Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The mobile miniature music emporium and traveling zoo

I carry a small zoo around in my mandolin case — alligators, tortoises and a gorilla live in perfect harmony in the case’s small compartment.
My case abounds with stories hidden inside the myriad accessories that are packed into every available space, and the mandolin itself has a story to tell, about how I custom-ordered it from a builder who lives along the Blue Ridge in Virginia, our trip to pick up the mandolin, and our visit with the builder’s family.
In the case I keep a postcard picturing the Peaks of Otter, twin mountains that overlook the builder’s house. A steep road up the peaks leads to a resort at the top, where the temperature is noticeably cooler. Beneath the postcard is a copy of a photo of my great-grandfather John McClintick and a small mandolin group with which he played in the early 1900s when mandolin groups were all the rage, playing popular and classical music, as common then as rock bands are now.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Don’t request “Orange Blossom Special”

Sometimes I have a great deal of trouble explaining the kind of music I play. Many people, some of them my own relatives, think I play bluegrass. I play violin, also known as fiddle; mandolin; mountain dulcimer; and guitar. All but the dulcimer are stalwarts of bluegrass music, but bluegrass is worlds apart in style from Scottish and Irish fiddling. I even sniff haughtily at people who think I play Appalachian fiddle, often called “old-time” music, a term with which I take umbrage for its vagueness, being understood by the people who play the music but for a word nitpicker like me being too broad and undefining.
I never tell people I play “folk music.” That’s another word that is too broad and vague, and it conjures images of folksingers and hootenannies. It’s easier to tell an outsider what I don’t play, but those who play the music I play easily understand it.

Casual but not lawless

Traditional music is casual music. I love to drink a pint of ale and wear jeans while playing Irish tunes — it’s much better than being stuffed into a tuxedo on a stage, where drinking would be frowned on. But the music’s casual approach can give a false impression that it lacks rules. Outsiders sometimes misinterpret the music’s relaxed informality and approach me while I’m on stage and talk to me when I’m playing.
Musicians new to traditional music should also understand that the music is not a free-for-all. Like any social gathering, the music has rules, and like any social group, learning the etiquette is part of learning the music. These rules for Celtic music sessions can help everyone.
First, acquaint yourself with the session’s basics:
The style of music. It irritates Celtic musicians to no end when someone plays bluegrass music at a Celtic session or tries to graft rock guitar onto traditional tunes, which have their own rhythm and chordal structure, and Celtic music itself is divided into separate styles. A teacher at a Scottish session once reprimanded a fiddler who played an Irish tune.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Encouraging respect for the banjo

It’s hard to imagine top 40 radio playing songs featuring banjo and fiddle music in these days of electronic wall-of-sound overload, but it happened when I was young, and two movies made major hits of bluegrass banjo pieces. “Bonnie and Clyde” brought Flatt and Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” to the airwaves, and “Deliverance” spawned the wildly popular “Dueling Banjos,” which was one of the best and one of the worst things to happen to the banjo.
It was good because the movie put bluegrass banjo on the radio, and people who would otherwise never go near a banjo recording listened to the irresistible duet between banjo and guitar. Sheet music was issued, and an album of bluegrass instrumental numbers called “New Dimensions in Banjo and Bluegrass” was repackaged with “Dueling Banjos” added to boost sales. It certainly influenced me; I bought the sheet music and learned to play both parts on guitar, and with money from my first job I bought a beginner’s banjo.

Extreme keys and the stringed stratosphere

Published in The Alliance Review November 6, 2006
Stringed instruments have a way of putting me in my place, and violins are the worst.
I’m playing violin in the Carnation City Players’ production of “Once Upon A Mattress” this month. Theater music is always daunting. I join a pianist and company of actors and technicians who have been practicing the show for weeks, and I scramble to learn, in a week, the music and where my part fits into the scenes while working during the day and trying to have enough home life to feel rested.
These difficulties are compounded by the style of the music. Most of the year I play traditional Celtic and early American music, which rarely visit the places on the violin encountered in theater music. Theater music differs mainly in its range and its keys. Theater music uses keys I never encounter in folk music, such as G flat, which has six flats. The violin is tuned, from low to high, G-D-A-E, and the keys favored by the average violinist are those that have zero to three flats or sharps. Any more than that, and fingering in the extreme keys becomes quite challenging, “extreme” being listed in my 1947 book of musical terms, predating by more than a half century the sporting events that feature people too dumb to know when something is perilous. The key of G flat is a half step below G, which violinists absolutely love. That’s also one of the best keys for Celtic music because it employs open ringing strings, creating bagpipe-style drones. Because vocalists can sing just as easily in G flat or G, I often wonder why composers of musicals torture us string players with G flat. Put it in G! Can a half step make that much difference to a talented singer?

