Tuesday, September 23, 2008

So many dulcimers

There's an old joke that's heard in mountain dulcimer circles quite a bit, and it applies to other instruments as well: "how many dulcimers do you need?" The answer: "just one more."

It's like the t-shirts that Roger Zimish is selling "love one woman, many guitars." There's something about certain instruments that inspires the collector in all of us. Now, that's not always the case - some people seem happy with just one really good instrument; it does everything they need it to do (see: Willie Nelson or B.B. King, even though the latter has had a whole host of "Lucille" guitars over the span of his career.) Sometimes, multiple instruments are absolutely necessary, like with harmonicas or Native American Flutes, each one has a different key along with a specific kind of voice. With mountain dulcimers, many players use multiple instruments for different tunings since the diatonic fretboard doesn't easily allow for playing in any key.

Taking this another step - whether you play one or many instruments, there is also the question of brand, such as "who makes your instrument?" Some people will play many different types of instruments while others are brand-loyal, sticking with one particular maker because that manufacturer apparently has hit all the right points necessary to guarantee an instrument that will meet exacting criteria involving tone, playability, functionality, ergonomics, appearance, etc.

For an instrument that's so relatively new on the scene, the mountain dulcimer has an astonishing number of builders who specialize in its construct. From one-man crews to assembly-line, factory-built operations. From the most traditional of methods to state-of-the-art technology, mountain dulcimer builders seem to appear on the scene with increasing regularity, rubbing elbows with established makers and manufacturers, introducing new twists and aiding in the ongoing development of this unique American folk instrument.

Currently, in my own dulcimer collection, I have 18 instruments which can be seen here at the gear page on my website. It's a modest assortment, compared to some veritable museums I've heard about in the homes of avid collectors. While looking at it recently in preparation for the big announcement that I'm about to make in this blog, I realized that these instruments are a reflection of my quest for a dulcimer that simply "be all that it can be." As my playing has evolved over the years, so have my needs, again reflected in the choices of many axes in my collection. There are, of course, my first dulcimers from Cripple Creek Dulcimers and a custom-created shallowbody dulcimer made from a CC kit that was an attempt to electrify without sacrificing pure dulcimer tone. There are electric solid-body dulcimers and dulcitars, cardboard dulcimers and prototypes. Some are hanging on the wall, show-pieces, but not really performance instruments. There are also student dulcimers that I loan out for private lessons and dulcimers that were found in someone's closet or attic that ended up with me, because someone knew they'd go to a good home.

And then there are the dulcimers that I've played the most, which are my Folkcraft/Folkroots models and a Mike Clemmer MC-2 double-fretboard dulcimer.

Sometime last year, in a series of discussions with Butch Ross, Stephen Seifert and Aaron O'Rourke, the subject of finding exactly what we were all looking for in an instrument came to the forefront of our elusive "quest for tone." The possibility was this: that we weren't finding what we were looking for because it didn't exist. Maybe the reason that people had so many different dulcimers from many different makers was because, like the perfect mate, there is no such thing. No one person can be all things to you, just as one instrument couldn't possibly be all things, or could it?

Though I decided to slow down on my acquisition of instruments, there were a couple of builders that I knew were making unique instruments that just had to end up in my collection, both for history's sake and to have the joy of playing them whenever I wanted. David Beede is one of those builders. The other builder is Gary Gallier.

Sure, I wouldn't mind having one of every good dulcimer that I've ever seen, heard or played, but that would be impossible (and desire will just frustrate you in the end), so again, the idea was to narrow my search for "the perfect dulcimer" and it hearkened back to our conversations about what would make such an instrument. Though Aaron has a number of instruments, like a Dave McKinney Modern Mountain Dulcimer and also a Gallier Starsong, his favorite axe is a Beede prototype that was made to his specifications. Naturally, when you can find a builder who will work with you and has the ability to deliver what it is that you're looking for, it's a dream come true. Combine an already great-sounding instrument with a builder who is always listening to players and plussing the design and you've got magic waiting to happen.

