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Ed Justen By Ed Justen • May 13, 2018

Never Again Instruments

Image 1As a woodwind player, I’m expected to double on different instruments, so stretching beyond sax turned out to be a natural part of my music career. I was also intrigued by rhythm section players, so in my 20’s and 30’s I took up guitar and bass. Most of these instruments have gone by the wayside for me. Here is a look at all the instruments I’ll never play again. 
 
Clarinet - If you do it right, one should start on clarinet, then move to sax. I started on sax, but never really mastered clarinet. I had enough chops that I could pull off clarinet when I needed to (usually about once every five years for a musical or special event), but for the most part, mastering this instrument always eluded me.  
 
Soprano Sax - I picked up soprano in my years on the road to match the trumpet player I was usually paired with. Since soprano played in the same range as the trumpet, and I was usually playing 2nd trumpet parts anyway, the sound was brighter and much tighter than playing 2d trumpet parts on tenor sax an octave lower. During my Army years, Kenny G brought the soprano sax to mainstream prominence, with his annoyingly repetitious “smooth” solo technique. It made him millions, though, so who am I to judge. I was able to capitalize a bit on the instrument’s popularity. As part of a salsa band, I played Kenny G’s Silhouette (with equally annoying repetitive “smooth” solos)  and then sang the salsa version of I’ll Always Love You, a two-song gringo set that spelled our front singers for a bit. After a while I grew to detest the horn and its sound.  The soprano sax I purchased in 1984 was manufactured in 1932, and eventually needed a major repad job to function correctly. Instead, it went into the trash. 
 
Alto Sax - I have no good reason not to play alto sax. Other than about 15 years ago I made a choice to focus on tenor.  While the alto can loud and sassy, the tenor speaks in a more human voice. Plus it was the instrument I started on in 5th grade. 
 
Bass Sax - I recently played this massive horn for a couple of rehearsals in the 2nd line band I play with. Fun? Yes, but I felt like that thing was gagging me with its long neck and huge mouthpiece. And frankly, I don’t have the energy to haul it around. In order to get a good effective sound you need decent horn and good mouthpiece. Reeds are really expensive too. All told, maybe a $5000 investment just to start. No thanks.
 
Alto Flute - For some reason, every Army Band is authorized at least one alto flute. In my first few years in the Army I would dutifully sign it out and keep it in my locker. While it has a great mellow sound, the instrument is rarely called for in band literature; I don’t think I ever used one in live performance. 
 
Bass Clarinet - In my junior year in high school, my band director called me into his office and asked me to play in the county honor band, on bass clarinet. I had never touched one before, but I pulled one out practiced a couple days, and did the concert (much to the chagrin of the other two bass clarinetists participating from my school).  Twenty years later, as a 38 year-old college student, my college band director asked the same thing, so I played in a regional college honor band on bass clarinet. Those are the only two times I’ve touched that beast.
 
Bagpipes - Yes, I droned the pipes for about six months. After coming home from a gig with a splitting headache and hearing an imaginary drone for three days, I said never again. Never, ever again. 
 
Bass - Of all the instruments I’ve played, the five year period where I played bass was probably one of the most musically satisfying times of my life. Holding down the bass developed my rhythm chops, improved my ear, and taught me a whole different way of listening to and performing music. (It still informs me in my performance today.) I would still play if it didn’t mean hauling gear, blasting my ear drums, or dealing with bar band issues. There’s nothing better than holding down the groove and being the only instrument in a band. I miss it, but wouldn’t want to go back to it.
 
Guitar - By far my favorite instrument, my parents sent me to guitar lessons when I was 10 years old. For some reason back then, it didn’t stick. Had it stuck, I might have become one of those cool jazz dudes cranking out bebop licks on a hollow-body Gretsch. Instead I gave it up till my early 20’s when I borrowed $150 from a friend to buy a cheap Japanese something electric. I played the rock shows when I was on the road, but was never really advanced past basic strumming. The instrument followed me into the Army, where I led a few really bad rock and country combos. I used to joke that I was the worst guitar player that ever made a buck playing it. Funny that the money I made playing guitar came from Uncle Sam. Finally, after years of mediocre-ness, I sold my gear. In the past few years I’ve though about taking it back up, but instead I DISCOVERED THE UKULELE.
 
Vocals - During my Army years I saw myself as a self-styled rock star, and thought my voice was good enough to lead a band and hold down a show. Oh how wrong I was in those days of my youth. While I can certainly keep pitch, my voice has no soul, and is best reserved for  Thursday night karaoke. When it comes to singing, my real love is singing background parts, though I haven’t done that in years, and finding a gig doing just that is rare. 
 
Next up in the musical #Sunday200, non-performance music jobs I’ve dabbled in over the years. Think conducter, sound tech, orchestra roadie, and PR pro. I've got some stories to tell.