Friday, February 21, 2014

Give me my acoustic

When it comes to string instruments, I’m an acoustic player through and through. I toyed with the occasional electric guitar in my youth, but I learned to play on acoustic instruments, and that is what I prefer. I can walk right past the electric guitars, mandolins and violins in a store or flip quickly past them in a catalog, but I can’t pass by an acoustic instrument without at least checking the brand.
To me, an electric instrument is just a chunk of wood adorned with strings and deriving its sound from the electric pickups, whereas an acoustic instrument creates melody through the interplay of strings and a precisely fashioned wooden box full of air. I know many electric players will disagree with me, but that’s how I view an electric instrument. So imagine my dismay when I was hired to play out of town for a gig that quickly went sour.
I took the train to the gig, and I stepped from the train onto the platform carrying my guitar and mandolin, my knapsack slung over my shoulder. My employer’s driver picked me up and drove me to a tavern, where I met the owner, Rick Alan. I showed him a few licks on my mandolin and guitar, but he reached behind the bar and handed me a flame-blue electric guitar. “Here, try this, he said.”
“An electric guitar?” I asked. “What for?”

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Fender you hold in your hand

You can hide a guitar pick between finger and thumb, and many consider it so inconsequential they think nothing of leaving it lie, forgotten, where they last used it. But it commands considerable importance in playing fretted instruments, being a major determinant in the sound the player produces. For years I’ve enjoyed experimenting with types of picks, but after more than two decades of using almost everything except the old classic I’ve begun using the same type of pick I used in my early guitar playing years.
That pick is the Fender 351, and it will always pull me back to 1972, those halcyon days when I was learning guitar, when all guitar players, it seems, used the small reddish triangular pick with the rounded corners, the cursive Fender logo embossed on one side. A mere 0.71 mm thick, it is made of celluloid, the first plastic.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Judging a guitar by its cover

All motorcycles look alike to me. Same goes for pickup trucks. It’s because I see the broad outlines of the vehicles but not the many details that distinguish one from another. Until recently that was somewhat true for me concerning guitars, despite having played for four decades. I could easily spot a classical guitar, a steel-string guitar or an electric, but further than that I paid little mind to the details during two decades of obsessing over all things mandolin.
I said “until recently” because last year I delved deeply into the arcana of acoustic guitars, learning details such as the number of frets clear of the body, scale length, types of wood, and much more after years of fumbling about in the half-light of partial knowledge, not needing to know more than what it took to play. I owned a Sigma dreadnought guitar for years but mostly played mandolins, mountain dulcimer and violin, and although I liked to play guitar I paid little attention to the fine points of construction. I began my quest when I picked up Taylor Guitars’ annual guitar guide, featured in the winter 2013 issue of the company’s magazine, “Wood & Steel.”

Austria’s lustig landler

Every style of music has its signature tune, the one song or tune known by people who don’t know anything else about that music. Irish music has “Danny Boy” (not even Irish), Scottish, “Amazing Grace” (not Scottish at all) and bluegrass “Orange Blossom Special.” People who dont know the difference between Celtic and bluegrass fiddling will ask me to play “Orange Blossom Special,” so I’m especially sensitive to musical stereotyping, and when I asked a German trio at Epcot Center once to play a landler, I like to think they were gratified I didn’t request “Beer Barrel Polka.”
The landler is my favorite type of alpine tune, an Austrian folk dance in 3/4 time originally called the Landl ob der Enns. The name comes from the German “land,” meaning country, signifying a dance from the countryside as opposed to court or city dances, the countryside in this case being the states of Upper Austria (Oberosterreich) and Styria (Steiermark). Enns is a city in Oberosterreich near the confluence of the Enns and Danube rivers. The name was shortened to landler sometime around 1690, and the dance, gaining popularity around 1720, entailed close body contact between men and women, a stark contrast to circle dances and the formal minuet, a court dance reserved for the wealthy who had time to practice its complex steps. Knowing the nature of rustic dances, I suspect the landler, which included turning, gliding, hopping and stomping in hobnail boots, was an energetic, lustig amusement, a celebration of rural life.

