you happen to attend a Standing Stones performance, one of the things you
might notice is the large number of instruments that get played. You might
even see us get through an entire hour-long set of music without ever using
the same combination of instruments twice.
This has caused us to be referred to as "the sound-man's nightmare".
We didn't intend to end up that way, but somehow it just happened. Sometimes
people ask me "just how many instruments do you play?"
I'm sorry I can't give an exact answer to that question. What I can
do, however, is to describe what instruments we usually perform with. For
the benefit of those who might be interested, I'll also list the instrument
makers for the non-generic instruments.
heard of Stradivarius, you've heard of Amati... mine was made by Peter
McGregor (Strathdon, Aberdeen, Scotland), 1831.
My first violin was a old Bohemian instrument that was played by my
mother, and her mother before her. I've set it up as a baritone
violin, which sounds an octave lower than a standard violin. It's great
for slow airs and the like.
Thanks to my guitar guru, Martin
Simpson, I've managed to acquire the ultimate guitar, a 16-fret to
the body six-string guitar made by Stefan
Sobell (Hexham, Northumberland), Feb. 1995. I imagine the sound is
going to continue to improve for the next 100 years or so. The Sobell guitar
is well suited to alternate tunings (no surprise, given that Martin Simpson
was involved!) and the lowest string can be tuned all the way down to a
low C without losing the famous Sobell resonance and sustain. There's a
picture of this guitar available, which also shows
Vicki's main harp.
I also have a 5-course mandola made by Stefan Sobell in 1991. Elsewhere
on these pages you may see references to my playing mandolin. I used to
use a vintage Gibson A model mandolin, but I sold it (to a good home) when
I got the Sobell.
On the right is a picture of a very similar instrument belonging to Dan
Beimborn. I tried to make the picture smaller, but I always end up
with a lot of "jaggies", so you're stuck with the large picture.
Some time I will add some pictures of our own instruments.
The usual 4-course mandola has the same range as the viola, a fifth
lower than a violin or mandolin. But the 5-course mandola covers the full
mandolin range and goes down to the mandola low end as well. At least that
is the way I have mine tuned. Dan prefers open-type tunings.
Since I've started playing with a low C string I've realized that a
lot of tunes can be played an octave lower, which gives a nice effect,
especially when you are playing with a cellist. (If you played with guitar
accompaniment you would probably just get drowned out.)
I seem to have acquired a few banjos. These are all from the 1920s.
Later on the tenor banjo evolved to have a longer neck, which gives more
volume when playing with Dixieland jazz bands, but is not so convenient
for Irish music. Check out the introduction to Irish
banjo for some historical background.
Most often I use an open-back Vega
which has a 1925 Whyte Laydie neck with a 1930 Tubaphone body. I also have
a 1926 Paramount
Leader resonator banjo, which I prefer from time to time.
Here's a good
banjo manufacturers' history site. As well as these
I have a Worco banjo (probably built for a mail-order company) with a very
unusual fine-tuner tailpiece which I strung with nylon strings as an experiment.
I never take that one out of the house. (The experiment was not a great
Since I've been playing the 5-course mandola, I realized that the lower
four strings of it are the same as standard tenor banjo tuning. So if I
learn tunes an octave low on the mandola they would be fingered the same
on the banjo. That has inspired me to string the Paramount in normal tenor
tuning (CGDA) instead of Irish tuning (GDAE). I was thinking of some of
the Irish banjo-players on the early recordings who often used high tunings.
It's a different kind of sound than the modern Irish style. I still haven't made
up my mind about this concept.
I have a beautiful instrument made by Terry
McGee of Canberra, Australia (my birthplace, coincidentally), which my father gave to me as a
wedding present. It is
made of gidgee wood (a native Australian wood) with one key (F natural).
In the picture it is leaning against the sign for a street in Canberra that was named after my grandfather.
I also have a 8-key instrument on order from one of those famous flute-makers
with a years-long waiting list. I hope to be playing this instrument some
day. However, I noticed that when archaeologists announced that Neanderthal
flutes had been discovered in a dwelling
site dating to 85000 BC, some flute players pointed out that the delivery
schedule was similar to that of modern makers!
Terry doesn't believe in tuning slides (or didn't until he came out
with his own design recently), correctly pointing out that the differing
expansion of metal and wood frequently causes cracking. Therefore my McGee
flute operates only in A440 concert pitch, which is just where we keep
the harps tuned. So normally I am all set.
for playing in those non-concert pitch sessions, or in harsh environments
that would endanger a fine wooden flute, I've got one of the amazing M&E
flutes made in Ireland out of finest quality PVC. It plays pretty well
in tune, it's impressively loud and it's more or less indestructible. It has
a tuning slide that gives a nice wide range of adjustmentI've
used it to play with an Eb didgeridoo (it was one of those California
on top of that the all-black finish makes it look like the kind of flute
Darth Vader would play! Here's a photo of me playing the M&E flute
in a hot-tub. We don't have rain-barrels here in California, so this is
the local substitute! (Flute-player's joke)
I gave Vicki one of my old "no-name" wooden flutes, of which
I had a couple lying around the house. Then she decided to get a baroque
flute. She likes the smaller fingerholes. She finally decided to learn
a small instrument for a change. She was thinking of concertina but prices
for them are through the roof. Some day we'll be doing flute duets. Then
she decided she liked the other flute better anyway. So for our early music
activities I have a baroque flute, and I also have a Renaissance flute
made by Ralph Sweet.
