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 …….

Zzzzzzzzz….

Here comes the sun.

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My Martin D-1 needs strings again. So what’s new? I always let stringed instruments go to seed – it’s how I roll. That’s why true guitarists hate me. (Dude, you KNOW it’s true.)

I just don’t play the fucker enough, that’s my problem. But then I guess you could say my problem is that I don’t do ANYTHING enough, so it’s just part of a larger problem. Marvin (my personal robot assistant) has volunteered to act as my guitar technician. Only trouble is, his inventor – the mad scientist Mitch Macaphee – gave him prehensile claws for hands, so it’s kind of a challenge to restring a guitar in his little tin world. Kind of outside his wheel house. (That’s not a metaphor. He actually does have a wheel house.)

It’s when the sun starts shining and the leaves unfurl in this part of the country that the mind turns more to making music. Maybe that’s someone else’s music, sure, but music nevertheless. You can hear it wafting out of the abandoned Cheney Hammer Mill on a night like this … me framming on my broken down guitar, Matt hammering on an anvil, Marvin jumping up and down like a chimp, slapping his bongos. I won’t even get into what Anti-Lincoln does to make noise. Let’s say it doesn’t involve the harpsichord, which I think may have been his primary instrument at one time. (We don’t have a harpsichord … hell, not even a harp.)

Bzzt ... Let me tune guitarTrouble is, we spend so much time on THIS IS BIG GREEN, our podcast, that practically everything else suffers. The garden has fallen to shit. (Granted, we did plant in the dead of winter. We may be “Big Green” but none of us has enough of a green thumb to grow a freaking rock garden.) Our songwriting is becoming even more bizarre by the day. And what the hell – the harder we work, the longer it takes for us to finish a freaking episode. It’s like we’re running backwards on a train heading in the opposite direction, following a track shaped like a mobius strip. Wrapped in an enigma.

Complain, complain, complain. That’s what blogging is all about, right? Shut up and play your broken guitar!

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.)