Listening with Your Eyes

Red Henry

Red Henry

Folks, that might seem like a strange title for a post, but I just wanted to point out how musicians sometimes seem to evaluate instruments on the basis of what they look like, rather than what they sound like.

This really comes into play with banjos, and the musicians are well aware of it. They know that others will evaluate their music partly on the basis of what kind of instrument they play. For example, I recently saw a band photo session where the banjo player hadn't brought her banjo, and she was going to have to hold a banjo brought by one of the other band members. She was a bit alarmed by that, and said, "Is it a crummy banjo? I'm not having my picture taken holding a crummy banjo!" Fortunately, this banjo had 'Gibson' on the peghead and looked even older than the one she'd left at home. So she held it happily in the photo. That was a banjo she didn't mind being seen with.

I was reminded of this another time at a big picking party. A friend of ours owned one of the quite valuable Gibson F-5 mandolins from the early 1920s. He couldn't come to the party, but sent the mandolin there with another friend of ours, who handed it to me to play.

Now, the jam session had been going loud and long at this point. I had no problem with that, since my two mandolins (Randy Wood #1 and #3) will cut through any number of banjo and guitar players, and the pickers certainly weren't giving me any slack. But then I started playing that old F-5, and suddenly everything changed. The whole jam session quieted down to hear that $100,000 Gibson mandolin-- and they needed to. The instrument was not remarkable either for tone or for volume, and it couldn't have been heard otherwise. So the pickers were using their eyes, not their ears, to evaluate that mandolin, and they quieted down to let it be heard. They hadn't done that when I was playing my Randy Wood, which was frankly a much better instrument.

So, next time you're in a group of pickers, really pay attention to what the other people's instruments sound like. Don't listen with your eyes, listen with your EARS!


One thought on “Listening with Your Eyes

  1. Martha Sheperd

    I have experienced the same thing going into a jam with my very fine Collings D1 guitar and having some Martin HD28 people look down their noses until they hear it.

Comments are closed.