Perhaps this could be called the “eku-cello” tuning.

See, “eku” is “uke” upside down, and this tuning idea combines an upside down ukulele tuning with cello pitches…where the two 4-string groupings overlap the C2 and the G2 strings.

Maybe I should explain…

Continue reading Perhaps this could be called the “eku-cello” tuning.

7/7/7 Day Eight (yes, Day Eight): Sir-Not-Appearing-In-This-Film.

(Note:  this post is part of a series.)

Day 8. Wait, what?
I needed a vehicle to recognize Sir-Not-Appearing-In-This-Film.

Any such list is bound to have a criminal omission on it. Mine, true to type, has at least three. At least: three of this magnitude:

Frank Zappa, “Drowning Witch”

How does one choose “a” Zappa piece? Which of the forty zillion musical ideas deserves the single highlight? I played in a trio whose repertoire included “Sleep Dirt”, so y’know, maybe that one. Or perhaps it’s a legendary composition like “The Black Page”. Or hell, why not go straight to the obnoxious–there’s plenty to choose from, after all.

I went with the tortured idea-mill otherwise known as “Drowning Witch”, partly because it seems to have a little of all of it. (This is the version from the third installment of the “You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore” series.) But really, I just needed to recognize FZ as an influence, and as a genius of just as much depth as anyone may care to discover. (To paraphrase from the liner notes: “This is a hard song to play. How hard? The 1984 band *never* played it perfectly, and the 1982 band only came close on two occasions. This edit captures some of the best efforts of both.” Consider the musical caliber of FZ bands, against that statement.)

Béla Fleck, “System Seven”

Jeez, I could have picked any of a dozen Béla Fleck songs and been happy with the choice. In the end I went with a quiet, unflashy piece from the first “Tales from the Acoustic Planet” record, where by “backing band” what is really meant is “acoustic supergroup”. It makes the point as well as any: the man has been a wildly important figure in multiple musical genres, and it’s certainly hard to imagine my musical life without him. (For anyone looking for a delightful story, check out Fleck’s “Throw Down Your Heart” documentary.)

It sometimes seems strange that I have followed Sam Bush even more closely than Béla; knowing my usual preferences it would be easy to conclude I’d always gravitate toward Fleck first. This probably says more about Sam than about Béla, and make no mistake–on the recordings we used at all three of our kids’ births, only Sam appears more often than the Banjo Boy Wonder. There are times–a lot of them–when it seems that there is simply nothing he cannot do with a five-string banjo.

JS Bach, “Ciaccona”

As a composition, Bach’s “Ciaccona” / “Chaconne” is simply a monstrous, haunting masterpiece. I keep telling myself that some day I will actually get around to tackling that one in earnest…and I’ll have my hands full doing it. The version of it that really took my attention for the first time was an arrangement for guitar (in the Guitar Craft tuning) played by Bert Lams on the first California Guitar Trio record, “Yamanashi Blues”. Spine-chilling! On the other hand there is a tradition of playing it on the mandolin (hell, it was written for violin, which is tuned the same), and I can certainly say that just playing the main chord sequence, voiced as it is, just burrows right down where I live.

The YouTube clip above is the very definition of aggravating. Incomplete, with several random splits in the timeline,…grrrrh. Nonetheless, it is Mike Marshall playing…the same Mike Marshall that guys like Sam Bush go to for technical tips and help with the truly impossible passages. And he’s playing this ludicrously beautiful piece as well as you’ll hear it played.

Well, I fell better now, having found a way to include Zappa, Bela, and Bach. And I’ll call the project done.

For now.  🙂

7/7/7 Day Seven: King Crimson, ‘The Sheltering Sky’.

(Note:  this post is part of a series.)

Day 7. King Crimson, “The Sheltering Sky”.…/Discipline_(King_Crimson_album)

To this day, this for me remains *the* most viscerally insistent piece of music I have ever heard. (Yes, I’ve thought about this before. Given that the “inner circle” of contenders for that title includes things such as Miles’ heart-stopping pianissimo solo in the Aranjuez section of “Sketches of Spain” and Coltrane’s otherworldly interpretation of “Compassion” from his first (quartet) “Meditations”, you might say the accolade is not arbitrary.) Like “OM”, I simply could not consider such an effort as this “7/7/7” of mine to be valid without this in it.

