Homegrown Music and Homemade Musical Instruments: Instrument Maintenance, Music Magazines, and More

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Marc Bristol and other Washington State grassroots musicians wail away on a gutbucket, washboard, and jug ( the axe is a gag). Inset shows gutbucket "notch and bevel" detail. 

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?

That’s what this column is about. Homegrown music… and sometimes homemade musical instruments to play it on.

Well, folks, I’ve been bringing you Homegrown Music for over two years now! And, in those dozen or so issues of MOTHER, I’ve tried to share every bit of useful information–about musical products, services, kits, etc.–that I could uncover. Yet there have been some items that reached me too late to be included in a column devoted to their particular subject … and others that I never got around to classifying at all.

But–while I was sifting through my files recently–I discovered that some of the long-forgotten morsels were simply too good to pass up, so I decided to put together a sort of “soup-to-nuts” column, including all of my up-till-now neglected tidbits and afterthoughts.

More Notes on Repair Manuals: Instrument Maintenance

Complete Banjo Repair by Larry Sandberg (Oak Publications, 112 pages, paperback). As I was reviewing guitar repair manuals for my column in MOTHER EARTH NEWS, I wondered why no one had ever written a similar volume about the banjo. I didn’t have to wonder long, though… because very soon afterward I received a copy of Larry Sandberg’s book from Oak Publications. (They’re the same folks who brought us Complete Guitar Repair by Hideo Kamimoto. . . and–in fact–the firm is the largest producer of instructional folk music books in the country.)

This manual–which fills a large gap in the literature of musical instrument repair–would prove interesting to just about any banjo enthusiast. It pays a lot of attention to the special problems of the bluegrass instrument’s unique hardware, woodwork, and tone. And even though Sandberg’s publication deals only with five-string banjos, it is applicable to other varieties as well, since most repairs are performed identically regardless of the number of strings.

Still, I’d like to see an even more comprehensive book about the banjo’s history, including tuning and chord information for all types of the instrument, plus some photos of its contemporary African relatives. Are there any banjo players and writers out there who are interested, or anyone who knows of such a book that’s already been published?

Piano Tuning by J. Cree Fischer (Dover Publications, 201 pages, paperback). Is the old family heirloom a bit out of tune? Even more than a bit? Although hiring a piano tuner isn’t really as expensive as you might imagine, you still can’t beat the cost of “doin’ it yourself” . . . or the satisfaction of completing an intricate job with your own two hands.

AlthoughFischer’s little book was first published way back in 1907, it’s still chock-full of timely information on the proper way to tune a piano whether the instrument is an upright, square, or grand. The volume is subtitled “a simple and accurate method for amateurs,” and that’s exactly what it is. The author teaches you–using plain English–the easiest technique for “setting the temper” of your piano. You’ll even learn how to remove and repair the entire “action” (or key and hammer works) of a standard instrument… and that skill–who knows?–could lead to a profitable home business in restoring old, “worn-out” keyboard music makers.

And More Good Reading

Hammered Dulcimer by Peter Pickow (also from Oak Publications, 111 pages, paperback). The hammered dulcimer, actually an ancestor of the piano, is a tabletop folk instrument played by striking its strings with two wooden hammers. If you’ve listened to a Henry the Fiddler’s album I’ve mentioned before, you’ll have heard the dulcimer’s delicate, mystical tones on the very first cut… which is a medley of “Mississippi Sawyer” and “Over theWaterfall.”

Since its suitability to fiddle tunes and contradance numbers has become recognized, the traditional mountain instrument is attracting a lot of attention these days. In fact, you may even own one yourself, and could be looking for some instruction and simple tunes to try . . . if so, Peter Pickow’s book is just what you need. It opens with a brief introduction to the tablature (notation) system used for hammered dulcimer music and then moves into a section of scales and techniques for your practice sessions. Following this introductory material, the major portion of the book is devoted to a series of songs, which gradually increase in musical complexity and performing difficulty. At the end of the tome you’ll find a bibliography, a discography, and a handy list of resources (including places to get books, records,and kits, and a list of festivals where you can hear the instrument played).