The love of the mandolin

I started playing Celtic music in late 1989 and mandolin in early 1990 after meeting a gaggle of traditional music lovers at Quail Hollow State Park’s music sessions. I had played violin since fifth grade and guitar since ninth, so adding mandolin, its tuning the same as the violin and its way of playing like the guitar, was a natural choice.
I don’t know when I first heard the mandolin — growing up listening to traditional music it was probably always in my life. But I knew I wanted to play it when, one day before orchestra rehearsal in high school, I figured out how to play “Dueling Banjos” by plucking with my thumb. In college, I found Vivaldi’s mandolin concerti on scratchy records at the North Canton Library, recorded them and listened to them for years. Now I have them, and many other classical mandolin pieces, on CD.
After I began attending Quail Hollow sessions my friend Tom introduced me to the Celtic mandolin family. He played a beautiful Celtic-style mandolin, and at a music party that first fall he played a bigger mandolin that he called a bouzouki. I was mesmerized. The bouzouki was almost as big as a guitar and had a range similar to the guitar, its tuning an octave below the mandolin, G-D-A-E (Helmholtz notation G-d-a-e´) from low to high. Its tone was similar to the guitar but a bit sharper, possessing the mandolin’s tart lemon-like tone. Tom played music by the Irish harper Turlough OCarolan, which is very Baroque in flavor and perfect for the instrument.

Monday, February 17, 2014

My four-string Polynesian friend

“My Dog Has Fleas” is a little ditty used to tune a ukulele that even non-players know. It’s one of those infectious bits of music that sticks in your head and won’t leave. I used it for years to tune my mother’s ukulele, and I still hear my younger brother’s voice as he walked about the house adding his own (to the best of my knowledge) lines to the tune: “My dog has fleas, my cat has fleas, my dad has dandruff.”
My Uncle Ray bought that ukulele in Hawaii while living there for two years. He worked for Lockheed in Marietta, Ga., and lived for long stretches in places as far afield as California and Portugal, and I was insanely jealous when we received a Christmas card in the depths of winter showing Uncle, Aunt, and their three children wearing bright short-sleeve Hawaiian shirts. The other man’s grass is always greener, of course — Aunt told me years later that they hardly occupied their house until Uncle’s retirement after nine years in Portugal.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Exploring the origins of the Appalachian dulcimer

Among the possessions Grandpap Brandt left behind after he died in 1972 was an unfinished Appalachian dulcimer. He built a long fingerboard that would have run the length of the instrument, its head a delightful carved violin-style scroll and its base consisting of a strum hollow where the pick would pass over the strings. The scroll has three peg holes but only one peg, and the underside of the flat fingerboard is hollowed out. The curved sides, now gone, were mounted on a board and held in place by sets of nails, and several small pieces of wood would probably constitute interior parts.
I asked a mountain dulcimer builder long ago if he could finish Grandpap’s dulcimer, but he said it would take more time than to start from scratch, so I discarded the curved sides but kept the fingerboard and the small pieces. For now I display the fingerboard in my music room, but it calls to me — it may be unfinished, but those pieces of wood beg to release the mountain music that is the instrument’s heritage.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Pondering life with Fagin

Published in The Alliance Review May 4, 2012
Tonight I’ll play violin in “Oliver!,” one of my favorite musicals, my affection for it dating back to 1977 when Hoover High School performed the show and my younger brother and two friends were on the stage crew. That production let me glimpse the inner workings of theater as cast and crew produced magic, and I entered that world of magic in 1999 when I joined Louisville Community Theater as a musician for “Cotton Patch Gospel” and in 2000 when I joined Carnation City Players as a pit musician for “The Wizard of Oz.” Over the years I’ve played violin, mandolin, guitar and even ukulele at CCP, and tonight I return after a three-year absence to accompany Fagin as he ponders his future and Nancy as she declares her love for that most despicable of thieves.
Lionel Bart based the musical “Oliver!” on Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” a portrayal of the dregs of London taken from real life. A biography by May Lamberton Becker says Dickens “taught himself shorthand and became the best reporter in all England. ... He had seen Oliver Twist’s London as a young reporter on police-escorted rounds of slums, thieves’ kitchens and night-shelters; he had visited it when he took poorhouses unawares and went through at mealtimes without giving notice, or when he had watched unseen, through the little window of the condemned cell at Newgate, the drawn, desperate features of some doomed wretch within.”