In that regard, I’m a bit bummed I can’t seem to find a YouTube link to the studio version of this piece. There are a number of live recordings available, and (as with the one above from Frejus in ’82) they pretty much all capture great moments from a fantastic live band. But for me, what puts “The Sheltering Sky” over the top is the measured, constantly simmering, (dare I say) disciplined restraint that is so obvious in the studio recording. As a living, breathing thing, it constantly threatens to break from its chains as it swells, but it never quite gets there, and then when finally it subsides away, it’s with a tiger-like, smiling snarl that reminds you, “I’m still here.” Live Crim naturally stretches out a bit, ever experimenting, and while the restraint is still there, it’s just not quite the same as that first statement.

If you have never heard the original, do consider gifting yourself a copy of the “Discipline” album, and really listening to it–the whole thing, but especially “Sky”. “Discipline” is what simply exploded my musical world, bent my ears, and put me in the place I am today. I have since become a fan of all King Crimson and Robert Fripp in general, and of course that is how I found out about Guitar Craft in the first place. (When you consider all the coattails, it’s kinda hard to overstate the impact that’s all had on me.)

Incidentally, once I’d heard (and been flattened by) “The Sheltering Sky”, I of course had to read the Paul Bowles novel. Crimson’s piece is an eerily appropriate soundtrack, and I have since remained interested in this metaphysical distinction between a tourist and a traveler. (All the things that art is supposed to do!)

And so concludes my official “7/7/7”. But you know me, right? So it won’t entirely surprise you if that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m quite yet done.  🙂

7/7/7 Day Six: Curt Golden, ‘Bicycling to Afghanistan’.

(Note:  this post is part of a series.)

Day 6: Curt Golden, “Bicycling to Afghanistan”.

Every player has at least one personal nemesis. This one is mine! During my involvement in Guitar Craft, I came by the score of this piece and, ambitious SOB that I am, resolved to bring it to Guitar Circle Colorado. During one of my many extended business trips of that time, I spent…a lot…of time studying all three parts, and the extent of the “reverse beer goggles” phenomenon was astonishing.

The way I remember Curt telling us the story about the piece, he by God wanted to write a Guitar Craft piece that you could count in four and in three like everyone else. (Guitar Craft is somewhat known for its fives, sevens, and the occasional thirteen) So…he, ah, did. In such a way as to (re-)earn his nickname, “Curt You Bastard”.

Note this YouTube of a Guitar Craft trio, bravely attacking “Bicycling”; I’ll use them as a backdrop for explanation:

The fella on the left is playing the “fives” part, which you might call the main melody line. Its core figure is a five-count, which features completely counter-intuitive finger movements, and it must “catch up” to the main song’s four- and three-counts.

The fella in the middle is the bass part, which is mostly counted in six, and with some of the most glorious syncopations I have ever seen. (Curt writes absolutely bomber bass parts.) Finger gymnastics are demanding, as is the string skipping to get the octaves at the suggested tempo. (The score indicates it is intended for 98-104bpm, which given the technical demands borders on outrageous.)

The guy on the right is the “harmony” part, also known as the sevens, with an over-the-top eleven in the C Phrygian section, and two extremely challenging turnaround descents. Like the fives, it has to “catch up” to the overall four- and three-counts, and on top of it all, there is this motif, which you can hear go up an octave in the F# Phrygian section, that is actually handed from the fives part to the sevens part.

Curt you bastard, indeed. It’s freakin’ glorious.

But here’s the thing. I learned all three parts, both just to do it (and understand the piece better), and also to be able to take it to GCCO with the aim of playing it as an ensemble. And so I did; we divided up the parts, studied a bit individually, and then the trio came together to work on it.


