Family Instruments

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A recent post on the Fleamarket Music bulletin board (www.fleamarketmusic.com/bulletin/default.asp) brought back some memories.  The poster was a non-musician who’d inherited from his late father a 1981 Martin tiple.  He was asking for advice about selling the instrument.  My advice:  Keep it, and get into music!

(For those of you who may not be sure exactly what a tiple is:  Pronounced either “TEE-play” or “tipple,” depending upon who you talk to, the instrument is based on various South American instruments, has ten strings in four courses — unison or octave, like a 12-string guitar — and was popular early in the 20th Century.  Martin made them in the 20s and 30s, resurrected them in later years, but, sadly, doesn’t make them now.)

The poster’s story took me back to my step-grandfather.  When I was little, he let me play his Martin bowl-back mandolin.  As I found out years later from correspondence with Martin, it had been made in 1902, ordered by his mother from the family’s Southern California farm, and shipped to him when he was a student at a boarding school on the East Coast.  I later found copies of the school’s yearbooks from that time, with photos of my step-grandfather proudly strumming in the school’s Mandolin Orchestra.

I never really took to the mandolin.  I was strumming a plastic ukulele at the time I first fooled around with my step-grandfather’s mandolin, to be replaced by my first guitar when I was in the fourth grade.  But I held onto the instrument, and would occassionally pull it out and strum it.

In 1994 the mandolin fell off a closet shelf during the the Northridge Earthquake, and was crushed by the heavier stuff that toppled onto it from the higher shelves.  I kept what was left, and sometime in 1999 or 2000 showed the mandolin to restoration expert Frank Ford at Gryphon Strings in Palo Alto.  (www.gryphonstrings.com)  I was disappointed to learn from Ford that the cost of restoration simply could not be justified, particularly as Martin had made tens of thousands of these mandolins during the instrument’s heyday, and that if I really wanted to play mandolin, I could find a good-condition Martin from the same time period for a fraction of what it would cost to repair my step-grandfather’s.

But something else that I learned from Ford brought a smile to my face:  In looking at the instrument he became suspicious of the tailpiece.  Bringing up his computer data for reference, he confirmed that the tailpiece wasn’t the original, and that it had been manufactured in the mid-1920s.  Ford also pointed out evidence of some small repairs that he theorized might have been done around that time.  About the time my step-grandfather had met my grandmother.  (They were married in 1928.)  Up until then, my image of my step-grandfather had been of an elderly, formal, and stern businessman.  He ran a farming company, but never left the office to go out on the farm unless he was wearing a three-piece wool suit and a fedora.  Where his employees drove Chevy pick-up trucks, he drove a big Oldsmobile sedan.  And I’d never heard him listen to music, let alone talk about it (even though his and my grandmother’s home included a beautiful baby grand piano that she played, and that — after having been carefully rebuilt and restored — sits in the living room of one of my brothers’ homes).

But when Ford talked about the apparent repair and change to the mandolin in the mid 1920s, all of a sudden I realized that my step-grandfather had once been a young man.  And that at some point in his late 30s, when he met my grandmother, he must have pulled that prep school mandolin out of its leather case and taken it to a music store in Los Angeles to have it repaired … so that he could woo my grandmother with it!

(My own woo’ing story:  I played guitar in all sorts of bands in high school and college.  For the love of music, and for that other reason that many young men take up the instrument.  But in the course of building a career and raising children the music took a long hiatus.  Only after the kids had left for college did I pull out the guitar again, taking jazz lessons from a great guitar player who was barely older than them.  Night after night I’d practice scales and arpeggios down the hall in our “music room.”  My chops – such as they ever were – came back very, very slowly.  About the only thing that would have sounded more awful than those rebuilding practice sessions would been if I’d instead taken up the clarinet or the violin.  But one evening after putting my guitar back into its case and turning off my amp, I walked into our bedroom to find my wife sitting up in the bed with a book in her hand, and a big smile on her face.  “That sounded really nice,” she said.  And I said to myself, “Wow.  The guitar’s STILL a babe-magnet!”)