Chock Full of Blues

Reproductions of album covers, many from the 1960s and ’70s, adorn a curving wall in the guitar- shaped lobby of C.F. Martin & Co. A few of the album covers are larger than life, and one, “Eric Clapton Unplugged,” shows Clapton playing a Martin during his MTV “Unplugged” concert, a show that helped bring Martin out of a severe slump.
The 1980s were rough years for makers of acoustic guitars. Electronics dominated popular music, with electronic keyboards a standard component of most bar bands, and if anyone played guitar, it was usually electric. Acoustics survived in pockets, such as the microcosms of Celtic music and bluegrass, but they struggled for survival in the mass media world. Martin experienced its worst annual sales in 40 years in 1982, from 20,000 guitars in 1974 to 3,000 in 1982.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Donning my music overalls

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” — Thomas Edison
I recorded the guitar part first, using my new Taylor jumbo 12-string. I played once through on the melody of an Irish jig, then switched to rhythm, playing chords four times through. (Traditional dance tunes are short.) The third time on chords I used a bass run I had devised a few days earlier, a catchy hook that haunted my brain until bedtime the day I created it. After recording the guitar part I moved to mandolin for the main melody, but when I started the recorder I looked down and saw the strings were tarnished. Well, so much for a finished track today, I thought. I can’t release a tune with sound dampened by old strings, but I recorded it anyway just to see how the parts fit together.
When I played it back, I noticed that I was picking too hard on the mandolin. I spent years developing a light touch, and I dislike hearing a hard attack in my playing, so overpicking further made the track a bust. Next, I noticed that my catchy bass run clashed with part of the melody, and the guitar part was short of my standard of perfection.

Tracing my music roots

I’m curious if I can trace my love of Scottish and Irish music through a specific ancestor back to the homeland. As long as I’ve played violin, long before I knew that traditional Scottish fiddling existed, I felt an intense call to play Scottish music. That longing may have originated in my ancestry.
Robert Crum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil in “The Story of English,” published in 1986 and based on the PBS television series, wrote about the cultural impact of the planting of settlers in northern Ireland. The English, always trying to quash, oust and otherwise defeat the rebellious Celts who had the gall to want to rule their own lands and have freedom to worship as they chose, enacted a series of measures intended to break the rule of the Celtic chiefs in Ulster, the northern kingdom of Ireland. (I added that bit of editorializing.) King James confiscated the lands of the Lords of Tyrone and Tyrconnel, say the messieurs, and granted the territory in the north to English and Scottish planters, the bulk of the new tenants coming from Scotland. About 200,000 Lowland Scots — those who lived in the south of Scotland — went to Ulster, mainly to northeast Ireland, in the first decades of the 17th century, and 2 million of their descendants migrated to America in the 18th and 19th centuries and the early part of the 20th century. My McClintick ancestors may have been among those Scots-Irish immigrants.

My Mountain Dulcimer Parents

We live near a linguistic border that divides Ohio into North Midland and Appalachian Midland dialects. Connecticut settlers populated northeast Ohio’s Western Reserve in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the southern border of the Western Reserve running east to west near what is now U.S. Route 224. I can go a few miles south or southeast of my home near Canton and hear a marked twang in residents’ speech. Descendants of German immigrants and settlers from Virginia and southwest Pennsylvania populated the region, and my Columbiana County cousins speak with that twang. Traditional music mirrors that division in a Midwest sound that incorporates Celtic and Appalachian music, and my favorite recording of that style and one of my biggest musical influences is “Pigtown Fling.”
I found “Pigtown Fling” on vinyl at the North Canton Public Library in 1982 or so, about the same time I bought my first mountain dulcimer. I recorded the album to cassette, and it became my constant traveling companion, its mix of Irish and Appalachian tunes accompanying me as I explored Ohio’s canals and Indian sites. The record features two dulcimer players, Jay Leibovitz and Leo Kretzner, the latter the biggest influence on my mountain dulcimer playing. The two spent a lot of time at Boulder Junction, a folk music store north of Uniontown, in the 1970s, and they mention on the album jacket learning tunes at the jam sessions held on Thursdays at the store. When the store closed, the sessions moved to Quail Hollow State Park and are still held there.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Farewell, Bob McQuillen

New England musician Bob McQuillen died Tuesday after suffering a stroke on Sunday. The Peterborough, N.H., piano and accordion player was 90, and his death followed on the heels of another, better known, musical nonagenarian, Pete Seeger. He played for square and contra dances, but for many traditional musicians he will live in the music he wrote for dances — about 1,000 tunes, published in diminutive books that handily fit in instrument cases.
I came to know his music in 1993 when Tom and Carole Norulak of the Pittsburgh area asked me and my friend Dennis to record an album of instrumental dance tunes. Tom played accordion, Carole hammer dulcimer, and Dennis bass on all tracks and guitar on a waltz. I played rhythm guitar on all tracks but the waltz, and on two medleys I overdubbed mandolin and violin. One medley started with the McQuillen tune “Deer Run North,” a charming hornpipe made more enchanting by the mandolin, which brings a citrus-style tang to string music.