When I was asked to write this piece, I figured I had plenty of time to decide what to write about and also plenty of time to write it, as I was going to be away music-ing without the usual distractions that home offers. But alas no, here I am on deadline day, backstage at Sidmouth Folk Festival via Skye, Dorset and Cambridge, making a start before doing a gig and driving up to Edinburgh for a rehearsal in the morning.
So, I’m busy. People have written about that on this forum. I’m juggling many hats but I’ve also read a great post about that on this forum. What on earth can I write about that people will find original and interesting? Well I figured I’d write about what I have been doing in my spare time over the past few weeks away from home, and more importantly, why.
Here is my confession: I’ve been learning to play my new tenor guitar because ultimately, I’m a little bored of the fiddle.
Don’t get me wrong, I have many limitations on my first instrument but I definitely feel like I need a fresh challenge and a new discipline with an alternate musical role to what is predominantly a melodic instrument.
Perhaps it stems from being pigeonholed as a melody player for 20 years and possibly even feelings of inferiority to musicians of the rhythm section. I want to be a member of that club and respected as a musician and composer, not just a fiddle player.
So it all started when I bought a Telecaster in a Cambridge music shop whilst on tour in 2015. I confess, I’ve found the 6 string guitar slow going, especially when I’ve no work-related incentive to focus on it in a big way. But each time I’ve picked it up to learn something, I’ve found myself getting more comfortable and familiar with the somewhat alien shapes. My next investment was a Fender Precision Bass, which I love and find navigating much easier, but there’s still little chance of playing it in the real world, which is fine – I’m not nearly cool enough!
It was when I bought my lovely tenor guitar last year that I thought I might possibly be able to take a guitar onto the stage with me, and last weekend, nearly a year later, I did just that at Cambridge Folk Festival. Due to the aforementioned busy-ness, I haven’t really been able to put much work in over the past 11 months but when the opportunity arose to accompany Maz O’Connor at Cambridge with the task of recreating her beautiful new album as a trio, I figured it was the perfect time to get my chops together. And I loved it. When accompanying songs on the fiddle/viola, I pride myself on staying out of the way, enhancing the song but never being in competition with the vocal. Sometimes with a violin, this means making the call not to play at all, but unless I had an alternative plan, this wasn’t going to wash with Maz! So I practised for hours and hours, day after day, working out chords and shapes, trying to eliminate buzzes and unwanted ringing strings, working it out as I went. I was pretty sure I’d chicken out at the last minute, especially when the reality of standing to play as well as simultaneously singing BVs hit me. But I kept my cool and went through with it. I was probably terrible and I’m sure I’ll cringe about it as I continue to improve but it truly scared me and maybe that’s what has been missing from my music making of late.
As versatile as the fiddle is, I find myself questioning the roads it has taken me down and the musical choices it has made for me. Something that I have been increasingly aware of over the years are the practicalities of singing and playing fiddle at the same time. Though there are great examples of fiddle players who do both very well, I’ve personally not found a way to sing and play in tune, whilst detaching my jaw from the fiddle in order to sing freely. With the exception of singing BVs with simple fiddle parts, I’ve always been dis-satisfied with my performance and for the most part unable to accompany myself whilst singing. To a certain extent, this has probably prevented me from pursuing my singing and until about 4 years ago I felt unable to even contemplate writing a song. Thanks to the persuasion of the brilliant Gordon McLean of Mull, I have now written and recorded 5 songs to date and the thought of playing them all by myself at an open-mic night is terrifying but strangely really appealing!
The prospect of playing this twangy stringed instrument has unlocked a desire in me to branch out creatively and stylistically as a musician and it’s exciting. Of course I love the fiddle and the music I am lucky enough to play and teach for a living, but the older I get, the more I want to be in control of the music I play and not just coasting because I can.