Learning an instrument that doesn't exist - EFG Creative

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Learning an instrument that doesn’t exist


I am many things. A designer, a photographer, a singer, and a violinist, to name a few. I am also a tinkerer and a perpetual student. I don’t feel alive if I’m not learning something new.

I also own two guitars (technically), but I don’t consider myself a guitarist. Standard-tuned guitars don’t feel quite “right” to me, so I’ve spread out the notes and created two monsters with ridiculous tuning. It was the only way to accommodate my unrelenting desire for something special. I wanted to both expand my skillset and keep within the safety of what I already understood: violin and fiddle tuning. So I took my guitars and built myself a hell of a challenge.

My bastardized guitars are an exercise in patience and discovery. Located in conflicting sectors of uncharted territory, my “mando-things,” as my sister calls them, straddle several borders between octave mandolin, mandocello, liuto cantabile, cittern, bouzouki, and bass guitar.

This particular abomination can almost be found online with many names. Mandophone guitar, all-fifths guitar, all-fifths cittern, 6-course mandocello, liuto cantabile (with an added course on the low end), and many more descriptive terms and tunings that no two people can seem to fully agree on.

I own a 6-string acoustic version (the original prototype) and a 12-string semi-hollow version that has double strings for that distinct mando sound. Both instruments are tuned the same: FCGDAE. Other people I’ve encountered online tend to tune their mandophones CGDAEB, a fifth above mine, but otherwise the same. Personally, I prefer the sassy attitude of the growly bass register and octave mandolin high end over a fragile high B string that none of my other instruments have an equivalent of.

Is this endeavor really brilliant or really stupid?
I honestly haven’t decided yet.

As I travel on this journey, I’ve realized that my mando-thing represents myself. Intersecting many identities and claiming all of them proudly, being adaptable and versatile for many differing situations, and containing a wide-ranging talent that spans an unruly number of octaves, if I do say so myself.

Baron Collins-Hill calls his custom guitar-body liuto cantabile a monster. Ellen at Fanny’s House of Music called an electric almost-mandocello a creature. FranticTones on the MandolinCafe forums called his half-mandocello conversion a “tentacled thing.” I call my mando-thing a beast. One thing is for sure: this type of instrument is truly wild. In my quest to tame it (and decipher aspects of myself), I’ve been noodling around, experimenting with guitar effects and learning how to bring out the best in this instrument. I’ve also been building daily habits of practicing music and working towards being able to record my own songs.

I even built the EFG studio with music in mind. Altogether, my studio is about 1/3 design and 2/3 music. I’ve given myself a sacred space to embrace every creative facet of my being, and it’s evident on the walls themselves. My video conference background is the wall of instruments behind me, populated by my two mando-things, three violins, a bass in desperate need of repair, and a vintage Casio keyboard, all bedazzled in a grid of color-changing LED lights. Nearby is a 3D printer and a vocal booth, also basking in a multicolored glow.

Anything I want to make, I can do so in this delightful room. There is a lot of empowerment in this studio. There is a lot of me. My Tamagotchi collection also adorns a wall nearby. My digital friends cheer me on as I work to live my best life as a studio-dwelling weirdo.

But to wield the power of the studio and the devices within, I have to learn how to use it. And accept its limitations. And my own as well.

There are no structured lessons for my obscure monstrosity of an instrument, as far as I can find. There are some octave mandolin tutorials, but the scale of this instrument is about an inch too long to comfortably make a lot of the chord shapes with my small violinist hands. Mandocello chord charts are more realistic for this scale length, but they don’t include the extra fifth on each end that only I seem to have. I have to transpose it in my head if I want to utilize the entire range of my instrument. Mandocello tutorials are notably absent from YouTube.

I didn’t get very far before I realized that I’m going to have to figure this out on my own, stitching together pieces of guides and lessons and adapting them to my unique needs. So I’m attempting to compile some resources here, using this platform as a home base.

As I move forward with this adventure, it’s important to know why I’m even doing it in the first place.

My original inspiration for this entire project was to become a better fiddler while satisfying my indescribable craving for frets and deeper/richer voicing. I figured tuning the highest four strings of my guitar an octave below my violins would be a good place to start. Then I just kept going. Another fifth down to a cello C. And another fifth down to a bass F.

What started as a roundabout fiddling hack has since turned into a way for me to learn and internalize music theory and accompany myself when I write songs.

My guitar-to-mando conversions are very simple. I make no physical modifications aside from drilling out the F string tuners and tailpiece notches ever so slightly in order to fit the bass strings through.

At first, I naively thought my re-strung guitar strategy would be the lazy way to achieve what I wanted. But before I could string it, I had to do math to figure out what gauge strings I even needed. Honestly, I’m still not 100% sure that I’m using the “right” gauges, but it works for now, so I’m not gonna mess with it unless I have a reason to.

Leaving well enough alone is another lesson I’ve learned from this experiment. Two-finger chords can get a point across just as well as chords that painfully contort and stretch my left hand into a misshapen claw. Music doesn’t have to be difficult to be effective. There is beauty in simplicity. And at this stage of my life, I’m past the point of trying to impress people with complexity. I’d rather just make music and enjoy the process.

Stay tuned. 🎸🎶

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