Jim Hardin’s musical instrument collection includes oddities like the guitalele and banjolele.Jim Hardin’s musical instrument collection includes oddities like the guitalele and banjolele.

Unusual instruments, familiar notes

SHERIDAN — Not all instruments sound alike and not all musicians march to the beat of the same drum, or bodhran.
These artists found and learned their art on instruments unfamiliar to most people by appearance, but with well-known sounds.
Bill Bradshaw
What is the instrument you play?
Mandolins. I call one Mrs. Stiver and Mr. Kimble. Those are the people that made them.
How did you first become interested in this instrument? I was in graduate school in Louisiana and a friend played different stringed instruments and he had this old Aria mandolin that he let me play and he taught me a couple of fiddle tunes. It was something I was able to do. It was intuitive on the mandolin. I tried to play guitar a little off and on over the years and it never gelled, but it did with the mandolin. So then my wife bought that mandolin from him and gave it to me as a gift.
How did you learn to play it? I am self-taught by books, listening, watching other people play and listening to other people play. I taught myself how to read music. I’ve probably had three lessons in my life and the last two were really very helpful. I had been playing long enough that it meant something. I was pushing 30 when I started playing. That is relatively late to expect to be real good.
Do you know the history of the instrument?
It is an old instrument, with European, maybe Asian roots. One is an A and one is a F. The A model is older; the F model was developed in the 1920s by the Gibson Company mostly. Essentially they look and play the same. You pay a lot for the fancy scrolls (designs on the instrument) but they don’t mean anything. The sound box dimensions are the same on both kinds. The Stradivarius design on violins was adopted by mandolin makers, I believe by the Gibson Company. That was a stroke of genius.
What makes your instrument special or important in a band?
It depends on the band of course and the type of music you are playing. In an Irish setting, it plays the melody along with the fiddle. In a blue grass band it tends to be the snare drum of the group, but there is typically not a drummer in a blue grass band, so it is the back beat. And they are also very well known for brilliant, inspirational, really cool instrumental leads. They work really well in a jazz, bluegrass or classical setting. They do well in any genre. One of Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits had a mandolin in it. People ask me what it is all the time. For as versatile as they are and as many genres as they show up in they are surprisingly unknown. But they’ve been around forever.
Steve Baskin
What is the instrument(s) you play?
I play an instrument called a bodhran. It is an Irish frame drum. They usually vary in diameter from 14 to 18 inches, but there are smaller and larger drums as well.  The single drumhead is traditionally made of goat skin, but synthetic heads are also now available.  The drum is played in an upright position and is struck using a beater called a cipin or tipper, but also can be played using the bare hand.

