Homegrown Music and Musical Instruments

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Photo By Fotolia/ahavelaar
Homesteaders create their own homegrown music for an evening's entertainment.

Learn how homesteaders create homegrown music with second-hand and homemade musical instruments.

Even homesteaders need to relax and enjoy themselves from time to time, right? And almost everybody these days wants to cut his or her cost of living. So how about a little do-it-yourself entertainment?

And that’s what this column is all about. Down-home music that you can make . . . and the instruments (which, in some cases, you can also make!) to play that homegrown music on.

We may also publish some songs, discuss music as a potential home business, run discographies, bibliographies, and/or include whatever other do-it-yourself music topics you’d like to see.

The important thing is that this is a new column. If you like it, write to me and let me know. If you have some ideas for this feature, let me know that. I’m open to any suggestions or information you care to contribute. I’ll even try to answer your questions about down-home music . . . but — both for the benefit of all MOTHER’s readers and to ease my correspondence load — I’ll deal with those questions, whenever possible, here in this column . . . rather than in personal letters.

Address your correspondence — for this column and this column only — to Marc Bristol, Duvall, Washington.

Whether you’re just a homegrown-music beginner or you’ve been playing for some time, the chances are good that you have been . . . or are . . . or someday will be . . . in the market for a used instrument of some sort. For that reason, I’d like to share a few ideas and experiences that can help you in your hunt.

Perhaps the best way to get an old instrument is to have it handed down to you from a previous generation or owner. And even though you may not need any special talent or knowledge to be so blessed . . . it certainly doesn’t hurt to advertise your desire for such a gift.

Yes, advertise! Tell all your relatives and friends — tell everyone you meet — that you’d appreciate the donation of any old musical instrument in any condition at any time. The truth is that there are uncounted millions of guitars, fiddles, drums, accordions, etc., slowly rotting away right now in closets, attics, garages, and basements all over the country. Some haven’t been played for years. Most are owned by people who don’t care about them anymore, or who’ve even forgotten that they exist. All have souls which are crying out to be reborn through the magic of your touch! So look around and ask around. Let people know you’re anxious to give some of these instruments a home. I guarantee you’ll get response.

For example: I once was given a beautiful old mandolin and a fiddle by a man who’d had them for fifty years. He picked me (and my guitar case) up when I was hitchhiking one day and, in the conversation which followed, I mentioned that I was learning a little bit about stringed instrument repair. One thing led to another and, before I knew it, I was the proud owner of two more old (but new to me) pieces of equipment. Although the fiddle needed both strings and hardware (tailpiece, bridge, and sound-post), plus some minor regluing on the top and back, the mandolin (a rare 12-string “potato bug” model) sounded pretty good with nothing but a new set of strings.

I’ve also discovered several guitars (usually in great need of repair) in barns, basements, garages, and sheds after people — who’ve heard of my interest in searching for such finds — have invited me in to have a look.

As a matter of fact, the first guitar I ever owned was one that I found in a shed at my grandparents’ place. The guitar — which had been stored away for approximately 39 years — had started life as an “Hawaiian lap steel model” and it had belonged to my aunt when she was a little girl. I repaired the instrument as best I could at the time and learned to fret my first chords on it (despite the fact that it was meant to be played by sliding a steel bar across its strings). The instrument was passed on to a cousin when I got a better one.

Of all the guitars I’ve turned up, only one has yet to make music again. And that’s simply because I haven’t found the time to fix it. Or maybe I just haven’t worked up the courage: The instrument (which once did a hitch as an ivy planter before being stashed away in the corner of a barn) was still full of dirt — and had a couple of cracks in its top — when I discovered it.

Guitars, of course, are not the only instruments I’ve rescued and recycled from unlikely places. My whole family, for instance, is currently enjoying a set of drums that was put together (over a period of time, to be sure) for very little total investment.

It all started with a cymbal that a friend was throwing away after he’d traded an old VW body for a new (to him) set of drums. Then came a headless bass drum (the guy who brought it in had left it because it was “lacking something”) for free from the local St. Vincent de Paul store. Next, a strange snare drum that I purchased for two dollars in a Salvation Army outlet.

About the time I glommed onto the snare, I began to think I might have the makings of a whole drum set . . . so I started mentioning it around. As a result — from two directions at once — I received a headless piccolo snare and a large collection of assorted drum hardware. That was while I was on a long trip so, when I got home, I trundled off to the local drum store to see what I needed to round out the set. By making some judicious trades and buying used equipment, I was able to assemble an admittedly funky but quite enjoyable trap set consisting of bass, high-hat, snare, tom-tom, bongos (purchased minus one head for $5.00 from a pawnshop), and three cymbals . . . all for an actual out-of-pocket cost of around thirty dollars.

