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Jack Schaeffer: Strumbola

By Published: April 16, 2008
Jack SchaefferJack Schaeffer is a longtime Marin county saxophonist who, since the 1970s, has frequently been showcased at San Francisco and Sausalito nightclubs. Schaeffer is a staple of Mill Valley's Sweetwater Inn, opening the club with his AnExchange Quartet back in the 1970s. Still playing these many years later, Schaeffer frequently gigs with his Hot House Swing Band.

"Saxophonist Jack," as he is affectionately known, has piqued interest and curiosity with his conversion, invention or, perhaps, contraption, the tiple-styled multi-string instrument Schaeffer has named Strumbola.

Schaeffer has been Robinson's friend for a half century, when he was the drummer in the saxophonist's first Dixieland Combo. Robinson was there when Schaeffer first picked up the clarinet, and the great bandleader/teacher Phil Moore showed him how to blow it. Schaeffer has never looked back—he's been blowin' it ever since.

Even years after Robinson had gone into film he followed Schaeffer's career, flying to Aspen and Sun Valley to catch the saxophonist's gigs. "Always, with my presence in the room, he'd seem to play the most remarkable solo, just for me," says Robinson. Truth be known, Schaeffer always delivers the most remarkable and memorable performance. His styling, phrasing and imagery literally take you somewhere else.

Robinson laughed as he looked back, remembering how, even after years on stage with dance bands, when he first started playing in surf bands Schaeffer would stand off in the wings between solos. Robinson had to tell him he was supposed to stay on stage. He just felt awkward standing there doing nothing. He learned to take small dance steps and, in time, got used to being part of the show even while not playing. It seems that his participative attitude has had much to do with Schaeffer's musical designs, and filling the creative space.

All About Jazz: What need did you have to bring you to developed the Strumbola?

Jack Schaeffer: The group I've been with for years (Hot House Swing Band) showcases pre-1949 swing jazz, with leanings toward Django/Grapelli stylings (guitar, bass, violin, sax[es], and sometimes trumpet, if the gig pays enough). The ideal seven pieces, Hot House plays with drums, but we gig all the way down to a three-piece, if that's the budget we have t'work with. Even with the seven-piece setup, though, there was only one guitarist—Bill DeKuiper—and when he soloed, I missed hearing a string-rhythm backup, even though our violinist did his best to fill in behind him with chord-pluck rhythm accents.

So I decided maybe I could play some rhythm "ka-chunks," y'know, and do something simple (hah!) to fill in behind his solos as accompaniment. So...what rhythm instrument?

Guitar? No. Definitely not simple. Too much finger-tip trauma for these sax-accustomed fingers. I recalled, too well, the lessons of my early-sixties folk guitar years. The calluses, the pain, the barre-chord cramps...sheesh! I kept thinking simple, so I seriously considered creating the same kinda background chord-plink accompaniment that our violinist added during the guitar solos by re-tuning a tenor or baritone balalaika. It had only three strings; thought I might be able to handle strumming a basic triad, plus some color notes here n'there.

This is when I thought out the diminished (Strumbola) tuning concept, based on a three-string (three-bout) instrument. Next, I thought, maybe even restring a guitar in three pairs of two, and get doubles and even octaves going. That'd give me way more of that meaty rhythm "chunk," what Django used to call "Le pump," that I was after. But I found the stretch at the bottom of a full-size guitar neck too much of a reach to articulate the pinky and ring finger moves.

align=center>Jack Schaeffer

Mill Valley's Sweetwater Inn

AAJ: Speaking of finger-stretch, didn't you play a Fender Jazz Bass with the AnExchange Quartet?

JS: I was actually the bassist with the group, except when I soloed on the saxophones. So for solos, I'd slip off the bass and hand it off to the chick singer, Patty Parsons. I'd keep playing while I ducked out under the strap, then I'd drop it down over her head, where she'd take over the left hand first, then the right. Then I'd grab a horn. After my solo, just the reverse. Later on, though, she got her own bass. A Hoffner violin bass. Nice and light for her, but it kinda took some of the fun out of it for me.

AAJ: So you did have some experience making that reach?

JS: The reach, oh yeah. But the bass guitar was single note at a time stuff, not the hold some strings down while you articulate the others kinda concept that eventually became Strumbola.

AAJ: So, how'd you resolve the reach problem?

JS: The only answer was find a shorter scale neck. So I looked around for something on which a four-fret reach down by the nut might work. Turns out a 21-inch scale is just about max for my particular hand size.

Also, after mulling a bit, I saw that I could do something more effective with a four-bout instrument. By barring every chord, and using the middle/ring/pinky fingers to move through the voicings, I'd even get a doubling effect in the bottom and top courses—the index tip/pinky comb, which facilitates melodic movement on the high course down through the major 7, the dominant 7, and 6th, etc.

