Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The String Incident

So, you’ve never changed strings on a certain instrument. Let’s say it is bouzouki.
It is the same principle as a mandolin and you have changed the strings on many mandolins for world renowned players. The bouzouki has eight strings, four pairs tuned G/D/A/E, same loop end strings as a mandolin, just a longer scale. The bottom two strings tune to the same note, (G/D), the first one in a lower register, that’s the only difference. The top two (A/E) are tuned in unison, just like a mandolin. The bridge is exactly like a mandolin’s. No problem.

So what if you’re working on one of the most popular television shows and the band is performing live. And the artist is extremely well known and even started her career on that same very popular television show. You can do this. You are a professional.

You talk to the techs on the set; they let you use their work station. They’ve even got some strings for you to use, although they’re not D’Addarios. You take one set of each string off at a time because it has a floating bridge. You even save the old strings in case something happens, play it safe. Everything goes smooth. Tuning each set of strings as you put them on. You stretch the strings when done. Play a few chords, sounds about right. Feeling good, you set the instrument on the riser and tune the rest of the instruments, electric guitars and bass.

Two hours go by. The call time has been pushed back. The eleven forty five rehearsal and blocking now turns into a one thirty call. You check the tuning on all instruments. You notice that the intervals on the bottom strings of the bouzouki are drastically different. The G strings sounds good, but the lower D string is two octaves below the high string. That can not be right, the two strings need to be matching. You got time, so you decide to tune the D string up’ like a mandolin. It feels tight, but a mandolin is very taut, so you keep turning. The freaking non D’Addario string breaks! Mind racing you remember you saved the old strings. You just threw them in the garbage when you knew you had it down. You head back to the tuning station as your tuner crashes to the ground because you forgot to unplug it.

After digging out the matching string, which by the way, is a nickel wound .022 gauge, you realize that the last person to change strings used the single wrap method and there is barely enough string to wrap around the tuner peg. Being very careful you try to put it back on, only to have the string break right at the tuner. Just then the production manager comes up to tell you that the producers of the very popular television show have decided to record the rehearsal and use the play back for broadcast. I did tell you that is a live television show, not taped. The show order is very tight and there won’t be time to set up the band to play live. The singer will sing over the taped rehearsal. So, instead having five hours to find a string you have…….

Remember this is a .022 nickel wound loop end string. Of course the techs do not have one. You ask the player if he happens to have another set. Of course not. You find the production office and send a runner out to find the string. Did I mention this was in Los Angeles? Every one is very helpful, they make phone calls, find the nearest music store. Should be back in an hour, depending on traffic.

In the mean time you search through the strings at the tech station and find three .025 gauge nickel wound strings. You try to twist the ball end so you can loop the string through the clasps on the bridge. When you twist the string to get the ball out the string comes apart. You try twice just to make sure. You leave the instrument on the tuning station waiting for the runner to return. He calls on your cell to inform you that Sam Ash says bouzouki strings are special order only. They could have it in three days. You think ‘There has to be a Greek music store somewhere in the Los Angeles area?’ It’s called grasping for straws.

The producers call for the band. The player comes to check on the progress. He tells you need to put something on there because they are getting ready to RECORD! Oh, you know! After you place the risers and plug in the rest of the band you run back to the tuning station, looking around in desperation you spy a set of D’Addario strings, turning over the package you see there is a .022 phosphor bronze ball end string in the set. Quickly tear open the package, mind going a million miles an hour, trying to figure out how you are going to put the string on. Light bulb goes on; you put the end of the string through the ball thereby creating a loop. It holds; you start to tune, the player comes and grabs the instrument, you follow him back to the stage where they are now getting drum sounds. He is tuning, you notice that he is lowering the G string; a lot. You ask how he is tuning? Not looking at you he says, “It’s the same as a mandolin.” He is not smiling.

You answer, “I know, trust me, I know.” Then it hits you! You had the lower G string an octave too high, the D string was right. All you had to do was lower the G string. The string holds. They keep the third take for broadcast. The player relaxes, hands you the bouzouki, and actually smiles. Not sure how many times you have apologized, you say you are sorry again just to make sure he hears. In fact you would like to yell out to the hundred people there that you are sorry, but they wouldn’t know what the hell you are talking about, so you put the instrument back on the riser. The show goes on. First thing you do when all the gear is packed away is call your buddy at D’Addario and order a box of J97 bouzouki strings.
Let me count the ways in which I could have avoided the string incident;

  • First, since I had never changed strings on a bouzouki I could have asked the musician to help me. Or, at least, asked for advice.

  • Second, I should have listened more carefully to the intervals between strings before I took off each pair. Important detail. Even though it was principally the same as a mandolin, it was NOT a mandolin.

  • Third, once I got the strings on and tuned it I should have taken it to the musician to make sure it was correct. How obvious is that!

  • Fourth, because I had been sitting around being bored, waiting for the call time, I should have left it alone instead of trying to change something that I had done two hours earlier. Remember, I did not fool with it until after the first call time had passed.

If I had followed any one of the above, I would not be sitting here typing this story.
Was there anything I did right? I did not panic! Lesson(s) learned: Listen! Don’t take your eyes off the ball! Keep your head, and above all, ask for help when you are not 100 % sure. Also, for me, it finally settled the single wrap vs. a three wrap string method. I always like to wrap the strings three times around the peg to get nice stretching. I believe the string will hold a better tune. Lastly; always carry spare D’Addario strings no matter what the instrument is! Cheers!

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