On Not Being a Guitarist

It’s a funny thing about being a musician:  the guitarists have it easy.

If you’re a guitarist, you’re expected to be, well, a guitarist.  You play the guitar.  If you’re a really high-level guitarist in a high-level band, you may have a lot of different guitars for different kinds of music, but you will probably also have someone to carry them for you.  It is likely that you own some sort of truck.  If you’re just any old guitarist who plays with people sometimes, you may take only one axe to any practice…maybe electric, maybe acoustic.  If depends on the gig.  A guitar is not a small instrument, but it can be carried with a fair amount of ease in a light gig bag.  Your music probably fits into this gig bag too.

If you don’t play the guitar, you may be a keyboardist.  A keyboardist runs into a few more problems.  Your keyboard, if it has, say, 61 keys, is about the size and weight of an acoustic guitar but more awkward to carry.  You will need a stand and possibly a stool.  It is also probable you’ll be using an amp.  So will an electric guitarist, but the latter won’t need the stand.  A keyboardist just has more to carry.

You may also play the drums.  You’re really in trouble now, especially if you don’t have a truck or a van or any kind of vehicle.  You probably want to practise in some place that already has a drum set.  On the day of the gig, you’ll get a friend with a car to help you out.

Then there are people like me.  By “people like me,” I mean “people who have learned a few too many instruments and end up playing all of them at any given gig.”

The guitar and the keyboard are both versatile instruments.  Better:  they’re regarded as fundamental.  I can play the guitar a little and the keyboard a lot, but I am usually in kinds of bands where the keyboard is not, in fact, a standard instrument:  for instance, folk and bluegrass bands.  No worries:  I can play the accordion.  And the mandolin.  And the ukulele.  And the banjolele.  And various flutes and whistles.  And, if necessary, the bodhran.  I own a banjo but don’t yet play it well enough to gig with it, and I am sometimes kind of grateful for that fact.  Banjos are heavy.  Mandolins and ukuleles are not, but if you are carrying one of each, plus most of the other instruments just listed, the weight adds up.

A couple of days ago, two friends and I played at a book launch.  It was a lot of fun, and I loved the music we were doing.  The one problem was that I was playing six damned instruments in eight different songs.  We rehearsed every Saturday.  I got to haul an accordion, mandolin, ukulele, wooden flute, low whistle, and C whistle back and forth across the city.  One week, I had a bodhran too so I could lend it to our singer, who also doubled as a percussionist.  On the day of the gig itself, I added a music stand, a ukulele stand, and a guitar stand I had converted into a mandolin stand to the load.  I also had to take the bodhran and assorted other percussion with me on the way home.

I’m still in pain.  The accordion was on wheels, but accordions are heavy, and even rolling one along the sidewalk takes strength.  I do not want to talk about getting on and off buses and the subway.  It got to the point where I was physically incapable of lifting the accordion a few inches off the ground.  The “light” instruments seemed less light when I was carrying them all at once.  The guitar/mandolin stand was this big awkward thing I strapped to the accordion case, and it kept getting caught in doorways.  I was constantly worried that I was going to squash the ukulele or sit on the flute.

The problem is that it’s nice to have instrumental variety in a band.  When that band has only three members, it’s not the guitarist who ends up providing that variety:  it’s the “other instrumentalist,” the idiot foolish enough to have more than one instrument available.  It makes sense.  Not every song needs an accordion.  Sometimes, a ukulele is just too quiet or a mandolin too shrill.  When you’re playing a certain kind of bluegrass without a fiddle, a flute can make a half-decent substitute in a pinch.  I could easily have said, “I’m going to stick with the mandolin this time around,” but I’m a fan of mixing it up.  I do find that when I do ridiculous stuff like this, I end up kind of regretting not being able to drive.

The gig went well, incidentally.  Johnny Cash and the accordion make a surprisingly good combination.

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