decision to buy it.
So it took awhile. Like fourteen months.
It was while on a visit to New Bern, birthplace of Pepsi Cola and home of Nicholas Sparks, that I discovered a place that billed itself as the oldest music store in North Carolina.
"They've gotta have a boatload of mandolins here," I said.
Well, they didn't.
But they had one. And it was just what I was looking for.
Moderately priced, reasonably well-made and with a good-enough feel and tone, it seemed like the perfect jumping-off point for my new musical experience.
But first, I've got to learn to play the darn thing.
As an experienced guitar player, I was, over the years, able to pick up and play other instruments, like the banjo, bass and ukulele fairly easily, because their tunings are similar.  But the mandolin is tuned in fifths, like a violin, which means there is a five-note interval between strings, instead of the 3-note standard (and its variations) that I'm accustomed to on guitar and banjo. This may not seem like a big deal, but to my habituated head and fingers, it feels like trying to learn a new language using an entirely new alphabet. In other words, it's pretty darn трудный.  Moreover, the tiny neck, narrow frets and eight string setup makes even my fairly-nimble fingers feel more than kinda-clunky when I try to move beyond strictly beginner level playing.
But I'm sticking with it. And while I know I'll never be another Dash Crofts, Levon Helm or David Grisman, that's OK. After all, I was never another Wes Montgomery, Eric Clapton or Jerry Garcia on guitar, but I've always had a pretty darn good time.
Who know, maybe I'll really make some music.
But in the meantime, happy Fathers' Day to me.

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