Unfamiliar territory

People who’ve seen me play music more than once will probably have noticed more than a slight sense of a pattern – give me a fiddle (or if you’re really unlucky then I’ll bring my own), and I play English folk music. Give me a guitar and I’ll play rock and roll. That’s just what my fingers are used to – to me the guitar has six strings of rockabilly and the fiddle has four strings of constant billy. No, I didn’t write this piece just to get that pun in, though I am glad that I did. I can now go to my grave a happy man, safe in the knowledge that I have compared fishes flying over mountains with blues-derived country music. Classy.

Well, I think it’s time to change things around a bit. I want to leave my violin all shook up, and my guitar all in a garden green. It probably sounds quite easy, given that I already know all the tunes, and just want to play them on different instruments, but really it isn’t. There are two important issues which make it hard for me to just swap over.

The first is that in many cases I don’t actually know the tune at all, I just use muscle memory to get my digits moving in the right places for music to occur. That’s particularly true in the case of rock n roll music, where there really aren’t tunes at all. There are just ‘licks’, basic one or two bar figures which are strung together into a twelve bar part. But it’s also true in folk music which has a similarly hypnotic repetition but with longer figures. So taking a tune to a new instrument means discovering what it is I’m actually playing on the first instrument, then trying to reproduce that on the second.

The second issue is that just playing the notes from one instrument on another isn’t necessarily the correct thing to do, nor even particularly easy. For a start guitar strings are tuned to fourths (mainly) while violin strings are to fifths, and as the bridges are different shapes the instruments invite playing a different number of strings simultaneously. So what I need to do is not even to work out how to play the same tune on the other instrument, but what that instrument’s version of the tune should be and how to play that.

I expect that the outcome of this little experiment will be mainly a cacophony, but with some increased understanding of what the instruments can do and how to play them. If I focus on cacophony then I’ll probably get quick results, though.

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One Response to Unfamiliar territory

  1. Нина says:

    have you tried imaging your instruments as the other? like, your guitar has shrunk & taken on a completely different appearance? I do this when I am dancing, I don't know why that graceful ballerina looks like a pig in a wig.

    I know there's a fine line between positive thinking & delusions, but it's fun.

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