Renaissance flutes have a cylindrical bore, so they are actually easier to make
than baroque or Irish flutes, which have to have a carefully controlled conical
taper to the bore. You won't see this difference reflected in the price from
most makers, however, other than Sweet.
I started out on a silver Boehm system flute (the kind of flute that
most classical musicians play). Now I mostly play wooden flute, because
I prefer the sound. But for a few tunes that use a lot of chromatic notes,
I still use the silver flute. When I get the 8-key wooden flute that I
have on order, I may phase out the silver flute. But, on the other hand,
it has a certain character that is sometimes rather nice.
The recorder is not in high regard among traditional musicians. To
be honest, it is not an instrument that is particularly suited to traditional
music. However, because of its adaptability to different keys, I find it
useful in certain song accompaniments. I mostly use the lower members of
the recorder family, the tenor and alto recorders. I usually would prefer
a whistle to a soprano recorder. So far I haven't invested much in recorders.
I'm using Yamaha
300 series plastic recorders which are good value for the money, although
of course they don't have quite the sound of a fine wooden instrument.
The best place I know to get a good deal on the Yamaha recorders is LMI
at 800-456-2334. The bass recorder is a particularly good value
compared to the wooden ones on the market. It is nice when accompanying Vicki's singing because it
can go in a range below her voice (it sounds down to F in the bass clef).
We also use these in our early music activities.
The whistle is one of the most ancient Irish instruments, and also
one of the least expensive. I have quite a few inexpensive whistles in
various keys. But it is also possible to get fine, hand-made expensive
ones, such as my mahogany Thin
Weasel, made by Glenn Schultz. After 3 years on the waiting
list, I have also received one of the legendary Copeland whistles.
The Thin Weasel has a cylindrical bore and the Copeland has a conical bore, so the
sounds are quite different.
my accordion repertoire consists of marches, polkas, slides and some song
accompaniments. I haven't really spent much time attempting to play reels
and jigs on the accordion. It's an instrument I play for fun. I have a
Hohner Morino IV N piano accordion. It has a beautiful sound but it is
very heavy. It weighs about 35 pounds (16 kg). I got a small 48-bass Chinese
accordion for those occasions when I don't want to drag the big one along.
The only problem is that there's no Bm chord, I have to remember to do
Bm7 instead (i.e., a D triad over a B bass). Personally I prefer a "wet"
tuned accordion. The Irish are all going for dry tunings these days, but
I think it lacks character. Luckily the Chinese haven't changed over yet.
(Maybe Sharon Shannon recordings are not available there?)
I have several other instruments which we normally don't take out to
gigs. I play lute with the Collegium Musicum, but I don't use it when I
play with Vicki because I haven't figured out the best way to amplify it
(lutes are extremely quiet instruments) and we haven't really done many
arrangements that use it. I have a Roland GR-1 guitar synthesizer which
could provide some interesting possibilities. I working on the idea of
using the guitar in lute tuning to play lute intabulations of medieval
and Renaissance pieces, producing the sounds of perhaps an organ or brass
ensemble. I have some keyboard synths which I use with my computer, but
I've decided I'm not enough of a keyboard player to venture out of the
house. I also have a tenor saxophone, which I particularly like for Renaissance
music. The big problem is that it is so loud, it doesn't go with any of
our other instruments. I also have several electric guitars and basses
which get used around the house or when hanging out with some of my rowdy
friends. There are also the bass pedals I picked up at a garage sale for
$25, but have yet to learn to use while playing another instrument. You
might find a few other instruments up in the attic as well...
main instrument is made by Michael Koster of Fremont, California. It has
38 strings going down to a low A, and is fairly similar to a Rydecki design.
When travelling she uses a small Lionwood, the case of which doubles as
her suitcase. The only difficulty is that when there's a good session,
she has to pull out all her clothes to get to the harp!
had a Caswell Gwydion 36-string wire-strung harp which we used on for our
CD. Shortly (we hope) this will be replaced by a instrument made by Michael
Koster, since the Gwydion has been sold to someone who has always dreamed
of having one. (It should be noted that most of the harps being played
in the South Bay have belonged to Vicki at one time or another.)
cello, as can be deduced from the markings, formerly belonged to Sequoia
High School. Nevertheless it is a nice-sounding instrument made in Germany
in the 1920s.
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