Other Stringed Instruments

    In addition to fiddle, I play around with a couple of other stringed instruments common to the Celtic world. I'm not nearly as advanced with these as I am with the fiddle, so it'll be a while before I'm comfortable playing them in public.  I started playing around with the Mandolin family of strings just before Christmas 2002, when an inexpensive mandolin ($80) and octave mandolin ($99) I ordered for my best friend arrived at his house.  He still hasn't got around to playing with them, and so I took the octave mandolin home to monkey around with for some months, and eventually ordered my own instruments.

Mandolin     The one I play around with most is a FM-52E acoustic-electric mandolin made by Fender, which I got from The Musicians Friend, an online music gear store mostly catering to rock musicians.  I like this instrument a lot.  It has a good sound, was less than $200, and the frets are spaced very comfortably for my hands, which are accustomed to the fiddle.  I have tuned it to the usual tuning for Mandolin, which is also the standard fiddle tuning.  I got basic proficiency with this instrument quickly; since all I really have to learn is the picking style, any tune I can play on fiddle immediately transfers over to mandolin.  The only thing that's new is that I'm picking rather than bowing.  In the Celtic idiom, the mandolin is a melodic instrument, playing either melody, harmony, or counter-melody.  So I don't need to worry about chords much (though I know a few basic ones). It's also a newer instrument, probably being introduced from its prominence in America. I began lessons in Irish mandolin with Philippe Varlet in August 2003, and concluded them some months later. Now it's just a matter of finding time to practice to develop my picking hand.

Tenor Banjo     I also play a tenor banjo I purchased from Lark in the Morning.  The Irish tenor banjo was developed from the banjos that came to Ireland in the 19th century with American minstrel shows. The Irish adopted the instrument, but retuned it to the same tuning as the mandolin, just an octave lower. Despite the "bargain" price of $350, this is a beautiful instrument, with a wonderful finish and a completely true neck. The sound is very rich and powerful, and it's fairly easy to play, though the stretch on the neck takes some getting used to. The only issue I had with it is the action on the lowest string was too high, forcing me to put a lot of tension on it to meet the fret - this led to the string going very sharp on the first few frets. I've lowered the action on the G-string (and may lower it some more) by filing notch in the nut, and use a light touch on the string, and that has largely fixed the problem. Playing it is much the same as playing the mandolin, with a greater stretch between frets. I'll probably begin playing this instrument at sessions in spring '05.

Cittern     Tuned to the same octave as my tenor banjo, but similar to the mandolin is the cittern; but this instrument has a larger body and five courses instead of four.  I purchased one from Lark in the Morning for $350, and it has a very nice sound to it.  It's made of mahogany, with a cedar face, with an inlaid soundhole.  I've tuned it CGDAD.  The cittern is more of a chordal or rhythm instrument than mandolin, but so far, I haven't got past picking out tunes.  It's easier to pick than the mandolin, but the frets are further apart, and I can't reach the 5th (7th fret) without moving my hand, which makes some tunes hard to play.  I have learned a few first-position chords for this instrument, but since it's a non-standard tuning,  I have to find the good chords by trial-and-error, rather than in a book.  Eventually, I'm going to take Irish Bouzouki lessons from Philippe Varlet, and will apply those lessons here.  To be able to amplify this instrument, I installed a Martin Thinline pick-up mic under the bridge; and did it only using hand tools, proving that I am either very skilled, very lucky, or very stupid. I also noticed that this instrument doesn't tolerate sudden changes of climate well - I took it from DC in March '04 to Houston, where the temperature was 40 degrees warmer, and the humidity went up from 10% to 80% - and the instrument wouldn't stay in tune. I've been trying very hard since to keep all my instruments better humidified in the dry east coast winters.

    Finally, I own a Yamaha solid spruce top Dreadnought acoustic guitar, which I've tuned to the Irish DADGAD tuning.  I haven't really begun to study guitar, since that's a whole new area of study. For now, I'm using it only as a loaner instrument; for example, when my guitarist Anders flies in town to rehearse, he uses this instrument, rather than having to bring his own.

Other Wind Instruments

    Along with the Highland Bagpipes, I have experimented with a number of other wind instruments.