If that $30 price tag bothers you, watch the newspaper classifieds for used drum sets. The lowest quote I’ve seen lately is $50 . . . which was for a set that probably needed another twenty or thirty dollars’ worth of hardware to get it going. (I figure that money spent repairing or setting up a used instrument should be compared to what an equivalent ready-to-go instrument would cost if purchased from a music store, pawnshop, or through a newspaper ad. It also could be balanced off against the price tag on a used TV or a year’s entertainment downtown . . . since you might well save such expenses by entertaining yourself, your family, and your friends with your recycled musical instrument.)

Naturally, if you acquire musical instruments through any of my “ask around, look in old barns, scout the church charity shops” methods, most of the equipment you turn up will be in need of repair. This may be something as simple as a new set of strings, a reed, or a drumhead. Or it may be something that requires more professional attention.

Now I’m not saying you can’t handle that “more professional attention” . . . but, at least in the beginning, I do recommend that you seek out one or more experienced advisors before you tackle any major instrument refurbishing jobs. These advisors may be individuals with a great deal of experience playing the instrument in question, professional repair people, or — in some cases — books.

I hope — in an upcoming column — to list all the best instrument repair books available (readers and publishers alike are urged to send their recommendations to me in care of the address printed at the head of this feature). Meanwhile, there’s always the local public library, the “mail order” library run by many states (check with the public library for more details), retail book stores, and music and instrument repair shops that sometimes carry such books in stock.

Then again (and especially if that refurbishing part scares you), nothing says you have to start your down-home music “pickin’ and grinnin’ ” with a piece of equipment that you found in a barn somewhere. Nor do you have to pay full list price for an instrument in good working condition either.

There are many ways to buy musical instruments without paying an arm or a leg for them. Haunt garage sales and swap meets. Check out the secondhand stores in your area. Read the newspaper classifieds and/or run an ad of your own. And above all, be patient. “Just keep on lookin’ ” until you find exactly the deal you want.

Naturally — when you go to look at a guitar, fiddle, or whatever — you’ll take someone along who can tell you (if you don’t know yourself) whether or not the instrument in question is playable and worth the price being asked. And don’t be afraid to bargain a little on the quote. This’ll help you in two ways: [1] It’ll help cut the cost of the good instruments you buy and [2] whenever — as will sometimes happen — you find yourself stuck with a piece of equipment which looked good but turned out to be worthless except as a decoration . . . you won’t mind taking your loss and hanging it on the wall if you bought the instrument at the right price in the first place.

Remember, too, that it doesn’t always take money to “buy” something you want. This is as true for musical instruments as it is for anything else. Once, for example, I traded a ’48 GMC pickup truck for an old electric guitar, a microphone, three instrument speakers (now in a P.A. system), a transducer-type acoustic guitar pickup and preamp, and a phase shifter (an electronic device that makes an electric guitar sound something like an electric organ with revolving speakers). I then swapped a beautiful old railroad coal stove to a music store for an amplifier, some wire, and a couple more speakers . . . and — presto! — I was in the entertainment business with a sound reinforcement system. (But that’s another story.)

Of course my trades didn’t stop there. I’ve since swapped a story about the deal I just described to MOTHER for a year’s subscription to this magazine (see Successful Swaps on pages 52 and 54 of this issue for details on how — maybe — you can work the same kind of arrangement). And, recently, I retraded the above-mentioned electric guitar (after doing some work on it) for a reel-to-reel tape recorder . . . and bartered an old fiddle for another set of drums which I’ve used to upgrade and add to the $30 drums already described earlier in this column.

In short: The possibilities for finding and being given absolutely free musical instruments . . . for purchasing such equipment at very low cost . . . and for bartering out guitars, drums, microphones, amps, etc . . . . are truly endless. Look around, ask around, advertise (and not necessarily just in the newspapers) around. You’ll be surprised what you can turn up when people know you’re in the market for a donation, a good buy, or an interesting swap.

Again, patience can be your most valuable tool when you’re looking for “just the right” deal. But that in no way means you have to wait until you have a musical instrument in your hands and it’s yours before you can get started making down-home music. Nosirree! Not when you can hunt up someone who’s already layin’ down some sweet homegrown licks . . . and dance along. Dancing, you know, is just as good a way of “playing music” as any other when it comes right down to increasing the planet’s harmonious vibrations. And increasing those vibrations, after all, is what makes us all feel good . . . and is what do-it-yourself music is really all about anyway.