An Island Christmas

Happy new year everyone!  After a very hectic fall, I was able to take some quality time over the holidays to do absolutely nothing, and it was heavenly. I took a lot of naps, read a few books by roaring fires, and enjoyed quality time with family and friends. Exactly what the holidays should be.

But as a result of doing a whole lot of nothing I didn’t have many of my usual adventures. So what do I do when I know I need to try something new and I don’t have much time to do it?  Well, I commandeer the band my parents hired to play at their holiday party and get an impromptu lesson on the steel guitar…of course.

My mother throws eclectic parties. This year she hired Slowey and the Boats to play at our house for a family party a few days after Christmas. You certainly can’t call this three-piece band’s sound “traditional holiday,” it was more like “holiday on the Big Island.” And that distinct sound came courtesy of Isaac Stanford’s steel guitar.  So of course, Isaac is who I had to sweet talk into giving me that impromptu music lesson at the end of their set.

You would definitely recognize the sound of the steel guitar; it’s that elongated, almost whiny sound you hear in island music. Unlike a traditional guitar, the steel guitar is played horizontally with the instrument sitting on a table-like stand. Also unlike a guitar, you play it with finger pics for the most part, not by plucking or strumming. Its origins are in Hawaii, but as Isaac told me, it began being incorporated into American country music in the 1920’s. Typically a steel guitar has 6 or 8 strings, but Isaac’s has 12. And that provided more opportunities for me to bastardize its sound.


Photo courtesy of Maureen Mahlman

First lesson I learned about the steel guitar: do not play while wearing a mini skirt. Thankfully I was among family. Second lesson of the steel guitar: do not play with a fresh manicure. Two life lessons right there.

I quickly realized that the steel guitar, even on the most basic level, takes a lot more musical knowledge (like reading notes), and multi-tasking than the harp. The notes seemed more complicated, one hand has to pluck, as the other brushes a bar called a steel up and down the strings on the neck of the instrument. which changes the pitch, that creates its distinct sound.

Photo courtesy of Maureen Mahlman

Photo courtesy of Maureen Mahlman

So after a few minutes of struggling, with about a dozen people looking on, Isaac and I decided that, for me, “conquering “the steel guitar would mean one, single chord…but a nice long clean chord.  That involved picking one string with my right hand, while gently, evenly moving the steel down the neck of the guitar and gently lifting it off the strings so that the chord ends neatly. And you know what, it only took me two or three attempts to get the sound I was looking to achieve.  And just as I finished, with a huge smile breaking out over my face, my audience broke into applause. Now true, they are my family, and they are biased, but it made me feel like a million bucks none the less.

Me, Isaac and the steel guitar

Me, Isaac and the steel guitar. Photo courtesy of Maureen Mahlman.

This week’s post showed me that I can seek out new experiences, large and small, in a variety of spots…even in the corner of my parents’ living room wedged next to the Christmas tree. Happy new year everyone! I have a feeling 2014 is going to be a great one!

I’d like to thank Issac Stanford and Slowey and the Boats for letting me squeeze a lesson into their gig. If you live in the Philadelphia area, and are looking for a three, or five-piece band with a distinct sound, they may be the band for you. You can also check out their Facebook page if you want to check out one of their gigs around the city. I was not compensated for this post in any way.

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