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When the going gets tough, the tough apparently pick up a banjo. Or a guitar. Or a trusty little ukulele.
For the past 50 years, the Halifax Folklore Centre has been putting instruments in the hands of musicians from Juno Award winners to novices who’ve never played a note. Its staff have noticed that in the months since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Canada last March, there’s been a rise in sales to first-time players as well as those who put their axes aside years ago when life got in the way of making music.
Devin Shael Fox, the store’s self-proclaimed “young gun” behind the sales counter chalks the trend up to the fact that those who have been stuck at home, not spending money on travel or even gas, are instead investing in expanding their musical horizons.
“It’s great to see, especially with professional music taking the hit that it has over the last 10 months, it’s nice to see that at least the spirit of it is alive in people, which might sound kind of cheesy,” says Fox, surrounded by an array of instruments from the tiniest tin whistle to a big bass drum.
“It’s good that people are picking it up, even if you’re just going to play Wagon Wheel in your living room, it’s still something.”
With the recent easing of restrictions for licensed establishments after New Year’s, live music has returned to some Halifax stages, and professional players like Garrett Mason at Bearly’s every Tuesday or the indie bands and folk artists at the Carleton have a reason to stock up on strings and patch cords again.
But Fox — who plays in a handful of bands, including Matt Steele & the Corvette Sunset and the country duo Steele Fox — says he’s encouraged by the number of beginners who come in looking for an affordable Canadian-made guitar and a couple of music books, and head back home to try out some YouTube tutorials.
Picking and grinning through tough times
“Weirdly, banjos have been the real sleeper hit of the summer, as the saying goes,” says Fox.
“We can’t keep an open-back banjo on the shelf. A decent quality open-back banjo will go in two days, it’s been really interesting. And mandolins have picked up too.”
So maybe the reason Santa wouldn’t bring David Myles a banjo is because they were always out of stock? Fox says picking up the four-stringed wonder favoured by Pete Seeger and Old Man Luedecke can be the ultimate musical pick-me-up.
“It’s hard to be angry when you’re playing the banjo,” reasons Fox. “It’s something I’ve figured out myself while learning how to play over the past year. It’s a great instrument to sit and play by yourself, it kinda accompanies itself given the drone note and a couple of other things.
“So it fills an isolation need, people sit on their porches and play banjos. It’s exactly what people think of it as, a porch instrument. Everybody thinks of that scene in Deliverance, a person sitting on a porch with a banjo.”
Recognizing that today’s amateur musician could become tomorrow’s professional player, Fox recommends starting out with something affordable to make sure you actually enjoy playing the instrument before dropping $1,000 on a new Canadian-made Godin acoustic guitar, or even more for something vintage and restored with the name of Fender, Gibson or Martin on it.
“The biggest thing is to just make sure that it’s playable,” says Fox.
A lot of people get things off Kijiji, and it seems like a great deal, and then it comes in and needs $100 worth of work.”
Or even more, says Folklore Centre repair technician Noah Tye, in the midst of putting fresh bridge pins on a customer’s 12-string acoustic guitar.
“I refer to it as guitarpentry,” says Tye with a grin, who also sees a lot of old violins pulled from closets and attics coming through the shop, pointing to a whole shelf of them running the circumference of the room.
“Lots of sentimental family pieces come in as well. People come in and say, ‘You wanna buy an old fiddle?’ Well, we have a few ... but if it’s really special, then we’ll take a look.”
An abundance of oddball instruments
While Folklore Centre has the biggest selection of ukuleles and banjos in town, Fox has a fondness for the oddball instruments. He points to an overhead antique banjolele — the mutant love child of the banjo and ukulele made famous by 1940s music hall star George Formby — and a rare Rickenbacker lap steel guitar that had been stored for decades with its hollow body stuffed with pages from a 1936 issue of the Los Angeles Times.
It’s that mixture of quirky and cozy atmosphere that keeps musicians coming back to the store that master luthier Thomas Dorward started with his wife Marla in 1971, and feels just as familiar as it did then, with its antique wallpaper and century-old cash register.
“Customer service is a big piece of it,” says Fox, who notes the store has stayed open throughout the pandemic to keep customers supplied and their instruments in tune.
“And we make sure that everything that comes off the wall, goes out ready to play. A lot of stores take things out of the box when they come in, put them on the wall, and then let it go.
“We make sure things are good, and we try to put the right instrument into people’s hands. It’s just more of a personal experience.”