Twang it.

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Okay, so the strings have been changed. Congratulations. Only trouble is, there’s four strings, not six. What is this freaking thing, a banjo? No banjos in my house! Well …. maybe one, but that’s it!

Wow, I guess you caught me laying down the law with Marvin (my personal robot assistant), who has been standing in for my guitar technician over the last week or so. Not a role he was born to play, that’s for sure. His rudimentarily prehensile claws can barely hold on to a guitar let alone change a set of strings. I think this time around, he quit the task at four strings just because it’s so damned impossible. (I gave him Mission Impossible.)

Why would I ask Marvin to change my guitar strings? Well, he should stretch a bit beyond his comfort zone, you know? He’s got to make something of himself one day, and with all of the automation happening throughout our global economy, I’d say he’ll have plenty of opportunities. If Factory tuned to concert pitch.that sounds odd coming out of a confirmed collectivist, just bear in mind – Marvin doesn’t have any material or animal wants or needs. He runs off of a little breeder reactor in his chest cavity. I think it looks like a cake frosting pipe with some arteries painted on the outside – it bobs up and down and makes a noise that recalls to mind a beating heart. (Oh no, wait … that’s an episode of Lost in Space.)

Actually, Marvin has volunteered to serve as the self-driving part of our self-driving car. All we need to do is add the car part. I tried to explain to his tiny brain that the car part is the hard part because it involves substantial cash outlays and various other activities that are difficult to perform when you are “off the grid”, if you catch my meaning. Still, it would put us in the forefront of independent bands if we started traveling about in a van driven by an automaton. This could be our ticket to stardom … or at least start-um. (You have to start somewhere.)

Back to the guitar strings. I am trying to teach myself a few songs on guitar so that I can start busking. Or at least do some virtual busking, as a professional busker, not a hobbyist. (Like I need a hobby, right?) The guitar case will be open, hungry for unwanted coins, at a subway stop near you.

Five strings.

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I can play any instrument. Piano, bass, six string guitar, five string guitar – I broke a g-string yesterday (note that I didn’t say I could play them well) – kazoo, contra-bass kazoo … I think that’s about it. That’s all the instruments there are, right?

Actually, I’m not super good at any of those instruments. If I were, then I would be insufferable or famous or something; perhaps both. Or neither. Well, that covers all of the possibilities. I don’t like leaving things to chance. (And I don’t mean Chance the gardener.) Thing is, I like playing instruments, even if I do it, well … badly. So even though I’ve never been what I would describe as a punk musician, I do share that piece of the punk ethos – technical skill on your axe is not paramount. So if you see me strumming an acoustic guitar, don’t look for a pick; I basically use thumb and forefinger. Piano? Just thumbs. Gotta move fast to make that work.

I'm all thumbs, Abe. Honest.Many instrumentalists leave distinctive marks on their instruments – scratches in the soundboard or pickguard of a guitar, or in the keyboard cover of a piano, that sort of thing. My aging Martin D-1 doesn’t have a lot of marks, mostly because I don’t play it all that much, but also because I suck at using a plectrum. The guitar top and the strings are harder than my fingers; therefore, the instrument leaves marks on me and not the other way around. Matt, on the other hand, is a more traditionally trained guitar player, so his axes are all marked up. It’s been a few years, but when I last saw it his Les Paul Custom looked like a truck backed over it. (That’s what my hands look like.)

Why am I telling you this? Well, because no one else will listen. And it’s snowing outside. This time of year in upstate New York, we all get sealed inside our homes by a mountain of snow and ice, thanks to the relentless force of moisture rising off of the Great Lakes. (What the hell is so great about them? All I see of Lake Erie is seven feet of snow on my front porch.) So for that six months of snowbound sequester, we must amuse ourselves with random tales and tips and particles of useless advice. It’s the only way we can get to sleep in this drafty old hammer mill. Hey, did you ever hear about the time I played a New Year’s gig in Lake George, NY and …….


Rubbish in.

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Anybody seen my tuning fork? No, damn it, THAT’S not it. That’s my tuning spoon. I said fork, you moron. This …. place!

Oh, yeah … hi out there. I’m just attempting to replace a string on a second hand guitar that’s been lying around the abandoned Cheney Hammer Mill since before we started squatting inside this big old drafty barn of a place. In as much as Big Green is a collectivist institution by nature, we make use of what resources avail themselves, utilizing only what we need to accomplish a mutually agreed-upon task, then replacing the surplus in such a way as to benefit all. Yes, we’re all equal here. Except, of course, anti-Lincoln. Fuck that guy!

Why am I restringing an old, abandoned guitar? Well, if it makes you feel any better, I’m doing it with used strings. We’re scraping the bottom of the stewpot here, folks – I won’t make any bones about it. (Typically, what you find at the bottom of the pot is not so much bones as sinew and fat, but I’ll leave that right there.) That’s what you have to do when you’re Big Green, you know. We thrive on privation. We bask in the glow of our obscurity. When gravity says come down here, we go up there. When we look in the mirror, we know that we’re the opposite of Dude, what did you DO to this thing?what we see looking back at us.