How did you first become interested in this instrument?
I began playing jazz on a drum set when I was 12, so any kind of drum and percussion interests me.  I saw Celtic Sage perform when I first moved here and loved the rhythm component of the group.  I immediately thought it would be fun to play that kind of music.  A few years later there was an opening in the group for a bodhran player, and I auditioned and got the job.
How did you learn to play it?
I learned by watching videos and reading about technique. But mostly by just playing with recorded music of every Irish group I could get my hands on. After awhile, rhythm and technique meld into the ability to play on a high level.
Do you know the history of the instrument?
The history is somewhat in dispute. Some say the drum has an ancient history in Ireland and can trace it back hundreds of years. Others say that it is a fairly recent instrument on the music scene. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Simple frame drums like the bodhran are found in cultures throughout the world.  The bodhran seems not to have gained widespread use and acceptance until the 1960s and 1970s, when it began to be played in many groups with the resurgence of Irish folk music in that era.  It is, however, unique in the way it is played and that gives it a very distinctive sound which works well with the cadence of Irish music.
What makes your instrument special or important in a band?
The bodhran is simply the pulse of Irish music.  It has such a distinctive sound when coupled with Irish melody and time signatures that you know on hearing the song that it is Irish!
Jim Hardin
What is the instrument you play?
Besides the guitar, I play two unique instruments. One is called the banjolele, which is a cross between a banjo and ukulele. It is a four-string instrument that tunes and chords like a ukulele, but has a small banjo head on it that helps you get more volume with it’s snare design and the sound of a banjo. The other is the guitalele, which is a cross between a classical guitar and ukulele, having six nylon strings and about one-fourth the size of the typical guitar.
How did you first become interested in this instrument?
After spending most of 2012 battling Stage 4 throat and neck cancer, I thought I would give up playing and singing music. A friend named Doug at the VA hospital where I work encouraged me to take a jam session class in the spring of 2013 led by Lynn Young, a prominent musician and jammer from Johnson County. With Lynn as my “musical therapist” and his sidekick named Bill, I was able to regain some skill in playing the guitar and singing, though not as the high tenor I used to be. Through this class I became connected to multiple jam sessions in Sheridan County and even helped start one in Story and the VA hospital for both patients and employees. We have banjos, fiddles, mandolins, upright bass guitars, dobros and, of course, guitars.
I wanted to play more than just the guitar as some others could, but wanted something different, so after a little research I chose the banjolele, soon to be followed by the guitalele. Needless to say, I selected unique instruments which raised some eyebrows and provided some source for jokes at my expense, but it’s all in good fun.
How did you learn to play it?
I’ve been playing the guitar since I was 15 years old (I am 53 now) which I learned as a result of getting an “F” in algebra. My father grounded me for six weeks, which meant house arrest in my bedroom after school. Instead of studying extra in algebra I used my “confinement” to teach myself guitar as I had one my parents bought the year before. It did not take an “F” in algebra to get me to learn the banjolele or guitalele, but I did teach myself to play these as well. I used charts and YouTube videos to assist with learning the banjolele. The guitalele chords just like a grown up guitar so I just need to remember that I am playing a fourth higher from guitar tuning. For those who understand music this just means that when I play a typical “G” chord on the guitar, it is actually a “D” chord on the guitalele.
Do you know the history of the instrument?
Supposedly, the banjolele was invented in 1917 by Alvin Keech, who manufactured many of these instruments. They became a staple in Vaudeville acts and were played by prominent musicians, including George Harrison. The key advantage of the banjolele is you get a very playable small compact instrument like a ukulele that adds the volume of a banjo, even with a head of only six to eight inches in diameter. As for the guitalele, frankly I think it evolved from a toy guitar. I believe it is a relatively newer instrument and was designed primarily for its compact size, making it easy to take on trips. Serious players can spend several hundred dollars on a guitalele.
 What makes your instrument special or important in a band?
Both of the instruments provide comic relief if nothing else, especially the banjolele. They do provide high pitched sounds which blend well with deep sounding stringed instruments. They are very easy to learn to play, very compact, and when you play these it is not hard to think happy thoughts. You just can’t sing a sad sounding song with instruments that sound like a ukulele. In other words, even a song like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams can’t help but sound happy on these instruments. Whether through chuckles or their sound, these are important to the band as they brighten a crowd up.
Joan Puma
What is the instrument you play?
It is the Little Lady harmonica-ette by Hohner—only one octave from high C.
How did you first become interested in this instrument?
I have several regular size harmonicas and maybe 30 years ago stumbled on this one, probably as a joke. I’ve kept it in the car year-round, so the plastic case has partially melted.
How did you learn to play it?
I’m not sure I’ve learned to play any of my harmonicas—you just sort of breathe in and out—the key you’re playing is conveniently on the out breath.
Do you know the history of the instrument?
A free reed instrument, says Wikipedia, in 1857, Matthias Hohner, a clockmaker from Trossingen, started producing harmonicas.
Eventually he became the first to mass-produce them. He used a mass-produced wooden comb that he made by machine-cutting firms.
What makes your instrument special or important in a band?
A harmonica player like James Cotton or Little Walter (there ain’t many like them!) lifts a blues band to Seventh Heaven!

About

Christina Schmidt

Christina Schmidt has worked at The Sheridan Press since August 2012. She covers a variety of feature stories as well as stories related to local schools.

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