Thursday, August 23, 2007

Pinky and the Brain

I scored a bunch of free lumber from work recently (this year's bonus--I made sure to earn it) and decided to build a backyard shed with it, a project that's been successfully procrastinated for three years now, as all the tools rusting under my carport attest. I'm one of those natural carpenters, by which I mean I'm married and I own a home. That killer eye for level and square just happens to reside in my partner's head, as do the big-picture designs (and redesigns). All the technical building prowess is my own however, and there's nothing like a square, solid blow with a hammer to show that off. My fingernail immediately turned purple, and I could touch nothing with it for a whole day. Eventually I did bump my pinky a little bit (typing is hard work), causing blood and pus to leak out all over, but mercifully releasing the pressure underneath. Most of the purple bled out, but that nail's still going to come off: close inspection reveals an underground river of frothy goo. It's still leaking clear blister juice from the top, and it's just gross. But what the hell, whoever uses their little finger?

Funny I should ask.

It was a whole year ago (holy crap, have I been blogging that long?) that I decided to retard any skill I'd attained on my mandolin by then by re-learning my right hand technique. My heart was in the right place with the effort, but my problem was less one of anchoring (I mean hey, Bill friggin' Monroe anchored his palm like me, and I can play almost 5% as fast as he can*) and more generally one of pick direction. As I stumbled through the last year teaching myself minor variations of tunes, I found that if I wasn't going the right way, I was fighting the rhythm. So it's been fixing itself. Sort of. About as gradually as I can learn anything, my right hand issues are slowly ironing themselves out.

So now that I'm all the way into second gear again, the obvious thing is to do drop the machine back down to a lurching crawl. Usually when you start learning the mandolin, you go after the old American (by way of the British Isles) fiddle classics. They're tuned in the keys of A, G, or D (or their relative minor keys) because the root notes rest on open strings (just pluck it, don't press it), and that's an easy place to start on either instrument, which are (normally) tuned identically. But if you ultimately wish to express more than the same ol', it's good to get beyond the three-chord classics and/or to play in keys of interest to other instrumentalists. You can do this while using open strings of course, but they won't be your home base anymore, and if you continue to anchor yourself there, you have to relearn the fingerings for every tune each time you play in a different key. To be a more versatile mando player you must make the dreaded foray up the neck. You have to use your pinky. And you have to think--at first.

The mandolin is brilliantly designed for four fingers. (Go ahead and whack your thumb.) It's tuned such that if you start a scale by fretting with your index finger, you'll get to the fourth note (halfway up) with your pinky before you switch strings. If you're playing in all closed positions (i.e., no open strings), then the fifth note will be with the index finger again, and you'll conclude the octave with your pinky. Playing with open strings means you can avoid fretting with your weakest and least coordinated digit--which is why most people start this way--but if you can master that awkward little bastard, then there are only four fretting patterns, depending on with which finger you start. That's true in minor keys as well, or whatever funky-ass mode you're trying to groove in. Only four patterns, ever. It's a piece of cake to transpose your tune to any key at all, just by sliding your starting position up and down the neck. If you play your chords in closed positions too (a good idea anyway), then you also realize how cool it is that the mandolin is four across as well, as you can pinch off every string with a finger, sliding the chords up and down just as easily as the scales.

For any tune I've memorized in the closed positions, transposing is nearly without thought, but it's a bitch getting them in my head in the first place. My wife is learning the fiddle (less ambitiously), and as she picks up a tune, I must do the same. Her up-the-neck lesson isn't coming soon, and as you might guess, her selections don't necessarily play as easily in the closed position, except, you know, when they do. I've found some of the fiddle melodies infuriating to play with pinky applied, but some of the other ones grow surprisingly easier. It's all about minimizing the amount of fingerboard covered and finding the most comfortable fingering sequences. It takes some painful experimenting with which of the four fretting patterns you use to play which parts--thinking!--and it's bloody difficult to read the music, as I don't really associate the short frets with any notes on the staff. But unlike my mediocre attempts at dexterity, I can see how my sinister pinky is opening up doors. If only I get my brain around it.

* even when dead