Guest Blog: Bow Thayer On Songwriting With Hybrid Instruments

bow thayer
Bow Thayer is a songwriter, guitarist, banjoist and multi-string instrumentalist currently based in Stockbridge, VT. His career spans over two decades with bands including the 7 League Boots, Elbow, Jethro and The Benders as well as solo work, including his work with Perfect Trainwreck. Bow is also the founder of the Tweed River Music Festival.

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Tools For The Tune

As a songwriter I have to say, as cliché as it may sound, that I am influenced by everything. It is true, I always have my feelers out for anything that comes along, as well as some space in my noggin’ for bouncing around my latest song idea. Songwriting for me is a constant and ongoing process, and it is the very fabric of my existence in this life. Hillaire Belloc once said, “It is the best of all trades to make songs, and the second best to sing them.” I agree with this, but as a tradesman one must have his or her tools, and I have lots of them. I have tools that make the place where I can make tools that make other tools that make songs. So, if I had to pick one category out of “everything” that I am influenced by, it would have to be my tools – more specifically, my instruments.

Some of my musical friends have a deep relationship with a single instrument of choice, one which they absolutely need to write and perform. I am more of a gigolo when it comes to such matters. I save the monogamy for my personal life, which helps my wife to accept and support the utter insanity of acquiring, modifying, building, and learning to play these different instruments. In many cases, I must build or find the instrument before I can find the song.

Over the years I have learned what instruments will work just by playing them a bit. If I pick up or sit down at an instrument, I can tell if there are songs within it that need to be harvested.  Too much of the time they are very expensive instruments that I can not afford, but I know where they are, keep an eye on them, and secretly remind the instrument it will eventually be with its rightful owner.

Strangely, other folks have this insight as well, whether they know it or not.  I have been given many instruments as gifts and I have written on all of them. For example, my drummer Jeff Berlin’s grandmother was in a ukulele group in the 20’s and was kicked out for bad behavior, so she never really got into this really cool resonator uke. Now, I don’t think she intended to give it to me but I picked it up and played a little something and she said, “OK, I guess it is yours now”…SWEET!  I ended up making an entire album on that lil’ thing. I went down to Belize, took a really sketchy boat ride to a remote atoll with no running water or electricity, and wrote and recorded an entire album on a battery-powered Sony Discman in one week – all thanks to this crazy little instrument.

I can go back to every record I have made and talk about the instrument that influenced it. There was that big Kay archtop with a warped neck; the Silvertone tenor banjo that I put a low drone string on that flapped around and made a kind of percussive growl; the Lowden Jumbo, my big purchase from when I used to make money as a carpenter;  and the Deering Wildwood banjo – well, I stole that from my brother and he took it back, but it got me into playing banjo and then I acquired a custom version from Winston Bish.  I had to let go of a couple of perfectly good Gibson Les Pauls to make it happen and that kind of hurt, but there were no more songs in ‘em for me anyway.  Next I built an upright bass/banjo from a 27” marching band drum and hunk of rock maple, and wrote and recorded my last album Eden on an electric five-string banjo, a Deering Crossfire.

So why not stop there?  Because that’s not who I am.  My recent vision has been to combine elements of a guitar and banjo into a single instrument.  I commissioned a local luthier (Jason Twigg-Smith) to build a six-string wooden acoustic banjo/guitar and the songs are just flying out of it.  I took the low sixth string off my 1969 Tele Thinline like “good ol’ Keef” does, replaced it with a banjo-esque high string, and tuned it to open G.  Bam!  I’ve never felt so at home in my life.  But the most significant development is that the forward-thinking folks at Eastwood Guitars are just crazy enough to embrace my idea of combining a resonator guitar, an electric guitar, and banjo (let’s call it the “reso-jotar” for now).  They sent me their parts so I could build a demo and I am currently waiting for the factory prototype to be finished.  If all goes well, it will be in production by the end of 2014.

In the meantime, I wrote another album on this weird and versatile hybrid and am almost done recording it.  I guess it is just a stream of experimentation, or more accurately a journey and search for the “tone muse.” These ideas only came about because of my dissatisfaction and frustrations, but in the end it is a necessity and means to a new beginning.

The search is still on, though – I just acquired a very clean Fender Rhodes and a Hammond Extravoice from 1960, from two separate little old ladies cleaning out their basements (these little old ladies have been very good to me).  Let’s see what happens next.

In no way do I consider myself a master of my craft, but if someday I do, I will owe it to becoming a being a jack-ass of all trades.

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