Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Do You Find Your Instrument or Does Your Instrument Find You?

I must really, really love playing melodies.  This is probably why I’ve gravitated towards fiddle tunes, Irish trad and other instrumental folk music.  I had a broad, hungry and obsessive taste in music long before I ever decided to play an instrument, so the fact that I’m pretty much only interested in playing fiddle tunes and folk melodies has come as a bit of a surprise.

I listened to a lot of Grateful Dead and Phish in my 20’s, and this sponge-like nucleus of sound spawned pathways toward jazz in the form of Miles Davis, Medeski Martin and Wood, Bill Frisell and Grant Green, toward the bluegrass/Americana of Norman Blake, Hot Rize, New Grass Revival, Yonder Mountain String Band and John Hartford, “No Depression” style alt. country ala The Flatlanders, Wilco, Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt, undefinable instrumental bands such as Tortoise, Laika and the Cosmonauts, and Sound Tribe Sector 9, singer-songwriters like John Prine, Gillian Welch, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt, contemporary rock bands My Morning Jacket, Dawes and Dr. Dog, “new” classical ensembles and composers Uakti, Bang on a Can Allstars, Terry Riley and Steve Reich, roots-fucking reggae in the form of Culture and Augustus Pablo, progressive acoustic instrumentalists including Bela Fleck, David Grisman, Akira Satake, and Leo Kottke, and trippy bands like The Meat Puppets, The Flaming Lips and Ween.

I name checked all these cool groups and musicians simply to demonstrate where I might have been coming from when I first picked up an instrument (tenor banjo) 8 years ago, back in June, 2006.  Note that NONE of the music I liked up to that point is what you would call Irish or oldtime, except for maybe Norman Blake.  

I assumed that I’d be wanting to strum chords and sing John Prine, Neil Young and Grateful Dead covers, but I didn’t enjoy that at all.  (Maybe the fact that I hadn't chosen a guitar would have been an early indicator.)  Then I was introduced to some fiddle tunes like Arkansas Traveler and Silver Spear and I was hooked right away!  It probably helped that tenor banjo was an instrument more suited to picking melodies than accompanying songs, at least to my ears. 

Tenor banjo was my first choice, primarily to be different, but I wonder if I inherently knew that it was the right choice at that time?  Now that I’m kind of switching over to mandolin, the world of music is continuing to open up - both forwards and backwards.  

I still am all about playing melodies but as I continue to work on developing my ear, there’s the opportunity to learn a portion of a Phish jam or a riff from a Medeski, Martin and Wood composition, for example.  Not everything from my music listening past will lend itself to this treatment, but anything you can whistle you can play on mandolin.  I also want to be open to any influence this old favorite music might have on the interpretations of traditional music.  It's all the same language.

Playing mandolin is definitely going to continue to dictate the type of music that I play.  The mando's consistent, standard tuning of GDAE, coupled with the fact that it's fairly easy to play in any key, as well as its melodic range and friendliness toward melodic notes, allows for me to broaden my search for tunes to all the corners of the globe where music is part of a cultural tradition.  

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