Maybe just a note on the tuning, here. The cool thing about using the diminished chord as your open tuning is that the resulting chord fingering moves are isometric up and down, just one course removed. This also facilitates visualization of music theory in general. As all the chords are grown or expand from the tightest squeeze of the full diminished chord, by adding finger positions to the frets just north of the index Finger, barre and the squished-togetherness of the notes gives your strummed chords a real nice close harmony" sound, reminiscent of '30s and '40s style swing jazz.

The other cool thing is that Strumbola chords are played mostly using the flat parts of your fingers, not the tips. Calluses and pain, be gone!

AAJ: So how went the neck scale search?

JS: I started building the "four course" concept with a baritone ukulele. It was good to get a feel for the moves through the voicings and chord progressions. (The normal tuning for a baritone uke is the same as a guitar's top four strings.)

That was the Ukulele Strumbola. It worked well. But it still didn't sound full enough as an accompanying swing jazz instrument. I decided doubling the strings in octaves just might do it.

align=center>Jack Schaeffer

Jack Schaeffer (third from left) with his Hot House Swing Band

Enter, then, the Octave Mandolin Strumbola.

With double octaves on three of the four bouts, the sound was a lot fuller, and it sounded fairly good with the group, too. But by this time my expectations had grown a bit, and it seemed something was missing still from that pump rhythm sound I wanted to hear, and which was thus far only in my mind-ears. The body of my Octave Mandolin, also, didn't allow the deeper guitar-like resonances to develop, and the overall sound was still a bit thin.

I searched the web a bit, and there was my answer. With twelve strings, and three strings per bout, it had a shorter-than-guitar neck that wouldn't stretch my non-guitarist fingers.

Enter the Colombian Tiple Strumbola!

I strung it with double octaves on the bottom and upper two bouts, and a triple octave on the second. I began to hear that big sound I was after.

AAJ: How did you come to name this Strumbola?

JS: The odd bit here is, though the (minor thirds) isometric concept is mathi-musically so logical that I can't see how it could not have previously been discovered and developed upon, I've not ever heard of this tuning, nor found this concept, anywhere during my musicographical wendings and wanderings. So I figured, heck, I might as well name it what I pleased.

The strum part came kinda natural like, 'cause that's how (and why) it's played. And the bola part came because, from the original Mandola (from "Lark In The Morning") I had developed it upon, sorta resembled a bowl. Thus, my strum-bowl became Strumbola.

AAJ: And what about that big sound you were hearing inside?

JS: Okay, I guess by big I really mean full, with a nice bottom, like a guitar sound. I was hearing that now. But the close sound was the coolest part. All the movement happened within the chord voicings inside the chords, not extended above, to the 9th, 11th, etc.

It is, of course, the tuning which can Strumbola-ize just about any stringed instrument—tiples, lutes, octave mandolins, ukes, bouzoukis, etc.

AAJ: Sounds like you might be rather limiting your chord choices, with nothing extending to or above the 9th. How do you cope with the need in jazz for those more complex chords?

JS: Okay, there are only four voice choices in any Strumbola chord. Sometimes there's no need for tonic note, like with some of the 7th chords, but you don't miss it. And if you musically must, you can mostly sub[statute] in a 2 for a 9, a 4 for an 11, a 6 for a 13, etc. What others play outside, on top, you put inside the chords.

A-Chordingly There are only three fingerings for any straight major chord, and just three ways to make a straight minor (these are the three isometric positions).

There's (obviously) only one diminished chord fingering position. And only one augmented fingering. All half-diminished, and minor 6th chords are simply an index finger barre plus a middle finger. All minor 7th, and (major) 6th chords, simply add a finger to that.

Jack Schaeffer / Strumbola And for those edgy "7/ b5" ("Take The A-Train") chords, your Index finger Barres across the tonic, with the middle and ring finger sit one fret up on either side.

You just about have to have it in your hands to appreciate how actually simple this isometric concept makes fingering the Strumbola.

AAJ: How about soloing on Strumbola? Sounds a bit limiting there, too.

JS: Limited, yes. But y'see, Strumbola wasn't really meant to play a melody, or lead lines, because you basically run out of neck. The strings are tuned so close you have barely more'n an octive to work with. And the multi-string sound doesn't really lend itself to that, either. However, one can do a pretty fair job of chord-soloing. And this sounds real good too against a guitar doing the same kinda thing. But the real point of Strumbola is that its sound and pump fills the volume of space and rhythm needs beneath another soloing instrument.

AAJ: You've recently been crafting a dual-necked tiple version. Can you tell us something more on that?

JS: Sure. It is arriving the first week in April [2008], from the luthier in Bolivia. It is a tiple-twin version of the twin-neck electro/acoustic guitar offered at Bolivia Mall. I had their luthier make me one up, special. Thing is, I have so much latitude in the stringing of it, I haven't decided, which might be the most musically advantageous yet. I might do one neck in steel string, and the other in gut. Or make one a combination of both. Or, heck, all I know is it's gonna be some great fun, and some great sounds, and I'm lovin' it.

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Photo Credit

Photos courtesy of Jack Schaeffer

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