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.
The animals frequent some of the accessories. Dunlop Tortex picks show a picture of a tortoise, the picks made to imitate tortoise shell picks, which were considered the ultimate in plectrum material but which are now outlawed. Dunlop also makes the Gator Grip pick, which shows a grinning alligator. And a gorilla grins goofily on the lid of Gorilla Snot, a resin-based dip that I use when my fingers are too dry or sweaty, helping me hold on to the pick. Long ago, when my former band was searching for the perfect name, my wife came up with the Gorilla Snot Pickers, but the group nixed the idea.
I noticed long ago that music requires a wealth of accessories. I carry a lifetime’s worth of picks in just one case and keep a mandolin orchestra’s worth at home, mainly because when I find a pick I like I stock up just in case they quit making them and also simply because I obsessively collect stuff. Next to the skill of the builder and the player, the pick gives the mandolin its voice. Material and thickness of picks make quite noticeable differences in tone, and I enjoy spreading a variety of picks on my desk and comparing the tone made by each. I keep a variety at hand in the case and more stored in a small leather pouch in the case’s storage compartment. I keep fine and rough sandpaper in my case to bevel edges of picks that are too thick on the end. The bevel makes a better attack on the strings.
Equal to picks in importance relative to tone are the strings. Like picks, the type of strings and the gauge make a big difference in sound. Picks last for years, but strings, however, have a limited life, determined by the amount of playing, the amount of humidity, and the player’s body chemistry. My friends, the people who chose not to be the Gorilla Snot Pickers, had a friend who could ruin a set of strings in one playing. When I change strings, I rub the fingerboard with conditioner that lubricates the wood and cleans the wood and the frets because strings touching dirty frets don’t vibrate as well and thus sound dull.
The capo can be used to play higher on the instrument with the same fingerings I use for lower keys. Some people consider it cheating, using it to play in difficult keys while using easy fingering, but in Celtic music it retains the ringing open-string drones of Irish and Scottish music that are lost when you play in those harder keys. Finally, beneath the extra pack of strings and the pictures is my tuning fork. Like picks, I own quite a stockpile of tuning forks in various colors, sizes and keys.
When I carefully put my mandolin in its case, I cover it with a woven plaid cloth that was given to me when the non-Gorilla Snot Pickers played for a church service. The color and weave, Scottish in style, perfectly suit the traditional Celtic music that my mandolin and I love.
Every instrument case I own carries a complement of accessories, a miniature music emporium and zoo, waiting to make those strings ring.