It's Official

Since 1999, when Mohave was formed, I've been looking for an electric mountain dulcimer that could pull off alternately sounding acoustic and ballistic. For years, I used a Folkcraft acoustic dulcimer with a transducer pickup, which worked for quiet applications, but turned into dodgy feedbacky noise whenever the distortion pedal was stomped. Acoustic instruments have a bad history of aping solidbody ones and vice-versa.

Then, I played a Greibhaus solid-body and was blown away by its tone; it had all the warmth of an acoustic dulcimer, yet it could crank out a wall of solid rock crunch with a vengeance. I was pretty broke at the time and couldn't afford to even think about getting one. Lucky for me, the builder, Jerry Cripe, offered me an endorsement deal earlier this year and now I'm cranking out the jams at gigs with a Greibhaus. Jerry is interested in future development of the instrument, so there have been discussions on design elements and this particular model is still in an evolutionary stage, which is really exciting.

Back in 1994, I worked for Folkcraft Instruments at a kiosk located in Walt Disney World. David and Melissa Marks owned the company and had taken over the dulcimer concession from another builder whose name I can't remember, but apparently he was terrible at customer service.

In any case, it was a fun summer, made some decent money and spent most of it right back into the till by purchasing some of the amazing dulcimers that I got to demonstrate for eight hours each day. For years, these dulcimers were making it happen for me, especially my CF-300, which just got beat all to hell during so many Mohave shows. Incredible tone, beautiful intonation, a raised fretboard that allowed the instrument top to resonate with a passion; I simply didn't bother looking anywhere else for another dulcimer: that was it. Many years later, when I did end up picking another axe while on the road, I went with a Folkroots, which was being made in the same factory after Folkcraft bought that particular company.

David and Melissa ended up selling the business and for awhile, many were asking about the new company and would they continue to make the excellent instruments that folks had come to know and love. The question took on extra poignancy after Melissa passed away earlier this year.

It's Official (again)

This summer at NAMM show in Nashville, my good friend Roger Zimish ran into the Folkcraft crew and said they were interested in talking to me. After a few phone calls with them, it became immediately clear that this was one of those matches made in heaven. The new owners are forward-thinking with a dedication towards preserving and presenting traditional folk instruments. Immediately, specs were discussed on a dream dulcimer, one with two fretboards, ebony overlay, L.R. Baggs pickups, built-in Fishman E.Q. and more. Since Folkcraft doesn't make solid-body electrics, I'd still endorse Greibhaus in addition to endorsing Folkcraft. Though it's a non-exclusive deal, I'll still primarily be using Folkcrafts for performing, recording and teaching. In January, I'll travel to Anaheim, California for the Winter NAMM show to demonstrate for the company, much as I did for Suzuki back in 1986 (don't know if I've told that story or not here - it's a trip.)

I'm excited to be working with Folkcraft Instruments again and especially thrilled about the development side of things. Seems like the "quest for tone" just rounded the final curve.

A Beautiful Weekend

Jae and I drove up to Melrose, Florida along with our doggie, Bella Dolce, to be part of a really groovy happening.

David Beede is a phenomenal songwriter, musician, luthier and spirit that I had the pleasure of meeting earlier this year through Aaron O'Rourke, whom I also had the pleasure of meeting for the first time earlier this year. Aaron is a mind-blowing performer of not only mountain dulcimer, but other instruments, such as bass guitar and mandolin as well. He had been helping David book talent for the Suwannee Dulcimer Retreat and suggested that I come on-board for the 2008 edition (which was actually the 2007 edition, postponed by Florida fires.) That weekend was a super blast, especially when David and I got to sit and jam for about four hours in the carillon tower at Stephen Foster State Park.

