THOUGHTS ON GEAR…AND TONGUE ZINGING
I had an interesting experience a few days ago. Ryan and I were talking about a band whose tunes I was at that moment playing as pre-show music. The band, The Punch Brothers, is made up of some of the luminaries of the Bluegrass world. I mean, we are talking about monster players here. Rather than commenting on the licks they were playing, or the hooky lyrics, or anything regarding their musical expertise, Ryan commented on how he had seen the band live a few weeks before and how the instruments, mics, and preamps that the band was using in the live show allowed them to recreate their “sound” in a way that rivaled what we were hearing from a studio record. His words…”they, like, used these DPA mics that were so accurate and full…through amazing instruments…” and on and on.
Certainly, when performing live, good songs and great performances are critically important…but how often are we lazy about the gear we drag out to a show? How often are we playing on year old strings or through pedals whose batteries barely zing your tongue when we give the “is the 9 volt still alive” test? Or how about pulling cords out of your bag that were stuffed in after a hectic show the night before. Who has time to get the knots out of their cables? Right? The Punch Brothers take that time and the difference is palpable. While they might be better players than any of us ever hope to be, there is one area where we can stay even with them. We can be fastidious about our gear. We can change those strings. We can learn to coil our cables in a way that keeps them in good repair. We can save our pennies to buy the gear needed to represent a great sound. And that doesn’t necessarily mean lots of money, but it does mean lots of care. After sitting through a show that night where an instrument on the stage was either not working or making the sounds of a possessed chipmunk, this idea was driven completely home for me.
UKE TODAY, AND GLOCK TOMORROW
It’s like clothes, I guess. Every however-many years, there’s a movement back into the acoustic instrument realm. I’ll credit Dave Matthews with a movement in the 90’s, “Oh, Brother Where Art Thou” for one ten years later, and maybe bands like the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons for one right now. I love it. It’s better than when 80’s hair-styles came back.
Upright bass, banjo, lap steel – they’re hot, baby. Ukelele is holding strong. Glockenspiel, well, maybe we’ll see it again in 7 years. I won’t miss that one quite as much.
There’s something timeless about stringed instruments – they’re natural, organic, comfortable, and go with you to the beach. Vocals and guitar will always be a medium I prefer when hearing a new song. It feels pure, for some reason.
Unlike those baggy jeans from 1993.
I’ve been getting more calls lately to play banjo on projects here at AcousticInstrumentOverdubs.com, which is great – I have a real soft spot in my heart for banjo and I think it should be on all popular music. Lately, however, folks aren’t asking for “plink-plunky-ding-dingy”. They’re making sounds like “strum-strummy-whump-whompy”. I’d send them a reference track of a banjo line and they’d say “No, that doesn’t even sound like a banjo!”. In one case, a young artist finally got out her iPod and said “Listen – I love banjo – it’s on all my favorite songs. Let me show you!”.
And she did. Big, strummy, thumpy, low-register banjo sounds. The mystery was solved.
A banjo body with a guitar neck, strung and played like a guitar, you might think I’m against banjitar. I’m not, not at all – I’m a fan. I own a great Deering banjitar that I use quite often. What I do advocate, though, is maybe a public service announcement (“The More You Know”) so that folks can get to the right tool for the job the first time.
5-string banjo is great for adding a slightly brighter, higher register rhythmic feel to tracks. I like it as a textural pattern, as melodic arpeggiations, and I think it’s a cool option for hooks and solos.
Banjitar tends to carry a little more weight in a track. If you love a guitar part but wish it was slightly more interesting, just swapping out the banjitar can sometimes be just the ticket. Need to add a little raw energy? Slip in a little Indy feel? I might grab the banjitar first.