A Different Perspective From A Little Old Instrument

Like many other musicians I know, I have a random collection of instruments I really don’t play. This includes a host of small percussion instruments, shakers, clickers, hand drums, a few kalimbas, a xylophone, a “can-jo” and some electronic music-making devices. Some of these I have purchased, but a great number have been given to me, including an old banjolele and a Loar mandolin.

The banjolele is a U-King, and was probably made in the 1920s or 30s'. It came complete with a heart, some names and the notes of the strings written on the calfskin head. For many years the banjolele hung on the wall or sat in the corner as a conversation piece, until one day I got the notion that I should string it up. Using a short wooden pencil as a bridge and some random (approximately gauged) guitar strings I did just that. I was surprised at how loud the little instrument was and decided that I would take it to a repair shop and have it properly reconditioned.

After a nominal investment, I was entertaining myself sitting around the house flailing away on this thing.

Now as I understand, these instruments were supposed to be vigorously strummed, but that was not the sound that was enchanting me. I was developing an approach that was sort of a hybrid between cross-picking and frailing. Cross-picking is how I play many songs on the guitar and involves using a combination of a flat pick and fingerpicking. Frailing is an old-style banjo technique often used in traditional or traditional-sounding songs. And that was the sound I was going for.

I was thinking about my song, Drake Hollow, and how I wanted it to sound. The story is set pre-Civil War so I wanted an “old-timey” vibe and playing the banjolele with this approach seemed to fit the bill. Before long, and after an upgrade from the original tuners, as the original ones just wouldn’t hold tune, I was experimenting with a number of my other songs.

When Bill Lestock had recorded the New Little Willie Blues, I had invited Mark Olitsky to the session to play old-style banjo, and Mark brought a wonderful musical lick to the song that was just perfect. It didn’t change the character of the piece, but added an authenticity that I didn’t even realize was missing. Mark, by the way, is a renowned old-style banjo player, and I was delighted he could participate in that project.

The story of The New Little Willie Blues, like Drake Hollow, takes place in a bygone era, and I am often looking for a musical technique or approach that helps illuminate that point. I loved what Mark was doing, but it never occurred to me to try to replicate that lick on the guitar, until I was playing around with the banjolele.

After some experimentation, I found that I was replicating, in a simple way, Mr. Olitsky’s banjo part, and feeling pretty good about it. But, as you might suspect, these little instruments have unique tunings, and while I was doing this musical passage correctly, it was in a different key.

One morning as I was practicing, I started singing along and discovered that, in this key, with this little instrument, the song changed once again.  I was motivated to work up a comparable arrangement on the guitar in the banjolele key.

This whole experience reminded me how important it can be to occasionally take the time to look at a situation from a different perspective. Even when things are good, a different view or approach can occasionally lead to a greater understanding, a fresh approach a source of motivation, or maybe just a little joy.

I am glad I got her back into playing shape.  

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