David, Aaron and I have gathered together since then, over in Dunellon, Florida for the Will McClean Festival in the spring. Over the summer, some dialogue began as we talked about doing some videotaping for David, and with a house concert featuring the two of those guys coming up, I elected to head north and capture some footage for promo purposes. Much to my delight, David asked if I'd also open the set for them.

The house concert was at David and Julie's house, a lovely, rambling home set back from the main road, perched on the edge of a lake. With some supplemental show lights brought in, the entire stage area was transformed at nightfall into a magical twilight space where the music wove together with the sounds of insects and a gentle wind.

About fifty people showed up for the concert, a boisterous group that also included a fair number of performers, so the post-show jams were A++ - lots of great music and company to be had along with the presence of seven darling doggies who added their own special warmth to the proceedings.

It all really ended too soon, but a marvelous time was had - and this was a nice run-up to the next big event, which will be the Suwannee Dulcimer Retreat, at its regularly scheduled time of year, in November.

What was really special about this time was being able to kick back and relax with David and Aaron well into the early morning, strumming dulcimers, playing and talking music; a rare treat in the busy day-to-day of festival life. I also sat down with both of them for interviews which will be featured during the next two weeks of Dulcimer Players News podcasts.

The afterglow from this particular event is amazing. Now, coursing through the week towards a flight out to Kentucky on Friday for the Great American Dulcimer Convention, I'm getting a bit of flashback from the summer - when the good times were so back-to-back, I barely had time to reflect before getting caught up in the moment again.

And then, perhaps that's actually a really good thing. For all we truly have is the moments of our lives, right?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Sam Phillips rocks!

NPR: Tiny Desk Concert: Sam Phillips
Tiny Desk Concert: Sam Phillips

by Bob Boilen

I don't think enough people have heard the music of Sam Phillips, and now seems like a good time to change that. Her songs unfold like perfect miniature pop dramas, and her new album, Don't Do Anything, is loaded with great ones. Of all her incarnations as a performer -- first as a Christian singer, then as a pop singer -- the current Sam Phillips is the one I find most alluring.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Leu Gardens

Playing at Leu Gardens is great; the scenery is beautiful, the audience is always attentive and appreciative, the friends of Central Florida Folk always put on a great show. This one found me billed along with Matthew Sabatella and The Wyndbreakers. Actually, Ennis Pruitt was on the bill, but I knew of him from this great band and from years of going to see them perform at the Mercado (R.I.P.) on I-Drive. But Ennis did bring along Craig Thomas and it was very much a Wyndbreakers performance, much to my delight. Ennis even asked if there was a tune we could all do together, so we did "Soldier's Joy", which was a blast!

This was the first time I'd heard Matthew and I really enjoyed his presentation of American traditional music, both on guitar and on banjo. Matthew has a great voice and deep respect for the roots of folk music; I hope we cross paths again here in the state (he's from south Florida.)

Thanks to Central Florida Folk for having me out as part of this great program!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Where, How Did I Get Here?

Those previous images? They're from August 31st at House of Blues at Walt Disney World. David Schweizer and, no, I don't remember her name, hell. They did a great set though.

I've been playing a lot of scales recently. Pentatonic scales on a diatonic fretboard. Been messing around with my little cardboard chromatic too - the one I got from Stephen Seifert's class in 2006. Steve called me out of the blue last week and we're both frothing at the mouth about our next steps. This doesn't ever stop, chillun. No. It doesn't ever. Just when you think you are on your way, you will find something to aspire to and the chase begins again. DAGNABBIT! Well. That's the way it goes. Gets used to it. And yes, I meant to type "gets used to it." Rrrrrrrrrrrr.

Something big is on my horizon and I'm stoked, can't talk about it now, but it's happening. Had a fun show tonight in St. Cloud with Roger Zimish - we're performing some duos all over - and got a show coming up Sunday in Orlando at Leu Gardens. But tomorrow is my wife's 45th birthday, so it's going to be nothing but a PARTAY tomorrow, well, today, actually.

We'll catch up again soon - got some scales I want to lay on y'all.