What does all this mean? Well, I’m gonna’ tell ya’. We still haven’t finished our podcast, that’s what. The machinery is moving pretty slowly these days, folks. Matt’s got his hands full with his various nature-focused responsibilities, tracking peregrine falcons, tending the beavers, and writing up stats for The Kingbird. And me, well … I saw a bunny in the yard. And there was some other junk. And I listened to a video clip on my phone. Uh … I got nothing. Rubbish in, rubbish out, right?

Sure, I know, it’s been four months since our last show; it’s in the works, and we’re mixing the songs right now. One …. more .. hurdle. Keep your eyes open and your mouths agape. Expect a delivery … soonish.

Strumble bum.

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Twang. Ouch. Twang, twang, twaaaaaangg. Ouch! God damn it. Where did Marvin go, anyway?

If there’s one thing I hate like fire (aside from fire), it’s changing guitar strings, particularly on an acoustic guitar. Whenever I do it, my hands feel like big slabs of beef, like I’m threading a needle with a sledgehammer. Ham-fisted to say the least. (Think that’s rough? You should see me PLAY guitar!) Ergo, I get Marvin (my personal robot assistant) to do it whenever possible. Not a bad outcome usually, unless he insists on testing it out afterwards. (Not Greensleeves again, Marvin, for chrissake! I hear it in my sleep as it is!)

The reason I’m changing the strings on my 17-year-old Martin D-1 (nearly college age!) is that we’re currently producing the next raft of songs to be included in a future episode of Ned Trek, our Star Trek / Mr. Ed political parody. (Complicated enough for you? It’s a satire! It’s a polemic! It’s a musical!) I have a folk-like song in 6/8 that needs an acoustic, and I’m not going to ask Matt to learn it because, hell, he’s too busy and, hell x 2, he’s got a head full of his own songs and doesn’t need mine muddling up the works. It’s like a mixmaster blender in there right now. Crazy man.

Is that the only song you know, Marvin?So here I am, strumming the old D-1, grinding my fingers to a raw nub. I don’t use a flat pick. Nor any other kind of pick, actually. I just strum the strings with my thumb, forefinger and middle finger, mostly, and dud them out with the heel of my palm. It’s a cheap bastardization of that Joni Mitchell / Neil Young technique – pretty much the only method of playing six-string that I ever bothered to learn. Limited, yes, but when I play something in three, it’s pretty much useless, so I end up strumming like my fingers were a pick. (And by the time I’m finished, they pretty much WILL be a pick.)

Next week: Joe’s banjo tips. Find out how I pulled off banjo parts in Big Green songs such as “Box of Crackers,” “Limping Back to Texas”, and other hits. (Hint: used my fingers again.)


Some real.

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Hello, all. Just taking a moment out from our interstellar tour saga to remember an old friend and one-time band-mate who died unexpectedly this past week. I will no doubt return to the utter nonsense that is this blog’s usual narrative, but right now I can’t quite bring myself to do it. Just need some time for reflection, I guess.

Tim WalshTim Walsh played guitar with a band my brother and I started back in the seventies – a precursor to Big Green in many ways. We had about seventeen names for the group, none of which stuck. (It was a bit likeĀ  Jethro Tull’s early days when they played the same clubs over and over under different names – kind of a good strategy, that.) Tim was my sister’s boyfriend at the time; a slightly older (at that point in life, three years made a big difference) kid from Florida who had hair down to his ass, a blackbelt in Tai Kwan Do, and a 1959 black beauty Les Paul Custom.

I was young enough to look up to him in those first days. Later on, we were friends, housemates, brothers in the struggle to make music – and life – work on some level, mostly failing at that but often enjoying the journey. And the journeys were many, to be sure. Driving to New York for the hell of it in his little Honda coupe, rolling out to gigs around Albany in my broken down van, piling in and riding home for the holidays. There were countless late nights and later morning, imbibing beyond the boundaries of sensibility, laughing ourselves sick at bad movies and television. And that laugh – I can hear it right now. Full-throated, all-consuming, as if whatever minor absurdity had inspired it brought home to him the full, glorious absurdity of the universe.

Tim had very, very good fingers, and a singular approach to guitar playing the like of which I have never heard. Music brought him to another, better place, I think, and I hope it will continue to do so long after his departure from this life. The last time I saw Tim was back in 1992 – he moved to North Carolina, built a life around his family, and we fell out of touch for quite a long time – until a couple of years ago, actually, when we reconnected via Facebook and other means. We had grown apart, sure, but still shared something – if nothing else, the ability to laugh at the same stuff, but I think quite a bit more than that as well.

Not much else I can say except that he was a good person, one of the best I’ve known. So here’s to my friend and brother Tim – safe journey.