I’ve been playing guitar for over 30 years. I’m competent, but with that much experience under my belt, I kind of thought I’d be better by now. (I’m sure most guitarists who come to my shows would agree.) Practice? Sporadic at best. I know I should play every day, but I don’t have the kind of discipline it takes to maintain that kind of focus, except perhaps when it comes to masturbating.
I also play a little bass, can keep time on the drums, and I’ll pick out “Alley Cat” on the piano if there’s enough liquor at the party. But lately I’ve been intrigued by the sound of a certain bluegrass instrument, and I succumbed to my curiosity and pulled the trigger a few days ago.
I bought a mandolin.
Don’t worry, the bluegrass world is safe. I just want to learn a few major chords and be able to play along at the campfire, or in somebody’s living room (if nobody’s home). Who knows—I may get to the point where I can actually say, “I play the mandolin.” But I wouldn’t count on it. That’s probably less likely than Newt Gingrich growing a pair of scruples. Ain’t gonna happen. Besides, I don’t have to get very good. If I can get three chords down, I’ll be able to play 90% of all the country songs ever written, even the Gretchen Wilson stuff. Then I will quit practicing. It is my way.
A while back I asked a good friend of mine, an accomplished mando player named Brian, if he had an old beater I could borrow just to mess around with. He declined, and I was disappointed yet not surprised. He’d heard all about me getting liquored up while playing a wedding last summer and falling on my guitar, and about how, when I was younger, a college girlfriend smashed an acoustic over my head during a fight (the fights with this woman were so exciting they led to a short marriage). He said he’d rather not have one of his babies turned to kindling, thank you very much.
He was kind enough, however, to explain that there are two styles of mandolins. The A-style is the plain, fat teardrop shape that minstrels and other twinkle-toes play when they’re prancing through the forest, singing emo songs to the woodland creatures. It’s called the A-style, presumably, because the mandolin namers of yore were anticipating a couple dozen different styles. But so far we’re only up to two. The second style, the F-style, is the one with all the fancy-pants scrolls in the body and headstock. The name probably comes from the reaction it evokes (“F-in’ A, look at that fancy-pants mandolin!”).
So I left my mandolin itch unscratched, until I just happened to be perusing Craigslist one day, looking for a married woman in her late 60’s with a mustache and a glass eye who’s comfortable at either end of the whip, when I spied a cheap used mandolin in Missoula. I drove to the seller’s apartment and she showed me the instrument. It had been hanging in her closet for years, she said, after she and her husband had inherited it from a friend. I cradled the dust-coated A-style mando, not knowing exactly what I was supposed to be looking for. Still, there were certain standards I needed in this instrument. First, it had to not be a banjo. Check. The parts need to all be there. Almost check. The neck had to be intact. Check. No blood stains or dried guacamole. Check.
She was asking sixty bucks, but I pointed out the discoloration on the Pitkin valve and offered her forty. Fortunately, she knew even less than I do about these things, and accepted my two crisp twenties.
I stopped by the music store on the way home and bought some new strings from Dave and Paul, who asked if maybe I should finish learning to play guitar first. I waved them off and took my treasure home to clean it up.
To my delight, the mandolin (I named it “Mandy”) was in very good condition under all that dust, and I got it polished up nicely. I stripped off the rusty strings and attached the eight new strings, and tuned it up with the help of an online mandolin tuner. These things are tuned like a violin, which came as a complete surprise to me. Once I had it reasonably in tune, I fingered what looked like a D chord and gave it a strum. The sound that came out was akin to the desperate screech of a lost soul trapped in the horrifying purgatory of the undead. It definitely wasn’t a D chord. Call it a K-minor diminished ninth, with a half twist.
This wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. Obviously, with the crazy-ass violin tuning and a couple of extra strings, none of my guitar knowledge was going to translate. And my pudgy little sausage fingers seemed gargantuan on that twee little neck. I needed help. Not wanting to admit my massive ignorance to anyone I knew, I went to Missoula Book Exchange and searched their paltry music section.
“Mel Bay’s Complete Book of Mandolin,” a fat, spiral-bound volume, seemed the obvious choice. As any stringed instrument player will tell you, Mel Bay is the James Patterson of instructional manuals. Crazy prolific, and he’s been around forever. A copy of “Mel Bay’s You Can Play the Lyre” was found aboard the Kon-Tiki. Hell, the guy is so famous he had a leaf named after him. But I found this comprehensive book to be pretty far over my head, what with all the reading of music and everything.
I flipped through a slimmer book, “Mandolin Playing for Dummies.” The title was a little insulting, and I wondered why they couldn’t just call it “Mandolin Playing for People Who Previously Had Not Played the Mandolin.” Okay, maybe that’s a bit wordy. The book was still too baffling, and it joined Mel in the reject pile. Ditto “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Mandolin,” “Mando For Lame-Os,” and “So You’re Too Stupid For the Bass.”
“The Total Drooling Moron’s Pop-Up Book of Man-Do-Lin,” by Chad Kroeger, looked promising. “Now Entirely Monosyllabic!” it exclaimed on the cover. I opened it to the first page, and was delighted to discover a cartoon A-style mandolin with eyes called Manny Mandolin, and his buddies Rhythm Squirrel and Chordy the Rat. Now here was something I’d be able to follow, and I wouldn’t be wasting precious time that could be spent rubbing one out.
Honestly, why haven’t more music book publishers realized that rodent-based instruction is the key to understanding?
So now I know two chords, and I’ve almost got this mando thing mastered. I’m asking for a hammered dulcimer for Christmas—I’ll bet Craftsman makes a good one.