a mandolin


In recent months I have purchased both an acoustic bass and a mandolin. I had previously had a fairly substantial instrument collection while living in Vermont, but sold everything except for one small Ukulele to help pay for my move to the PNW. Among these items were very fancy guitars and keyboards that largely had collected dust. One small exception being my Korg SV-1 which I adored and played daily.

After arriving in Seattle, I moved in to a small house boat. It didn't have room for anything at all, just over 200 square feet to live in and as boats tend to be quite wet I purchased a Yamaha FG820 acoustic guitar. Quite a step down from a $2000 Taylor I had been playing before, or so I thought. I purchased the Yamaha to be able to be ruined by everyday boat life, and a wonderful thing happened instead. I play it all the time. I never worry about if its humidity conditions are right. I don't own a case for it, it can just be thrown into the car or dragged into the yard. It lives on a wall mount, not in a case. It is my guitar in a way that my nicer guitars never were.

The first week after moving to Bellingham, I picked up a free Acrosonic Spinet Piano from craigslist. I can't recommend enough buying a small form piano for the home. If I had a full studio, or played professionally I might feel differently, but its an excellent piano. There were plenty of nicer Pianos on craigslist for large sums of money but this one essentially just cost a session from a piano tuner and a bit for movers.

I decided to take the same approach with the Acoustic Bass, a gift for my fiancé and an expansion of an apartment filling to the brim with musical instruments. I bought a low end Ibanez Parlor Acoustic Bass and it sounds great and plays great. I came to the realization that now every instrument in the apartment combined costs less than just one acoustic guitar I owned before moving. I don't have anything against high end instruments and I fully understand the play feel and sound that comes with them. I understand the craft of instrument making and supporting those extremely talented folks that make them. My dad is an amateur luthier and has built incredible instruments from very raw chunks of wood. I get it. I think though that a low end Yamaha 'student' guitar sounds really really surprisingly good. It's not revelatory or life changing, but it sounds like a nice guitar. It holds its tuning, and fills the room. I don't need to change the world with my playing, I'm not setting out to make audiences weep at the beauty of the sound.

So a mandolin. How does a mandolin fit in? So after a good friend mentioned that he missed playing the mandolin, I went on a YouTube rampage of listening to mandolin players and started to fall in love with its sound. A morning walk with my son sealed the deal when I walked by a banjo player sitting in the back of his truck playing Whiskey Before Breakfast and the old-time hit me right in the heart. I ordered a slightly above entry level mandolin that I couldn't buy locally. An A-style Kentucky branded one made by Saga in China. I'm still under the budget of just that one guitar I used to own, for everything I have combined.

I play mandolin now daily, mostly learning fiddle tunes. I've learned Swallowtail Jig, Push that pigs foot a little further in the fire, Cider, Connaughtman's Ramble, Cherokee Shuffle and Behind the Haystack. I mostly feel interested in learning fiddle tunes but I'm curious where it will end up. Its a great instrument, and very familiar to anyone with a lifetime full of fretted instruments.

Anyway these days I'm thinking a lot about how much of what we buy is on some level for status or unrestrained gear lust? How much of our ego is embedded in our gear decisions? I try to resurrect my much younger self, excited just to hold any instrument unaware that they have price tags or that the word on the headstock has clout. Unaware of the musicians associated with the brand. Unaware of the craftsmanship and the hand versus factory made arguments. Unaware of the geopolitical temperature effecting cultural acceptance of things made in places we are supposed to not like. Unaware that the highs are slightly muddy, or that a different and more european wood might resonate in a more pleasing way. I just hold it, let the joy of an instrument wash over me and then play.