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Miniature Orchestra

Why I don't play guitar

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My girlfriend asked me, "Why not play guitar?" That is, why work so hard at this little mandolin thingy when I could just play that big thing everyone uses?

It is true that the world of popular and folk music is awash in guitars. It is also true that classical guitar is much more visible than classical mandolin. It is also true that jazz guitar is very popular. But I don't think in 4ths, I think in 5ths, and I was never able to feel comfortable with guitar tuning. So my motivation is simply that I would like to play guitar but am better at mandolin. There is of course the player that loves the sound and the role of mandolin, whether bluegrass or classical. I am in that camp when I hear others play, but I learned it was not my voice.

I have spent my life playing bowed instruments, mainly viola. I tried to develop that in folk and jazz, but the weight of classical training was not helpful. I did learn to improvise, if clumsily, on guitar, in my rock days. It did not make it easier on fiddle, but when I took to mandolin seriously, I found my voice in the 5-string electric I had bought on a whim years earlier. It seemed obvious that after spending a lot of time on 5-string violin I would find a similar mandolin comfortable.

Fortunately for me, since I am in this niche of liking the 5-course instruments and not being interested in the common mandolin types, I am free to utilize the design I prefer, which is basically a little guitar. The acoustic sound I like is a good Martin---00, 000, or D, all are pleasing. The electric sound I like is Fender. But both of those are guitars, and long-scale at that. I switched to Gibson in the 70s for its 22nd fret and humbucking pickups, but also for the slightly shorter scale.

The truly short scale is of course my 5-string Ryder at normal mandolin 14". By now, though, after spending a couple of years of intensive work with the 14.25"-scale Buchanan and its doubled courses, I am hooked on 10 strings. I prefer it for electric jazz---doubled strings have so much power in the tone I feel no need for effects. The large body on the Buchanan means a fat bottom even at the short scale, and the glued-on bridge lets it respond acoustically like my favorite guitars, powerful near the bridge and sweet when needed.

But would I be happier if I spent the time to become truly comfortable on guitar? Could I do what I am doing now? I think that at least some of my solo arrangements would be difficult on guitar, since the short scale and wider intervals allow covering a large pitch range very conveniently. Five courses in 5ths are only a 1/2 step less range than a 7-string guitar with a low B. And that short scale is so fast and easy I can get around much better than I ever could on guitar, while still staying in the same melody and chord pitch range.

So for me it is not the charm of the little instrument or the love of tremolo that has me in this camp. It's that I know where the notes are and can get there fast. Segovia called guitar a miniature orchestra--my 10-string is miniature compared to a guitar, but it makes a pretty big sound when I need it.

I don't know if I can earn much income with mandolin, but fortunately I don't need to. I can play my little guitar to my heart's content, finding more solo arrangements that please me, and perhaps finding some other musicians that will play tunes I like in a venue that is congenial. And my girlfriend likes the mandolin just fine.

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