Monday, August 13, 2012

Musicians And Their Instruments

The Legendary Bill Monroe
My friend and Brother Master Mason, Michael Shirley has been writing a series called The Craftsman's Journey on the Midnight Freemasons blog that I'm really enjoying.  It's the story of two Master Masons, both musicians, one also a talented craftsman--and the craftsman (Joe Hardwick) is building a custom mandolin for the other (the author of the piece Michael Shirley).  The series follows the process of building that mandolin from conception through completion, with lots of photos that take us on a journey from raw wood to a finely crafted musical instrument.  It's a great series that I think Freemasons (especially musicians) will appreciate.  It's a story about building something extraordinary out of something ordinary.  That's really what Freemasons do. 

Me and Maggie
Perhaps that's why I'm enjoying the piece so much.  I love music.  Most of my readers probably don't know this because I haven't written about it much, other than a brief sentence in my book bios, and the fact I've written about so many musicians over the years.  But decades before I sat down behind the computer keyboard to write my books, I communicated with the world from behind a very different kind of keyboard--88 black and white keys.  I played music, I taught music, I wrote music, I recorded music--music has always been an important part of my life.  Unlike a computer, a musical instrument becomes something very personal to musicians.  I can write a book or a novel on any computer, because the computer is a tool--it doesn't become a part of the message.  But musicians and their instruments bond, and together become a conduit for musical expression.  The bonds between musician and instrument become very personal--especially amongst players of string instruments.

You probably know Willie Nelson has an old beat-up acoustic guitar he's played for decades--even with a hole he's worn in it from decades of use, he continues to play it.  Jerry Lee Lewis put out a collection of duets some years ago called "Last Man Standing."  The first time I listened to the CD was in my car during a long trip.  As one of the songs started and Jerry Lee was singing, I was wondering who the duet was with--but then in the background I heard the distinctive sound of that old guitar and Willie's unique playing style and knew instantly who would be singing the second verse. 

Me and Lucille--I used to be skinny.
Of course B. B. King has his trusted guitar Lucille.  He's gone through a couple over the years, but you recognize that sound as soon as the song starts--that's B. B. King.  I saw Lucille at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville--and I stared at that guitar for a long, long time.  I was thinking about the hours the musician and instrument had spent together performing, practicing, writing, recording...  and I was thinking about all the songs they played together for the first time before anybody knew them.  I thought about the incredible bond they had formed.  My girlfriend sure didn't get why I was so taken with this guitar.  She knew I wasn't a guitar player.  Perhaps it was moment only a true musician could appreciate--one that still missed his first keyboard. 

Of course, that was before I saw Elvis' gold piano, and ignored a couple signs and a velvet rope and was nearly arrested for sitting down and playing Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire" on it.  My girlfriend Valerie managed to get me out of that jam (one of many reasons I married her), and commented later they wouldn't have been nearly as pissed off if I'd played an Elvis song.  Why would I do that?  Elvis didn't have any great rock and roll piano songs...

If you think I'm exaggerating this relationship musicians have with their instruments, ask a serious musician sometime if you could play their guitar, or their fiddle, or their mandolin, and see what kind of reaction you get.  A guy I played with for a long time probably put it best when that request was made of him.  He said, "I'd be more likely to give you permission to date my girlfriend."  It got a big laugh, but I'm not that sure he was kidding.  And another friend of mine years ago did let a guitar player sit in with the band and play his beloved guitar.  The guy accidental scratched the back of it with his belt buckle during a particularly rambunctious version of Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll"--I don't think those two have spoken in twenty years.

My two hands and Maggie's 88 keys--a working partnership
I've had a lot of keyboards over the years, but only two great ones--and I've given them both names.  I learned on the piano, so my keyboards have always had to play like pianos with weighted keys, and the same kind of touch.  And I like a certain sound, which is really hard to find.  I'm always looking for the sound I grew up with--a 1920's Steinway upright.  I like a lot of rumble in the bass, and clean notes that carry on the top end.  It's hard to find that in a keyboard.  And with me, they have to be durable--I play a lot of heavy-handed music, and can usually beat a real piano out of tune within three sets (and we won't talk about broken hammers). 

Over the last fifteen years, I've been with Maggie.  She is a perfect instrument, and the best one I've ever owned.  We don't  get out much anymore, but she still sounds as good today as she did the day I brought her home.  And we still make music together, often on breaks from writing my books--she's only a few feet away from where I write as you can see.  Music is, and always will be an important part of my life.  And in 15 years, I haven't even managed to chip a key on Maggie. 

I think that's what I'm enjoying the most about Michael Shirley's A Craftsman's Journey series.  It really gets at this relationship between a musician and his instrument.  I've always understood that part, but there's another part of the story I hadn't really considered--the relationship between the craftsman and the instrument he creates.  That's the real story.  Long before a musician falls in love with that instrument, the craftsman has already been there, and has loved that instrument, too.  I think you'll enjoy it. 


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