Multi-Instrumentalism: A Journey

Last weekend, my Dad and I played a show at Opening Bell Coffee in Dallas. It was good for us in that we able to test the concept of The Flathead Fords in front of an audience and figure out what our strengths and weaknesses are in this format. The reason that this gig really stood out to me though is that it was the first time I found myself having to switch instruments multiple times during the set. I’m going to talk specifically about this aspect of last weekend’s performance and what I learned from it.

Now you might be thinking to yourself, is it truly necessary to switch instruments during a show? In certain cases it is. A lot of why we do it is more from a stylistic standpoint. Since our goal with the Flathead Fords is to showcase multiple different styles of Acoustic Roots music, we found it was most appropriate to switch instruments based on whatever genre we were highlighting. For one thing, it wouldn’t feel right to play mandolin on a Grandpa Jones song where the majority of the solos are played on banjo. By contrast it would be awkward to play Clawhammer banjo on the Bill Monroe tune, “Tennessee Blues.” Point being we want our interpretations to be as authentic as possible, hence why we felt it was necessary to switch instruments throughout our show.

Where it gets really interesting is that unlike years past, I was the person switching instruments last Saturday night. When Dad and I played with Philip Ferguson & Texas True a few years ago, he was the one switching instruments much for the same reasons that I mentioned earlier. On this particular show our roles had reversed. I switched between mandolin, guitar and banjo throughout the evening while Dad stayed on guitar. I learned several valuable things through the experience, some of which I would like to share here.

The first thing I realized (which if I’m being totally honest I already kind of knew) is that mandolin is indeed the instrument I am most comfortable on. I’m in the process of putting together a promo video from footage of last Saturday’s show. One thing that I noticed very clearly as I watched it back is that I tend to feel the need to look at the necks of the banjo and guitar as I’m playing more than I do the mandolin.

I also felt the need to be laser focused whenever I played either of those two instruments. This is to a certain degree a good thing, but I found it was problematic whenever I was having to focus on both singing and playing. The majority of the material involving them required a certain amount of energy and power vocally. Because of my intense concentration with the instruments, I wasn’t able to deliver as strong of a vocal performance as I could have. It was definitely a weak point for me, but I’m working hard to be able to put equal energy into both the instrument and the voice, something that I don’t find terribly difficult with the mandolin.

Lastly, I gained a lot of appreciation for my Dad’s ability as a multi-instrumentalist. He’s been doing it for many years with multiple different bands. He’s most notable for doing it during our time with Texas True as I mentioned earlier. He played everything from banjo, dobro, fiddle and even steel guitar in that band. He made it look absolutely effortless. Of course he would probably tell you it isn’t. As I discovered for myself last Saturday night, that sentiment is certainly true. It’s one thing to be sitting in your living room playing through “Black Mountain Rag” on the acoustic guitar occasionally. It’s another to be playing it on stage, in a microphone while in front of an audience. In short, it takes a whole lot of guts. I’ve always had lots of respect for any artist who goes on stage to share their craft with an audience, but I do even more so now after this experience.

My main objective with writing this post is not only to tell you about this new foray in my musical life, but to be as transparent as possible when describing it. I used “A Journey” as part of the title of this month’s post because it truly does feel that way right now. Who knows, I may periodically share an update with you on my progress if I feel it’s necessary. For now though, I just wanted to give you a glimpse of my musical development and what I’ve been learning as it’s been happening!

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