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My Mandolin Journey

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A little bit of background on how I came to the mandolin:

To start off as simply as possible - I have been interested in playing music for as long as I can remember, but for the first 30 years of my life, mandolins were in no way a part of my musical vision. For 3 decades, I never knew anybody who played the mandolin - no friends, neighbors, relatives, school mates, co-workers, band mates; NOBODY played the mandolin. As a matter if fact, up until I was nearly 30 years old, I could not have picked a mandolin out of a line up of stringed instruments that consisted anything other than a guitar, bass, banjo, or violin. If you were to place a mandolin next to a balalaika, an auto harp and a Japanese Koto, I would have failed to identify the mandolin – that's how painfully ignorant I was about mandolins. After all, I was rock and roll kid – to me, REAL music was played on guitar, bass, drums and keyboards. Outside of the band Chicago, (to my thinking) brass instruments were for orchestras and a few funk bands, while fiddles and banjos were things I had only seen on television when I watched 'Hee Haw'. (Side note: Back in the 1970's I ONLY watched 'Hee Haw' for the corny jokes, and NEVER for the music.) The only things that I 'knew' about mandolins, up until that point, were that they were played in the canals of Venice, Italy by guys in striped shirts who rode in Gondolas – and that a couple of them had snuck into rock and roll, via a 1972 Elton John album, and at the end of Rod Stewart's hit song 'Maggie May'.

Despite my life-long interest in playing music, it wasn't until the summer before I turned 17 that I purchased my first 'real' instrument - an electric bass. With that purchase, the musical fuse was lit, and within 5 short years I was also working hard at guitar, drums and keyboards. In later years I dabbled a bit in banjo, harmonica, pedal steel guitar, violin and even the accordion, but accomplished little or nothing with those short-lived experiments.

The first direct steps of my mandolin journey began in early 1991 when I started to explore the previously ignored musical field of country music. (See 'Hee Haw' comment above.) It was then that I first laid my eyes on the long-mysterious little instrument known as ‘the mandolin’. It was in that very year that I helped to form a little 3-piece country/folk group that featured a lead singer who doubled on guitar and mandolin. At first, I was completely unfazed, and not even mildly attracted to, the sleek and angular lines, curves and occasional scrolls that adorned these fine little instruments. But as some time passed, (and as I am someone who is always interested in learning about, and trying, new instruments), I eventually began to ask a few questions about the mandolin. Despite my exposure to the mandolin and my questioning about how to play one, I never found myself to have any real interest in actually playing the mandolin, or at the very least, just trying one out. Somewhere around 5 years after we formed the above-mentioned band, the day finally came. It was late one Saturday night. The band was on a break, and I finally decided to ask this fellow band member if I could give his mandolin a try - after all, how could something so small be so dangerous? While kneeling at the back of a tiny stage, with my back turned towards the practically non-existent audience, I took the mandolin in hand . . . and tried it. To be quite honest; for a few reasons which were very sincere the time, I was greatly underwhelmed by that initial encounter with the mandolin. The entire experience lasted less than 5 minutes, and when it was done I proudly exclaimed to the group's lead guitarist, (who stood by and watched as I gave the mandolin a first try) that; “It's kind of a cool instrument, but I will never play one of those things again.”

No less truth was ever spoken.

Another 3 years or so passed since that original mandolin experience, and as I had initially and proudly exclaimed, I was never tempted to play the mandolin again . . . but then, the next fateful day in my mandolin journey finally arrived.

It all began quite innocently, in the simple words of my 6-year old son. About a month before his 7th birthday, he came to me one day and said; “Dad, I want a mandolin for my birthday, and I want YOU to teach me how to play it.” I tried to explain to little lad that I couldn’t teach him how to play the mandolin because I myself did not know (or want to know) how to play one; but his response was quite simple - he said; “That’s okay, you’ll figure it out and then you can teach me.”

What else can I say? When your 6-year old son has that much confidence in you, you can’t let him down.

To make a long story short, within two days I had bought him an inexpensive ‘beginners’ mandolin. Later that same afternoon I began to teach myself the 7 basic major mandolin chords, figuring that would be a good start for teaching my young son to play. On the day after that I realized that what really got my son interested in playing the mandolin in the first place was some of the licks and intros that we were using in the band that I was playing in – so naturally, I assumed that along with learning a few basic chords, my son would also want to know play some of those mandolin licks that he admired; so I spent a little more time on that second day, figuring out those a few licks and intros . . . and somehow, slowly, quietly and completely unaware that it was happening to me – by the end of that second day, I was hooked!

Without ever planning or realizing it, the next 6 years of my life quickly went by in a dizzying whirlwind of mandolin activity . . . constant practice; countless internet searches for pictures, videos and sound clips of different mandolins, mandolin players and new music genres to familiarize myself with; late night recording sessions, and (last but certainly not least) an inescapable mental syndrome to buy more and more mandolins.

Make no mistake - It was a great 6 years . . . but then came the crash.

In almost a single moment, it all ended. The music had stopped, and for nearly a decade I was 'retired' from music. Almost every last piece of music-making equipment that had dominated my life for nearly 30 years had vanished; the instruments, amplifiers, microphones, cables, cords, tuners, recording equipment, P.A. Equipment, etc.; just about anything and everything had disappeared . . . until, again, 11 years later, through the innocent intercession of my son, the mandolin monster was re-awakened.

It was early 2017, and I was working for the law firm that handled the closing on the house that my son had just purchased. One evening, shortly after he began moving in to his new home, I stopped by his house to bring him copies of the final paperwork from his closing. While standing in his hallway, I happened to look across his living room and saw large pile of unpacked boxes standing in the corner of the room - and perched on the very top of the pile was an inexpensive mandolin, with no case. Upon seeing the instrument, I commented; “I didn’t know you still had a mandolin.” He quickly glanced over at instrument and responded, “Actually, it was just given to me yesterday, for free, by a friend who didn’t want it any more. I am not going to play it for quite a while, so you can borrow it if you want to.”

At first, coming back to the mandolin proved VERY difficult for me. For the first few weeks it seemed as though I had forgotten almost everything that I had learned during my initial mandolin phase. My hands and brain just simply seemed to refuse to work when it came to the mandolin. As a matter of fact, the struggles around my return to the mandolin were so severe that on a couple of occasions I even seriously considered giving up. But just as I was on the precipice of final despair, (and on yet another Saturday night, no less), it all came flooding back to me. In just a matter of seconds, my previously floundering hands had instantly and effortlessly come back to life – I went from stumbling around basic chords, to effortlessly playing licks and patterns without even thinking about them. Amazing.

Needless to say, the mandolin monster had now been reawakened and unleashed, and the so-called circle of life had turned back 360 degrees. Once again the joyful, dizzying whirlwind of mandolin activity had returned to my music life – the constant practice; countless internet searches for pictures, videos and sound clips of different mandolins, mandolin players and new music genres to familiarize myself with, and . . . well, you know the rest . . . .

Being as I am a musician with precious little abilities and absolutely no talent; Dave Appolon, Jethro Burns and all the rest of the mandolin elite will certainly NEVER have to worry about me stealing their thunder - but, all-in-all I will simply say: It's Good To Be Back!

Play, lean and enjoy!

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  1. Cobalt's Avatar
    That's quite a surprising mandolin journey with its unexpected twists and turns!