Jack Schaeffer: Strumbola
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.
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 instrumenttiples, 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.
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 , 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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Photos courtesy of Jack Schaeffer