Author: Daniel, Bert


I love gizmos. I always have; lots of people do. And itís not just a guy thing. My wife is getting a gizmo for Christmas because she asked for one. We were at a Thanksgiving party and she actually said ďIím into gizmosĒ I think it may have something to do with all high tech equipment she just installed for her orthodontics office. Sheís wowed by all the bells and whistles.

Joyce originally asked for an electronic book machine, but at the Thanksgiving party we got a tip that it might be wise to wait on that particular item. I could see my wifeís eyes sink with that sad news, but no worries. I already had another gizmo in mind for our anniversary so I can just speed things up a bit.

The item came today in the mail. Itís a small solar charger that lets you rev up all your other electronic gizmos as long as the sun is out. (Ainít it great to live in California?) But donít worry. Iím not giving away any surprises here. Joyce would never think of reading this column and spoil her surprise. She hates Bluegrass even though sheís my one and
only true love, match-made-in-heaven soul mate. When we were dating we used to joke about how we were enantiomers (i.e. mirror image identical molecules) because we have so many common characteristics despite coming from very different backgrounds. Alas my soul mate hates Bluegrass and she refuses to see a psychiatrist about it so what can I do?

Maybe if my wife knew how many wonderful gizmos are out there to enthrall any Bluegrass lover, she might come around. Here are a few my favorites (Have your Christmas lists handy):

1) Electronic tuners. The only problem with this great stocking stuffer is that almost every Bluegrass player already has one. Iíve had mine for years and although I need a new case since the dog chewed on it, the unit has held up pretty well. I clip it on at every jam session but I feel funny just leaving it on my instrument like so many others do. It just doesnít look quite right to me. I would be better off if I did leave it on, because sooner or later my playing sounds so bad that I have to take it out again, clip it on and check the tuning.

In my opinion, electronic tuners are a mixed blessing in their current form. With a seemingly infallible piece of electronic equipment attached to your headstock, you tend to be focused on the display and you donít really listen to whether the pitch is actually right. Sure you can get pretty close, even while others are playing, but the best guide for fine tuning is always your ear. If youíre playing with a piano or an autoharp, you may have to adjust your tuning to the least tunable instrument to get a good sound. Electronic tuners arenít really designed for that situation. Maybe some day electronic tuners will allow you to set a pitch to a reference instrument and adjust for different keys. Theoretically, every key has a different perfect scale. In the meantime, I suggest listening to a good fiddle player if you want to be in tune and use the electronic tuner as merely the helpful aide that it is.

2) Guitar Trainers. This may be my favorite Bluegrass gizmo of all time. It allows me to practice jamming any time, any speed and any key with anybody I have on a recording. My trainer is a Tascam CD GT2, which significantly outperforms the earlier version my sonís fiddle teacher had. You get into distortion problems when you stray too far from the original speed (Like when I slow Bill Monroeís Roanoke down to a speed where I can halfway play it). But this is a great tool for learners like me. Another problem is key changes on some of the older Bluegrass recordings. I like to play old Stanley Brothers tunes along with the record, but unfortunately those guys didnít use electronic tuners. They tended to tune a little bit higher than standard. It would be OK if their E became and F, but actually it often ends up halfway between E and F and you just canít fix that with the pitch control.

Maybe bass players could do without a guitar trainer, but I think the rest of us Bluegrass string players could profit by one. You can slow things down and write out a solo you want to learn and you can loop a favorite tune and play it over and over. Itís for a good reason that so many instructional CDs present play along accompaniment at slow and fast speed so you can learn the tune and learn to play it at speed. A guitar trainer lets you do that with any record you want to play along with and at the speeds you choose.

3) MP3 player. I love my iPod. I even saw a new version of the guitar trainer based on MP3 players recently. (Maybe it has variable pitch control and I can play along with Ralph and Carter finally). I have more than 2000 tunes on my MP3 player now. When I shuffle songs, I often rediscover old chestnuts I wouldnít have thought to play. Many times I develop a new appreciation for an old song too seldom heard. Of course the sound quality on an MP3 player is not as good as some other media, but you gotta have one of these things nowadays until you can get to your CD player, or better still your live music.

4) Electronic Metronome. If you are still using the old wind up metronome like my piano teacher used to have, you need one of this new breed. They keep more accurate time and are more adjustable. One problem with my Sabine Zipbeat though is that it only goes up to 208 beats per minute. Not fast enough for a lot of Bluegrass! Two hundred and eight is still too fast for me, but I do like to crank it back to 110 or 120 and try my best to play double time like the real hotshots do!

Yes, gizmos abound for Bluegrass. And not just electronic gizmos like the ones mentioned above. You can stuff stockings with a new capo, a string winder, exotic picks, etc. The list goes on and on. If youíre stuck, remember new strings are always needed. Or cash in large denominations. Ah The gift thatís never returned. Happy shopping, happy playing, happy listening and happy holidays to all of you out there.

Posted:  12/13/2009

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