Instrument, music

Andy’s Instruments #3: Octave Mandola

After the synthesiser phase I went through just before Christmas, I’m back playing (mostly) acoustic instruments. I find mandolins to be a bit fiddly sometimes, so I thought I’d get a bigger version of the mandolin, the mandola. Except I’ve never seen a left-handed version of one, but I did find a lefty octave mandola (aka octave mandolin*). So I bought that.

An octave mandola is tuned the same as a mandolin, but an octave lower. Mandolins are tuned the same as violins, so the octave mandola is between a viola and a cello in pitch. The tuning is not the same as guitar tuning, so it takes a bit of mental adjustment to play if you’re coming to mandolin playing from guitar, as I am**. None of the usual chord shapes or scale shapes work.

Another big difference is that mandolin family instruments have 8 strings, 4 courses of 2 strings tuned in unison. That can be quite painful on the fingertips to start with. And can take an age to tune up.

Anyway, here is me improvising/twiddling. Sorry for the darkness and bad framing!

I’ve not given up on the synths, my next move will be trying to include them on recordings made with the octave mandola. That should be quite interesting.


*The reason for the confusion (short version): When Gibson made mandolins in the early 20th century, they made a larger version tuned a fifth lower (C-G-D-A-instead of G-D-A-E) which is the same as a viola, and they called it a Mandola. In Europe, there already had been a Mandola (mandolina means ‘little mandola’) so the C-G-D-A instrument became known as an alto-mandolin. In UK and Ireland, the smaller instrument is often known as Tenor-Mandola, the large as Octave -Mandola.  I hope that’s all clear now.

**After a month of playing nothing but mandolin instruments, the guitar suddenly seems huge.

Instrument, music, studio

Andy’s Instruments #2: Korg Volca Keys

I’ve been going through a bit of a synthesiser phase of late, and one of the instruments I’ve bought is this great little device/toy – the Korg Volca Keys.

It’s about the size of a video cassette (ask your parents/grandparents/ancestors) and is a fully functioning synthesiser.  The keyboard is a bit basic, with a touch-sensitive strip rather than actual keys, but the device features a built-in sequencer and a MIDI-in port, so it’s a lot of fun.

It runs on batteries (6 x AA) and has a headphone socket, so it is nice and portable. It has a built-in speaker which can sound a bit tinny, so it’s best plugged into an amp or loudspeakers. But most things are.


Instrument, music, studio

Andy’s Instruments #1: Mbira

I’ve quite a few small, unusual and often completely useless instruments in my ‘studio’ (ie, bedroom). This is one of the recent ones, it’s an Mbira. The Mbira is otherwise known as a Kalimba as well as a lot of other names depending of which country you are in.  They are often referred to as Thumb pianos, although they are not like pianos at all.

Mbira originate in Zimbabwe, and they are portable instruments about the size of – in this case made of – a coconut shell. They are usually made of wood.

You play one by twanging the metal tines with your thumbs. Easy to get a sound out of, and because the notes alternate from left to right you can play chords without your thumbs getting tangled up.  This one is a cheap version, with only 7 tines, I should have saved my pennies and got a much better one which a greater range of notes. I’ve tuned mine to C pentatonic (which can be played as A minor pentatonic if you feel that way inclined).

This is what they sound like:

There was going to be some Mbira on the album, but that track was culled. Maybe it will turn up on the 20th Anniversary remastered re-issue. Or maybe we’ll sneak it out onto the bandcamp page at some point…