Each part, on its own, is so engaging and interesting that it really stands on its own; in one way it’s a real shame that the ensemble covers so much of what is going on in any one part. And so Dave and I sat down to work on the sevens against the fives…and I completely fell apart on the sevens, simply because I was so mesmerized hearing him play the fives against it. It was a whole different learning curve to play it together…and yet we were already a seasoned ensemble with an existing repertoire of complicated, interlocking parts. This, somehow, is a whole different beast.

Again: glorious.

That first link is of the Atomic Chamber Ensemble, one of Curt’s various Guitar Craft projects; it is a great reference standard for students of the piece–especially as it has the “fourth part” ending, which gilds the lily in a truly beautiful and over-the-top way.  (The fourth part is absent on the League’s 1990 A Show Of Hands album.)

And here is another YouTube link to the piece being performed by the League in Atlanta:

The evil SOB on the right is Curt, by the way.  (You…bastard!)

Kudos to the trio at the second YouTube link for getting out there and playing it. I can certainly hear a few clams, but then again we had ’em too! And you can see their hands–players can perhaps get some idea of how challenging it really is.

I’m happy to call it my nemesis; may I never stop studying it!  🙂

7/7/7 Day Five: Sam Bush, ‘Stingray’.

(Note:  this post is part of a series.)

Day 5. Sam Bush, “Stingray”.

Put simply, Sam Bush is and probably always will be essential to my life. Along with Béla Fleck, he was part of the double-whammy (made possible by a friend’s prescient invite to two days of the 1994 Telluride Bluegrass Festival) that jolted me into awareness of both newgrass and bluegrass. He then introduced me to a legion of other musical giants I’d never heard of. He was all over the playlist at my wedding. All three of my kids were born to Sam tunes. He’s the reason I picked up the mandolin. And the marvelous SOB just seems to get better over time.

Sam’s humility in practice is inspiring. I can recall vividly one of his shows at Telluride (I didn’t miss a TBF for a dozen years, after that first one…if you ever listen to “Ice Caps: Peaks of Telluride”, consider that I was in the audience for most of what’s on that record), at which he took pains to introduce his band’s outstanding new cover of John Hartford’s “On The Road” as a difficult song to play because of its 5/4 time signature. John, he said, wanted to capture the disorientation of life on the road, and chose the time deliberately…it really was a loving tribute, and the fans loved it. What Sam *didn’t* say anything about, however, was that the song they had just finished playing, “The Dolphin Dance”, was in 13/4 time with a 5/8 bridge section! Don’t know how many of us in the audience caught that, but I sure did.

Sam doesn’t write prolifically–most of his records are at least half covers–but when he does pen a piece, it is often musically innovative and challenging, whether harmonically, or with convoluted time, or simply with Sam’s signature rhythmic variations, which are just exciting. And there is such simple, sheer joy in the man’s playing…

That first year at Telluride–the first time I had ever heard anything at all from Sam–he led off his Saturday-night closing set with an absolutely blister-raising performance of “Stingray”. I had just been floored by seeing Bela Fleck and the Flecktones for the first time as well, so I was already staggering a bit, but I was just NOT braced for that.

I suppose it remains my favorite Sam tune. You know, if I had to do something horrible, like pick.  🙂

7/7/7 Day Four: Weird Al Yankovic and They Might Be Giants

(Note:  this post is part of a series.)

Day 4. I’m cheating a bit here in posting a pair; my rationale is that these two things contributed in equal measure to the result/effect that is inspiring their inclusion in the list. The two are:

“Weird Al” Yankovic, “It’s All About The Pentiums”

They Might Be Giants, “Nonagon”

I have always–since the very beginning–preferred instrumental music to vocal music, and in general I gravitate toward things that sometimes seem to be the very antithesis of anything remotely popular. That’s not on purpose, but it seems to have been consistent for a long time, and I’ve come to peace with the aggravations.

Thing is, though, I love things that are clever and well-done, even if it’s outside of my usual aesthetic. (Actually, I can appreciate a lot that’s outside of my usual aesthetic, if it’s well-done. Much of my listener’s education has been gaining an appreciation of stuff I don’t identify with, and I’m very grateful to have included that as a deliberate tactic. As with much “breadth of education”, it has a habit of coming back to me at a later time!)