For further information about the hammered dulcimer, MOTHER EARTH NEWS-reader Mary Sutter from Forest Park, Illinois suggests you write to Andy’s Front Hall. The good folks there offer a wide selection of books, albums, and other folk music items, and Mary says she’s had satisfactory dealings with them for years.   

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music by Roy Thompson and Fred Deller (Harmony Books, 256 pages, paperback). This is one for all of you “commercial”country music enthusiasts who are just as interested in the performers themselves as you are in the music they make. Among the two or three “encyclopedic”books compiled on the Nashville scene, this one’s probably the best.

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music covers, in alphabetical order,over 400 of the famous (and not quite famous)… with a picture or two of each artist, cover reproductions of his or her important albums, and a few paragraphs about the musician’s career.

Music Magazines

Bluegrass fans, take note! You can now receive monthly updates on your musical passion, because I’ve found a couple of good magazines that report on “pickin’ ” happenings in various parts of the country. Wisconsin Bluegrass News–edited by Dick and Lisa Brandlien–is a fine newsprint journal that features articles on local bands and upcoming festivals, as well as concert and record reviews.

Out here on the West Coast, another periodical is promoting the “foot-stompin'” cause. About a year ago, I reviewed Friends of Mountain Music in this column . . . well, the magazine was bought out not long after that,and its name was changed to Golden West Bluegrass. Look to the new publication for articles on groups, interviews with pickers and instrument builders, festival information, and reviews.

All types of stringed instruments appear in the pages of Frets, which is produced by Guitar Player Publications. The bulk of the magazine consists of regular columns, such as Mike Auldridge’s words about dobro, Byron Berline’s column on fiddle, and David Grisman’s on mandolin.(Auldridge, by the way, has released several fine albums on the FlyingFish and Takoma labels. Although I received copies of those discs too late to review them in my column on records, they’ve all earned my highest recommendation.)

Other monthly features in Frets include record reviews, interviews with popular folk musicians, and specials . . . such as the recent column on the hammered dulcimer, which introduced a modification of Peter Pickow’s tablature system and examined the differences between the hammered dulcimer and its mountain cousin (which is strummed rather than struck). 

Yet another West Coast magazine, called The Mix , is designed to appeal to songwriters, musicians, aspiring recording engineers, and producers alike. Covering all aspects of professional recording from hardware to production techniques, The Mix fills a need for more knowledge and communication in this field of rapidly expanding technology. The publication features interviews with producers, engineers, and musicians… plus articles on the equipment needed for analogue (and the newer digital) recording systems. You’ll also find–as a continuing feature–a comprehensive listing of all professional recording studios… broken down by geographical regions. (Last year, the magazine covered the West Coast outfits in one issue, New York’s in another, and Nashville/Memphis studios in a third.)

If you live in or near a large city, you may be able to find The Mix in record stores. If it’s not available, though, just mention it to the store manager… he or she can probably get it for you.

A “Homegrown” Album

And, finally, I’d like to mention a word or two about my own project.As I’ve said before, I’m planning to write a future column on producing your own albums. Well, as research for that piece, I’m thinking of bringing out a record of “Homegrown Music.” It seems that a lot of you have written to tell me you’d like to see song arrangements printed in this column… and I’d feel a lot better about doing that if I could also offer you a chance to listen to the ditties at the same time. After all, many of us learned our music by ear, and though it helps to look at the notes written out on a staff, we still need to hear those tricky rhythm patterns before we can imitate (and eventually master) them.

The proposed Homegrown disc would probably feature some familiar, old-timey tunes (such as “Oh Suzanna” and “Polly Wolly Doodle”)… along with some new and original MOTHER EARTH NEWS-lifestyle songs. After the album is released, I would include the written arrangements in this column ( one or two at a time ), so that you and your friends could join in with the recording on your tub basses, jugs, kazoos, washboards, mandolins, banjos, guitars… or whatever!