Saturday, August 07, 2010

Playing my strumstick

I have this awesome little instrument called a Strumstick. It's basically a mountain dulcimer oriented like a slender little guitar. I used to have a mountain dulcimer but when I started playing music with the Glendessary Jam, I could not hear myself play my dulcimer and couldn't tell if I was playing the right notes. I got discouraged and gave my dulcimer away. I started playing a mandolin instead. Eventually I started playing a fiddle because I took a class and my teacher played at the Jam and I didn't want to disappoint her so I kept playing the fiddle. I kind of grew to enjoy the fiddle even though I'm worse than terrible at it.

I've tried a lot of musical instruments and as a result, I have a large inventory of different instruments lying around the house. I have simple-system flutes and pennywhistles, a mandolin, a violin, and a strumstick. I have a silver band flute, too, but it doesn't work. I play all my instruments except the silver flute. I'm not particularly good or talented but I do enjoy it.

When I first got the strumstick I had a hard time figuring out how to play it. The maker of the instrument claims it is easy to play, no wrong notes. Well, to me some of the notes do sound wrong. And it is very difficult to slide your finger up and down the high string quickly enough to get a good tune out at a decent dancing speed. Most of all, no instrument is easy if you don't have tunes in your head that you can actually play. I set my strumstick aside for quite a while as I focused on my fiddle at the Glendessary Jam.

Over the course of a year and a half of playing at the Jam, I've picked up a lot of tunes. They are memorized in my head. I have never looked at the sheet music to play them. I just go to the Jam and listen as they play a tune and pick up as many of the notes as I can. Eventually I learned quite a few tunes this way.

The other day I picked up my strumstick and realized that the first two strings are tuned just like my fiddle. D and A. The last string is tuned to D instead of E. It's so close to the fiddle that I just started picking out tunes. Instead of only playing melody on the high string, I played melody on all three strings just like on a fiddle. Wow! It worked and suddenly it really did have no wrong notes. The Old-Time tunes we play at the jam work perfectly for the strumstick. The chords and the melodies just seem to match. When I'm on the D strings the A string harmonizes well most of the time. When I'm on the A string, the D strings seem to harmonize well most of the time. Once in a while they don't quite harmonize right, but it's not exactly wrong, either. It has more of a simple, old-fashioned sound.

It's so much fun to play tunes on my strumstick. It's like having a little band in a box. I can play a melody and have chords going as a self-accompaniment at the same time. It makes me sound like I'm a real musician and know what I'm doing.I brought it to the Jam last weekend and had a blast strumming out the tunes. With a capo I can even play tunes in G and I suppose by retuning I could play in A, but I haven't tried that yet.

I've been thinking I would like to take my strumstick backpacking. I have the largest strumstick that McNally makes. Their smallest would be better because the large one is probably longer than a yard and could be difficult to pack and bump into low branches. I met a PCT hiker named Chief Daddy who had the smallest one. It was very tiny, packed well and had a nice tone like a mandolin. Mine has a deep tone more like a banjo, but with the capo I can get a brighter, higher tone similar to his.

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