Anyway, I had already been aware of “Weird Al” for some time, and even enjoyed a lot of his references to popular music that I knew, but it was a vague and limited appreciation at best. And at some point I started hearing from a few trusted friends about They Might Be Giants, but for some time never really crossed paths.

In a nutshell, here’s what caused the epiphany: kids.

Sabre was less than six months old when I started the practice of sitting down with the mandolin and simply improvising to her. She very quickly taught me how to hold her as an audience–by ignoring me if I wasn’t doing something interesting. Now this was a big deal at the time; I had been both learning and performing in the context of the Guitar Craft project, so in many respects it wasn’t that I didn’t know how to play–it was simply that I was focused on playing, not performing. I might stumble across an unscripted idea, and start to explore it at a student’s pace–and I’d lose her. My playing quickly changed–and at least for Sabre, became more interesting. That lesson was huge.

Not all that long after, we wanted to acquire some kids’ music that we could tolerate in the car, and we played the TMBG record “Here come the ABCs” on the way to Soldotna one day–giving me a good listen. I was floored: to borrow a phrase, this was not your father’s “kids music”. I found myself interested musically, vocally, and lyrically; and both Sabre and later Dee couldn’t get enough of it. Quickly we came by “Here Come The 123s”, and it was just the same. No beer goggles, either–the more I listened and heard, the more cleverly crafted and impressive it became.

We also played a lot of “Weird Al”‘s “Running With Scissors” record around then, and wholly aside from my newly-listening ears, we noticed that Sabre, who had just started facing forward in the carseat, would have a gigantic open-mouthed grin stuck on her face, and be rocking side to side like no tomorrow. Point taken! And I started paying exquisitely close attention to Al in the same way that I opened up to TMBG.

And so it is that I really awoke to the sort of artist that can combine musicality, vocals, and lyrical playfulness, even parody, at masterful levels, at the same time, across any genre you can imagine. It is still true that most of what both Al and TMBG do is “not my usual aesthetic”, but somehow that doesn’t matter any more–perhaps because the art and the craft are so well-done, that the meld IS the aesthetic, and so I’m in. (I’d have to give an honorable mention to Barenaked Ladies, who often live in the same space, but for me at least TMBG came first.)

So here we have “It’s All About The Pentiums” by Al, and “Nonagon” by TMBG. The sheer density of jokes in Al’s tune is mesmerizing, and it’s always a little easier to appreciate when you happen to get all of them. (I used to play the tune for students in my computer courses, just as a fun extra.) The man is a master at his art. “Nonagon” is a great example of what TMBG did on “ABCs” and “123s”, including a tune that could easily stand on its own outside the “kids music” label. Something to grow with, right? I surely did.  🙂

7/7/7, Day Three: John Hartford, ‘Gum Tree Canoe’.

(Note:  this post is part of a series.)

Day 3. John Hartford, “Gum Tree Canoe”.

Were it not for the influence of Sam Bush, I might never have discovered John Hartford. The irony, of course, is that according to Sam, without John there would be no “newgrass” music in the first place. (Thoughts like that are just weird to me.) And now I understand much better why it is so difficult to “describe” Hartford to someone who doesn’t already get it. He was the very definition of quirky, and sometimes you need all the context to understand just how powerful his reach is, and has been. In some ways, it’s like trying to explain the depth of Zeppelin beyond the context of “Whole Lotta Love” and “Stairway to Heaven”.

This song ain’t newgrass. “Gum Tree Canoe” is a folk song, done straight up. It’s lovely, especially under Hartford’s voice, and contains perhaps the most romantic metaphor for “partners in life and beyond” that I have heard. (When Cathy and I were planning our wedding, we didn’t really have an “our song” in the way some people do, so we had to go look for something to play for the first dance. In looking, I ran across Hartford’s 1984 recording, and one listen was enough to know I’d found exactly what I needed. Oh yeah!