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Notes from the Field

My First Mandolin was a Banjo

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Sitting with a musical friend after school one day way back there, and he handed me a bowlback mandolin. He said, "put your hands like this and this, and here is how your fingers go" and I was in absolute awe.

He was a lower brass player in the high school band, I was woodwinds myself. But he was also taking violin lessons and could play some mandolin.

So I went home full of mandolin dreams and the only thing I had to work with was an old four string banjo my Dad had traded some guns for in Alaska. I took that out and tuned it in fifths as I was shown by my friend, matching at the seventh fret. Then I took out my beginner clarinet book from fourth grade and just started in from the beginning.

I was doing that for several months. And it was great.

My Dad, seeing how much time and energy I was putting into learning my pseudo mandolin, found an inexpensive mandolin in a television repair shop that also sold and rented musical instruments (tells you how long ago that was, if you think about it). It was a Japanese model, Tarada. An A style with huge F holes, plywood pressed top, garish sunburst, chipboard case, and Dad got me two books. Bluegrass Mandolin by Jack Tottle, and The Fiddle Book by Marion Thede. (Both of which I still recommend with all my heart).

The chief virtue of that mandolin was that it was better than the old banjo. (The frets on the banjo stuck out because the wood had contracted, so I cut myself sliding up the neck, and the frets were so far apart that the one finger two fret "rule" my friend showed me was really almost impossible.) The mandolin cost my Dad something like $80.00. But in those days that was a significant amount of money. It really was.

So I won't tell you the poor but honest farm boy version, I was disappointed by the mandolin. I wanted a bowlback. But I played it and learned it. Dad joined me up with a local string band (styrofoam straw hats, vests and string ties) and I learned chords and playing with others. From my parents LP collection I learned tunes. I would put a record on, put a bunch of quarters on it to slow it down. I would calibrate it so the tone dropped a fifth, so I could use a similar enough fingering. Its something like $2.50 to get a fifth down.

Well I played that Terada for something like six years. It did everything I wanted a mandolin to do, and enabled many wonderful experiences I never expected.

And it was better than the banjo I started on.

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Updated Dec-11-2016 at 9:17pm by JeffD



  1. Richard J's Avatar
    great story.
  2. tmsweeney's Avatar
    I recognize your avatar - but I can't remember the name of the book - it is a collection of B & W photographs my wife showed me when we first met

    cool pic
  3. Mark Gunter's Avatar
    Cool story, thanks for reminiscing publicly to share with us. Your dad did good.
  4. Bill Cameron's Avatar
    Hey, remember record players--the good ones--with multi-speed turntables that would play 78, 45, 33 and for some reason 16 rpm? Now who the hell ever saw 16 rpm records...(I think it was supposed to be for talking books or stuff like that)--but it just occurred to me that you could have played 33rpm records at 16 and, bein almost half speed, they would be playing fast tunes slowly and almost exactly in the same key an octave lower--at least close enough to tune to. Anyone ever try that?

    I just thought of that because I used to learn by recording tunes onto a double-speed tascam cassette 4-track, then playing them on a regular speed deck. Your mastery of tuning with quarters is impressive though.
  5. JeffD's Avatar
    Well getting the number of quarters was trial and error.

    My "field recording" cassette recorder, for capturing tunes at jam sessions, had a switch to change the speed, and a slider to get the pitch back up to normal. Real innovation.