Friday, May 18, 2007

My Redneck Christmas (Mandolin Photos)

I am not a hillbilly, I swear. I'd never fit in those parts, even if I've grown a certain, um, tolerance for some of the music over the last three years. I have no pickup truck, no hound dog, I'm not religious, and every time I say the word y'all, I intend it ironically. Ah well, this thrills me anyway.

The mandolin my father built is done. I'm going to take a minute here to brag about his work. It's beautiful. I love the color of it (which is of course impossible to see in the photos). The highlights are tobacco brown instead of the usual black/gray/white. The shamrock is a required ornament (I wanted one anyway, as it goes with the brand), and I didn't have any special design for the inlays, other than the monogram. Dad had me looking through catalogues, and frankly, I didn't see any that I liked better than what he usually does.

The top of a mandolin is spruce, and the back is maple. Maple is particularly beautiful when it is stained, and the backs of these instruments--no fancy inlays or cutouts required--are gorgeous. My old mandolin has (below), in Dad's opinion, the nicest-looking back he's made. The finish really brought out the flame pattern. You can see it on the new one too, but the stock he bought for this one didn't have the same striking flames.

It plays great. Dad actually changed the angle on the neck a ballhair, so that the strings are a more constant distance to the frets over the whole length of the fingerboard. This makes them easy to push down (easier to hammer on and pull off too), and my speed and precision suddenly seem a lot better. I keep sliding over the new frets though. The neck is also a little thicker than I'm used to, but it doesn't impede my playing like I thought it might, and I'm not having a problem reaching the G string, so that's fine. With the faster action though, the strings sometimes buzz the frets if I hit 'em too hard (everyone thinks I play better quietly anyway), which may change as the instrument ages. The strings put tremendous stress on the neck (there's a steel truss rod in there), and it may pull up minutely over time.

Of course it's probably wasted on me. I still suck. I shot a video of me playing the thing, but Google video is still "processing" it a day and a half later. (I probably shouldn't have put "hot nude co-eds" in the filename.) It's just as well, trust me. You should learn to play these things when you're young.

Update: Here it is. The tune is called "Kitchen Gal." No doubt I'll regret posting it.



twiffer said...

damn, that's gorgeous.

i came back from ireland with a desire to learn how to play the mandolin, fiddle and tin whistle. no progress on any of those fronts though (lazy). whistle would probably offer the best chance of success, since i used to play the sax. then again, i was never very good at it. lack of practice.

at least i can sing well.

twiffer said...

also, i'm pleased to know that you aren't having problems fingering the G-string.

yes, i'm that juvenille. [grin]

Keifus said...

The color didn't come out as well as it should have. (Against a darker background maybe would have done it?) Hell, even if I can't stop playing it badly, at least it's a pleasure to look at.

[It breaks my heart that I missed the G-string joke. I must be getting old!]

hipparchia said...

wow. gorgeous.

waiting for the video, g-strings and all.

Keifus said...

For the record, I wouldn't have done that if i wasn't asked.

LentenStuffe said...

Purty cool!

Thanks for sharing.

Great stuff.

twiffer said...

thanks for the video. you're much better than you give yourself credit for.

Keifus said...

Weeeellll, the audio sure sucks (and I'd have rather not shot myself like so unflatteringly--I managed better light, but this was still the best take,sometimes I'm more on than others). At its best, the intsrument sounds like a funky combination of piano and guitar. One thing great about it is that it's got as many (pairs of) strings as you've got fretting fingers, and if you're good, you can make it speak in more tongues than a drawl.

What's killer is taht I've heard it done right. A lot of "why doesn't mine sound like that?" moments. But sometimes you can get synergy. I play this one with my dad, and two mandolins actually make it sound more htan twice as good as the combined parts. If I can get a recording of me playing Jerusalem Ridge with his guitar, I'll post it. (That one doesn't disappoint me (yet), even if it sounds a far cry from Tony Rice and company.)

It's only been three years, and like I said, I started about 25 years too late.

K (also, thanks.)

Artemesia said...


Your mandolin was not made in silk purse for a sow's ear!!!

Your "Kitchen Gal," just beautiful. The falling into the minor mode gives the seeming simplicity a heartbeat..

Have you heard the 'Microcosmos' pieces by Bartok? ..or Bulgarian folk singing? The old modes are alive and well in those also.

Thank you for this live experience. So good!

Keifus said...

Thanks for the nice words, A. Sadly, I've heard neither of those on purpose. (Though I've caught a couple of classical-ish pieces surfing the radio on occasions. Mando orchestras were inexplicably popular for a while way back in the day), but the thing turns up in teh damndest places: big in Irish and Brazilian music (which I've been told I really must give a listen), and you can find it rock and jazz (that guy's probably above my level, but I notice I do some of those exercises) every now and again too.

hipparchia said...

wow. nicely played. i'm waiting for the garage band now....

LentenStuffe said...


I really thought your playing had an Irish traditional flavour to it. I just now realized that that wasn't intended at all, which really puzzles me. Two wonderful traditional players of the mandolin here are Andy Irvine and Jimmy Crowley.

Keifus said...

Kitchen gal is an American "old-time" fiddle tune (which is mostly what I know how to play, really) which of course means it's old only by American standards. There have been fiddles in Appalachia for as long as there've been immigrants there, and most of what they played on them was old tunes from Scotland and Ireland (often sped up), so it's no coincidence that it sounds a little Irish.

The mandolin didn't really hit it in that scene until the 1930s or later. It'd been confined to the Mediterranean before Gibson started making them around hte turn of the century, evidently.

(I purchased an Andy Irvine cd on your earlier recommendation actually.)

[oh, and garage band? You're relentless!]


hipparchia said...

and the CDs. and the tour.

Galatea said...

WOW Keifus, That’s one BEAUTIFUL instrument!

Let me take this moment to compliment your father’s craftsmanship on that wonderful Mandolin he made for you! You’re a luck boy! I also enjoyed listening to your “clip”. Do you fancy Bill Monroe or David Grisman?

~ Galatea

Keifus said...

Hi Galatea. Yup, I'm lucky.

I'd take Grisman over Monroe, I think. The latter was innovative, but in a way that kind defined everyone who followed (plus, it's said, he cribbed a lot of material and called it his own). Grisman gets indulgent, though.

Steve Bates said...

Splendid! You most certainly do not suck; as lentenstuffe said, I think you have a knack for the traditional articulations appropriate to that music.

As to the joys of recording, personally, I hate studio work of any sort: the whole focus changes, from letting go and making music, to getting everything just right. "Perfection" has its place, e.g., in elevator music intended not to be noticed, but it certainly doesn't sit well in traditional fiddle or mandolin or pennywhistle tunes.

Now... where did I put my pennywhistle...

Keifus said...

I'll get hipparchia for pointing this one out!

Thanks for stopping by. Only three years at it, and a long way to go, but it's enjoyable. And you're right, you can find the fun of the traditional tunes in there.