There has always been a tension between my minimalist tendencies and my musical endeavors. I'm an unashamed gearhead and, while I try to keep my setups pretty simple, playing a variety of instruments means that there is always a decent amount of equipment around. I've reduced a lot in the past couple of years, selling off my sound and lighting gear and really focusing on getting (as Keith from five watt world would say) "the most music from the least gear." So one set of drums, one keyboard, one tiny pedalboard for electric, acoustic, and bass guitar. All reproduced through small, versatile amplifiers and a few favorite microphones. I enjoy the challenge, trying to extract as much sonic range as possible from minimal equipment and approaching the buying and selling of gear very intentionally. But once in a while, it's still nice to add a new tool to my arsenal.
Lately, I've been increasingly interested in creating with inherently simple instruments. As a percussionist, this isn't surprising - many of our tools are rudimentary, yet they produce fantastic sounds! I've found myself drawn to idiophones such as udu and tongue drums, to the simplicity of vibration when struck by hands. I've also been exploring simple stringed instruments with fewer strings, limited ranges, or diatonic tuning.
Enter the stick dulcimer. This cousin of the mountain dulcimer fits the bill perfectly, lending itself to sparse, thoughtful tunes. I've been eyeing these for a while, so I was excited when a good local deal on a McNally G Strumstick turned up last week. You can hear my arrangement of Michael W. Smith's "Song For Rich" here if you want an example of what's possible. Does it have much utility in my typical "gig" settings? No. But for around-the-house playing in the evenings, it is perfect - just the thing to pick up when you have 10 minutes between tasks.
That's the great thing about simple instruments: they offer the opportunity to make more music, more often, with less fuss. In our chaotic world, that is not something to be taken for granted! This has been the refreshing theme of my pandemic music-making, playing more than ever, but in a less cluttered way. I am eagerly awaiting the opportunity to play together with others in my regular settings again, but I expect that my home playing will remain much the same. In music, as in so many other areas, the simplest way to do a thing is often the best one.