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Respect The Noodle

By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
January 11, 2009 - 4:45 pm

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Bill Graham
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.

A musical form oft played and most enjoyed by musicians—perhaps the world's most primal and common music—attracts no awards and little public attention.

Because noodling on an instrument is a personal thing, something disdained in many gatherings and not often heard in public acoustic music venues.

Unless you're mandolinist Chris Thile and bassist Edgar Meyer, in which case genius triumphs over tradition and you team up to record an album and it sells because your noodling is so cool, so well played that the listener's ears and mind will follow every note effortlessly. Their latest CD together has been part of my road trip music lately and I like it.

But they're aberrations on Planet Earth. They stand out like fresh red tomato sauce dripped on white dress shirt.

The rest of us are more like noodles in the boiling pot. Our musical meanderings have shape but nothing that stands out from every other limp string of pasta stirring in the swirling water.

That doesn't mean our noodling isn't powerful music and important on a localized level. It's important to us, and there can be ears around us new to hearing mandolin and guitar for whom the noodled lick is a beautiful, rare, musical moment.

Some of my best music occurs when I start playing a few improvisational notes, and one lick leads to another, and my mind goes on auto pilot with the subconscious really laying into the music but the conscious wandering from thoughts of the day job to wondering whatever happened to my sixth-grade friends. Then a song ends in a strange but logical way, and my conscious self shifts back to the music and I realize that the melody lines were nice and the notes clean, and that it was one of the nicest things I've ever played.

But I probably couldn't play those exact notes again to save my life. It was a noodle here and then gone, sucked into the black hole of stillness where all music thrown into the air goes.

Surely noodling led to the first string instrument music. Some cave guy or gal was likely making their bow string twang in random fashion one day, when they realized that by altering the string tension with their hands they could induce notes in patterns that sounded pleasant. Soon their buddies were copying them and all twang sounded the same. Until someone let their mind wander and created a twitter to go with the twang and began an improvisation exploration that continues to this day with glued-together hunks of wood costing thousands or even millions of dollars.

Noodling is odd in that it's admired or disdained, depending on your viewpoint.

In the dark ages of my life, as I learned how to hold my fingertips just right on the frets of guitars and mandolins to make notes and chords, anything that didn't sound like a recognizable tune seemed like failure.

As I progressed, I got to pick with more advanced players. When things would lull, one would launch into something with an absent minded gaze, something that seemed really nice to me but unrecognizable. I'd try to hit the rhythm.

"What was that," I'd ask.

"Oh just some noodling around, nothing really," would be the reply.

Now that seemed like advance playing to me, so harmonious without playing an actual song.

Sooner or later most players get the hang of random wandering on the fretboard. People that have a natural inclination against too much structure in their lives, like me, make it habit.

But noodling can turn on you as you advance up the ranks of jam sessions. Because the really good players can play whatever they want when they want. And the pretty good ones can, too. They've already been down the average noodle paths, the basic scales, the minor key hammer-ons, the one-note up-the-neck slides.

Noodling to them can sound like they're hearing someone who can't play melodic lines with precision.

A friend of mine who is a superior and seasoned musician once said of a highly-paid jam band's stage performance, "just a bunch of noodling." He meant it as a terrific criticism of their musical approach.

The line between inspired improvisation and lazy repetition of old patterns that are meant to sound like creative noodles (and were originally) is difficult to find and define.

Which is one reason why you won't hear a presentation at the Grammy Awards or the IBMA awards like this: "And the winner of this year's award for best noodle goes to..."

But the biggest reason no one is handing out noodle awards is that free-form music is hard to market, very individualistic, often requiring a musically astute mind to follow and appreciate the subtleties.

There's little money in it and thus no Noodle Awards on TV this spring.

Yet fresh creativity brings satisfaction that keeps the amateur and professional alike returning to an instrument.

Bill Monroe liked to mess around playing fiddle tunes on the mandolin while riding the bus to yet another job. Now and then a new lick, or noodle, would stick in his mind and become a song.

The noodle is the mother of all music, really. The first notes have to start somewhere, fluid and flowing, to who knows what end.

© Mandolin Cafe

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