Pickin’ ‘n’ grinnin’

Gary Lester

“I’m a pickin’ ‘n’ I’m a grinnin’!” Remember that wonderful corny bit that Roy Clark and Buck Owens did on “Hee-Haw”? (R.I.P., Roy….) That was the backwoods version of Rowan and Martin’s “Laugh-In”, 1960’s precursors to Saturday Night Live)

I’ve done a little of both. Pickin’ at a jam session always leads to grinnin’ whether you’re in the groove or stumblin’ along.

One element of playin’ in a group is stayin’ in tune. Now, there are several types of electronic tuners that allow a group to get close to perfectly in tune with one another. Before that, there were pitch pipes; little sets of tubes that were set up to the right notes. You’d blow through them and adjust your instrument’s strings to match the pitch.

And, of course, there are challenges all along the way. Fiddles have short strings, banjos have long strings, basses have VERY long strings…. Fiddles and basses have four strings, banjos have five, guitars have six, mandolins have eight…. Guitars, mandolins, and banjos have frets so notes can be precisely played. Fiddle and basses don’t have frets, so people playin’ those are just guessin’ where the notes are anyway. Now that I think about it, it’s pretty darned amazin’ that we ever got close to bein’ in tune with each other, but we did, most of the time.

As instruments sit, they can go out of tune. There are all kinds of influences; age of the strings, temperature, humidity…. I just heard a guy say you can explain being out of tune because the strings are brand new… OR, because they’re very old. Anyway, tunin’ is standard procedure whenever you play.

Sometime you pick up an instrument, strum a chord, and it sounds weird. If one string is off just a little, it causes, well, discord. At that point, you can pull out your pitch pipe or tuner, do a little twistin’ of the pegs, and solve the problem. But even if you don’t have those options, there’s a solution. You pick one string that sounds right and adjust all the others so they are at the right relative pitch to that first one. You “choke up” on a particular string at a particular fret (or just guess the position on a fiddle or bass) and adjust the adjacent string to match the tone. There’s a different pattern of where you choke up the string for the different instruments. The result can be a set-up that’s a little sharp, higher in pitch than it should be, or a little flat, lower than the exact pitch it should be.

This only works when you’re playin’ by yourself or if everyone else is willing to tune to your instrument. When you use that method, you’ll be the brunt of jokes if you try to play with others because it will be very obvious that you’re the one who’s out of tune. But again, if you’re playin’ but yourself, it can sound just fine.

I’m wonderin’ if that principle could be applied elsewhere. Certainly there are times when we’re a part of a group or team and we have to be in tune with each other. But aren’t there times when “doin’ our own thing” is good? As a matter of fact, I’m thinkin’ that’s a healthy difference.

Certainly there are loners and other types who can’t or won’t get in tune with others, but that’s a choice they’re makin’ to be different or difficult. What I’m suggestin’ is that a little of that attitude can be healthy.

So, let’s not be afraid to just be tuned to ourselves sometimes. What we create can be just fine. And let’s not be afraid to get in tune with others; sometimes pickin’ ‘n’ grinin’ in an ensemble works better than a solo act.

Gary Lester is a lifetime area resident, a former photographer for the Times Observer, former market manager for WhirleyDrinkworks, retired Executive Director of Family Services of Warren County, and current Director of Leadership Warren County. He is a life-long student and commentator on human behavior.