Whistles     The first wind instruments I bought were some whistles, my current crop which are shown to the left. I started out with a Shaw D whistle in fall 2001, but eventually became unhappy with the upper octave, which took a lot of work to produce; so I gave it to a friend.  I then upgraded to a Clarke Sweetone (the black whistle in the picture), which I eventually gave to a friend.  I also purchased a Shaw low D whistle (the long whistle in the picture) around Christmas 2001, and though I have since stopped playing it much, found it a good play.  To play in a compatible pitch with my B-flat pipe chanter, I picked up a conical bore Generation E-flat whistle in fall 2002 (the silver-colored whistle with the blue mouthpiece).  In September 2004, I picked up some more Generation whistles, in G, F, and C, at a vendor tent at the Capital District Highland Games in Altamont, NY. I was never happy with the C tinwhistle (the low C was nearly impossible to produce), so I kept an eye out for possible replacements. The G and F whistles have limited utility - they are pitched so high that only the 1st octave is playable before dogs start howling!  In late 2005, after hearing one at a session, I purchased some wooden whistles from Ralph Sweet: a lovely D-whistle in blackwood with a G# key, and a C-whistle in a laminated northern Birchwood. These whistles are the best I've encountered, and have a wonderful warm tone, and work quite well in the 3rd "fife" octave.

Flute     I attended the Potomac Celtic Festival in June 2002 with a friend, who bought a wooden keyless flute at the House of Musical Traditions' booth, and I played around on her new flute and attended an Irish flute workshop with her later at the festival.  I was frustrated that, try as I might, I couldn't get a sound out of the flute!  Emboldened by the challenge, I purchased an ebony 5-key Irish Pratten-style flute in D from Lark in the Morning for $375.  I really like this flute, and I'm just getting the hang of the embouchure.  And there a few tunes I can really go to town on with it; the first I got to tempo with the accenting and phrasing was Flowers of Edinburgh, and played the lovely lullaby Castle of Dromore on this flute at a friend's wedding as the processional.  I expect I'll be playing this one a lot.  My only complaint is that the plating has begun to come off the keys, but that's a minor quibble. The real catch came for me that I discovered that when I don't regularly play it, the cork in the head joint dries out and shrinks and the instrument becomes very hard to play! Hopefully I'll soon get the chance to spend a little more time on this instrument to prevent this from happening again.

Fifes     In 2004, I picked up a Bb fife as well for reenacting purposes from Jas Townsend & Son, and late in 2005 I picked up a much better C fife from Ralph Sweet, though I need to finish learning the fingering and embouchure to send the fife into the 3rd octave still. The signature tune I plan to learn on this instrument is The Scots March, a 17th century melody strongly associated with Scottish armies. Hey Tuti Tatey would be another good choice, though I can already play that on my Highland Pipes.

Pibcorn     In late 2005, I purchased a Welsh Pibcorn from from Lark in the Morning. This instrument is a simple single reed hornpipe, and variants of it were played throughout the British Isles, including Scotland, though it's best known from Wales today. Robert Burns wrote of acquiring one, and it's possible that this instrument served as the ancestor of the Highland Pipe practice chanter. It was also the common Shepherd's instrument, and as such was always very inexpensive and primitive. The instrument has three parts: a body, made of wood or the thighbone of a sheep, with 6 or 7 holes on top and one thumbhole on the back (mine is of cherry and has 6 holes on top, typical of the Welsh instrument). A bell made of a cowhorn was mated to one end, and a single reed of oaten straw, or cane today, on the other. The Welsh instrument also has a horn mouthpiece, though that does not seem to have been mentioned in regards to the Scottish version of the instrument. My pibcorn pitches approximately to D and plays one octave in a major scale, but the reed is very sensitive to moisture, and requires warming up to get in tune, much like a Highland Pipe drone reed (which it closely resembles in miniature). I also find that I prefer to play it without the horn mouthpiece in the fashion described for the Scottish "stock-and-horn", as this gives me a shorter warm-up time and more direct control over any embrouchure needed to get the best pitch.

Concertina     In summer 2006, I purchased a bargain 20 button C/G Anglo Concertina from from Musician's Friend. Mainly bought on a lark, I was also interested to see how the instrument worked - the buttons play different (usually successive) notes when the bellows is pushed versus pulled, and each row corresponds to a given key (C or G). The instrument isn't chromatic (a 30 button concertina would be), and it's designed so that all buttons in a given row play elements of the row's root chord when the bellows is pushed, the other notes when pulled. As such, learning to play this would require a lot of work, because the fingering is so counterintuitive compared to the other instruments I play. But it is a lot of fun to noodle around with, and has a great sound.

Percussion Instruments

Bodhran     Everyone needs a bodhran, even if he or she never gets around to playing it. I bought mine at Lark in the Morning, and only noodle with it occasionally. But with it, combined with every other instrument in the house, I could outfit a rather gigantic Ceilidh band. The session's at my place, and I have instruments for all!

The page background is the Walker Newlands tartan, registered in 1986 by James Scarlett.

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Last Updated 17 May 2005, 5:15 PM ET