Friday, January 1, 2010

Back to Bluegrass - A New Technique Saves Blogger From Jamlessness


   Bear with me, this takes a little explanation and some self-disclosure:
   I have Muscular Dystrophy. We've all got our crosses to bear, this is mine, and I regard it more as an inconvenience than a disability. It's a fairly mild case of a mild type of MD and I count myself as fortunate that it never was any worse than it's been. But, that said,  it has been sufficiently bothersome in the past few years to steal away some of my abilities. It was MD, in fact, that brought to a close my brief stint as a small time Bluegrass mandolinist and guitarist. (understand that this was VERY small time. I never quit my day job or anything) In my particular case it's primarily my shoulder and upper arm muscles are affected. And since I was playing one of the most athletic instruments in a very vigorous style of acoustic music it was little wonder that I had to give it up.
  Consider the plight of any acoustic instrumentalist (except fiddlers) tasked with competing with the banjo - a very dynamic instrument to put it mildly. The banjo picker, with relatively little effort, can play at a speed and volume that leaves mandolinists and guitarists winded in their efforts to keep up and be heard. It takes an almost herculean effort to cut through. Obviously a good deal of muscle is required to play loud and fast while maintaining subtlety and accuracy .
   The mandolin and guitar are played with a "flat pick" which is exactly what it's name implies. A flat plastic pick used in a rapid up and down motion which is mainly in the wrist. Mainly with the wrist, but not totally as I found as I my upper body muscles continued to deteriorate. The technique requires quite a bit more of the shoulders and arms than I previously suspected.
   What began to happen was that my playing became less and less agile, eventually reaching the point where I felt that I was bringing down the entire band. My leads were getting sloppy, and on some tunes I had to give up playing lead altogether and simply provide rhythm. But along with the erosion of my technique went the joy I'd always taken from playing. It took a while for me to make the decision to finally let go, but let go I did. About two years ago I left the band.
   I haven't been exactly wallowing in depression over that loss, but I did feel it. Our band, Pointe South, was a very agreeable mix of personalities. I can't think of a single disagreement between us, and most practices were 80% picking and (at least) 20% laughter. There were no overweening egos to suck the joy out of the experience. Traveling to our gigs was great. Always great times.
   And, of course, I loved playing as well. I spent a lot of my life playing guitar in solitary for want of any musical friends. So when I began to get some Bluegrass chops and ventured out into the local music scene I found the musical groove I'd always desired. So losing Bluegrass was, indeed, a loss to me.

    But, Bluegrass had never been my only style to play. In fact, I was a relative late comer to the style. I wrote  last month on this blog about the influence Doc Watson had on my musical preferences. After hearing him play I did fall in love with Appalachian music, but it wasn't my first or final stop. Prior to that time I'd enjoyed, and been influenced by, all manner of rock, jazz, and folk music. John Denver, in fact, was my first childhood singer/hero. He was at the top of the charts just as I began to learn to play in the early seventies, and his style of fingerpicked, arpeggio accompaniment became the first technique that I concentrated on. This fingerstyle focus served me well over time. For example, the Kansas hit Dust In The Wind was fairly simple fare for me when in high school. Later when I grew in my admiration for Blues, I was able to pick up the alternating bass finger picked style of that genre quite easily as well.
    I say all this to highlight that music wasn't over for me when I left the band - only Bluegrass. I still intermittently kept up with fingerstyle blues. But, it that's sort of a solitary pursuit, and, not having the vocal ability to play solo gigs, I was once again relegated to my living room. No band buddies to practice with every Wednesday, no parking lot jam sessions to enjoy. I was having some fun, but I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I did the BG.
    After I left the band and began shift my emphasis back towards fingerstyle it occurred to me at some point that perhaps I could simply adapt fingerpicking to the fast,single note bluegrass tunes just as I had played them as a flatpicker, and I began to explore a new technique. It was rough going at first, let me tell ya. In fact, I felt many times that I was attempting the impossible and really didn't throw myself into it with sufficient discipline.
     And I actually thought that I was inventing something brand new. Well, nothing could have been further from the truth. Fingerpicking (using plastic thumb pick and steel fingerpicks as I do) actually predated flatpicking. The most obvious early example is that of Mabelle Carter of the Carter Family. She's credited with inventing the "church lick" style of country music accompaniment utilizing thumb and fingerpicks.
    I actually became aware that there were others fingerpicking bluegrass when I read the book Clapton's Guitar. The book isn't so much about Clapton's guitar as it is about Clapton's guitar builder - Wayne Henderson of Virginia. Aside from building some of the best regarded custom guitars out there, Wayne is a very accomplished Bluegrass guitar player. And he fingerpicks exclusively, a fact which was mentioned many times in the book.

    Well! That was quite a revelation. As I began to research the technique I learned that both of my penultimate flatpicking heros - Doc Watson and Norman Blake - both began exclusively as finger pickers before developing  a flatpick style. (Doc is widely regarded as the one who "invented" bluegrass flatpicking, but I'm sure there are plenty of music historians who'll dispute that notion) So, okay, it's not impossible.
     Discovering this I redoubled my efforts a few months ago, and I'm beginning to see some real progress. I can't tell you how happy this makes me. I'm not 100% of the way back yet, but the basics are there, and I can now see a time in the near future when I'll be a competent bluegrass picker once again. Of course, there's not much I can do fingerstyle with the mandolin, and, frankly, I'm not in the least interested in trying. I'll just be overjoyed if I can find my groove in a festival parking lot again. Overjoyed.

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