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The Long Path to the Devil's Instrument - Part 2

Posted by Phoeniceus on Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Early 1980's - The Guitar

In tenth grade, I began to play guitar. Badly.

I would imitate the rock bands of the era: Kansas, Queen, Yes. I had an acoustic, plastic body Ovation, that looked great and could float on water. I also had a cheap electric guitar and a foot high Peavey amp. I learned chords. I learned finger picking patterns. I read tablature books. I played whenever I could for anyone who was polite enough not to run away. But mostly I hung out in my room between school and dinner, plunking away. And slowly I gained some skills.

I met a new friend at school, a poet and writer and musician who played classical guitar. He was odd, and loud, and charismatic in a geeky, brilliant way. He got me Volume 1 of Christopher Parkening's Method for Classical Guitar, and I worked my way through it in every spare waking hour. Reading sheet music was torture. Transcribing those dots and squgglesto my fingers took many hours, but at some point I would get proficient enough on a melody that I could actually hear the music in it, and then I stopped looking at the paper and just played. Even then, I was not cut out to be a sight-reading musician.

In college, for the first time, I cut loose. I stopped trying to fit other people's ideas of who I should be. I took a year of music theory. I tried to learn piano. I tried to learn psaltery. I tried a slew of instruments and never really got anywhere on them, but I got very good at guitar. I started to study the country blues finger pickers like Gary David, and Mississippi John Hurt. 

I moved to Madison, WI for graduate school, where I fell into the folk community vortex, and learned to contra dance. I quickly became quite good at it, a late blooming talent. I was in my early twenties, and for the first time in my life, I felt attractive to women. Not handsome, mind you, but women started to seek me out at dances and even afterwards. I spent a lot of time at the folk dances. I had a lot of hormones rushing through my body. And for the first time in my life, I heard lots and lots and lots of fiddle music, almost daily. It is no wonder that for the rest of my life, fiddle music would excite me.

At the age of twenty-five, I decided that I wanted to play guitar in a contra-dance band. And in a year or two, I was performing up on stage. Not the best player in the community, but a valuable player. I learned a few tricks, and could make the dancers yell and yip and stomp their feet. The fiddlers were pleasantly surprised at how I could ornament their melodies. It was enough.

Then one day, I asked a friend, a fiddler I knew, if he wanted to play some tunes with me, just for fun. We had played together in large jam sessions before, but never just the two of us. He was a remoresful Vietnam veteran, a skilled carpenter with enormous hands, and a fiddler who only played Old Time music. At the time I was vaguely aware that Old Time music was somehow different than the New England fiddle music I had been backing up, but I really didn't understand how or why. It was all good to contra dance too, so what was the difference? He declined, which surprised me, and in the arrogance of youth I pressed him until finally he admitted, gently, that he knew I was a good guitar layer, but he didn't like my playing. It wasn't Old Time.

I had no idea what he meant, but it stung me. I thought I was pretty good - not the best, but pretty good. And here he was, fairly new on the fiddle himself, telling me I was not in his class.

It was the best feedback anyone had ever given me, though I couldn't see it at the time.

What I did begin to see, or rather hear, was that there were different groups of fiddlers. I knew the Scanadanvian fiddlers were their own group, with their odd keys and rhythms, but I was only just beginning to discover that there were Irish players, and New England players, and Old Time players. And they weren't the same.

You mean, those Old Time players didn't like swing chords on the guitar? How odd, I thought.

 

 



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