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They Don't Make 'em Like that Any More - by Steve McGrail Issue 31 February/March '99

Archie Fisher in Blue Shirt

"Autoharps were all the rage ... Capos, they were rare, and like big bottle-openers ... An instrument's 'action'? A novel idea! ... Mandolins, well they were frequently ex-junkshop ... Tuners? Oh, useless plastic things with fluff in them ... J45 Sunburst Gibsons were the first quality guitars, you practically queued to buy them ..."

A pretty unprepossessing account of a folk musician's gear, the above ... And apparently from some distant time and shore? Whatever it relates to, it's certainly aeons away from what's expected today, by musicians and audiences alike.

If it all echoes another era, then so it should, because it's from Archie Fisher's memories of the beginnings of Scotland's folk revival. Rough old days of excitement and hope they were, but with talents like Archie's own starting to flower amongst the three-chord tricks. Anything was possible, yet almost nothing was known. Singers learned songs from imported Folkways albums and the first Topics, whilst guitarists avidly watched Davey Graham on TV, trying to follow those tricksy fingers; or, they craned to see Josh McRae and American Ralf Rinzler on distant stages, wondering if those amazing riffs could ever be theirs.

Whatever else about that era though, the instruments available were often just lousy. Talking about the sophistication of some would-be guitarists then, Archie sums it up with: "Several operated on the pianist's principal that if a string broke, the instrument was finished!"

"You used what you could", he recalls. "I got my first guitar when I was 18, purple, with palm trees stencilled on, the style that Rab Noakes calls 'pram shop'. Hamish Imlach had a Michigan - with different coloured strings, for some reason. They functioned, but the first reasonable guitar on the market was the Harmony Sovereign, until the good old workhorse Yamaha F180. My first quality instrument was a little Gibson Kalamazoo. Light action, broad neck, it did wonders for my playing".

But rackety as a guitarist's lot in the late 1950s/early 60s might seem to us now (luxuriating with Fyldes and Washburns and Martins) he or she was relatively lucky. Good instruments existed, which they generally didn't for other musicians. Regarding banjos, mandolins and so on, you simply took your chance.

Under America's folksong influence, it wasn't surprising that banjos were popular. (Or at least, players struggled hard to make then so, even if the instruments themselves rarely co-operated). Many were 'zither' types, minus resonator, acquired from dubious sources. People would often remove resonators where fitted, and achieve a 'plunky' sound by padding under the neck brace. Most banjos were a challenge. "Finnicky things", grumbles Archie, "never staying in tune and you had to re-tune every key change. Banjoists never sang, probably because of having to concentrate so much. And you were forever waiting for them, because of the tuning problem".

Mandolins generally gave less trouble - round-backs mostly, and a few mainly poor-quality modern flat-backs. Archie was in a group called The Wayfarers ("practically all folk groups were called that, then", he quips) along with sister Ray and Bobby Campbell. Bobby played mandolin, and fiddle. According to Archie, he has a place in folk history: "He was the first to play integrated fiddle in a folk group - ours; and at gigs, he'd also play an entire set of tunes, absolutely revolutionary".

Instruments now common, such as bodhrans were very sparse. Wooden flutes were effectively unheard of, except in Ireland. Whistles existed, basic Ds and Cs, but not low versions. They were quite rare, and not used as fronting instruments either. There were autoharps a-plenty, however, cheap instruments that could lend a bit of texture to a song like Bonny George Campbell, say. In a typical mid-Sixties folk line-up (and they were predominantly singing groups, unlike modern 'ceilidh folk' bands), the guitarist might double up on autoharp, whilst the banjoist and/or mandolinist carried on with doing their thing.

Squeezeboxes were few, until after the founding of the TMSA, Archie believes. Melodeons were heavily linked to bothy music. The English Concertina took off in Scotland (especially for sea songs) largely through Geordie player Louis Killen: "but at first, there were few proper concertinas to buy, so the junkshops were raided for ex-Sally Ann specimens! ... Actually, Louis isn't the only Geordie we're indebted to: at the first Blairgowrie Traditional Music Festival in 1967, there was just one melodeon player flying the flag, one fiddler, one whistler, one Northumbrian piper - and all of them were Colin Ross! It was Colin, too, who first used pipes within a band, the High Level Ranters. Small pipes, naturally: you have to wait for Celtic Thunderers like Tannahill before you get the Highland pipes".

Still, despite the rareness and deficiencies of some instruments, performing styles did improve in the Sixties. For guitarists, a quantum leap had been the arrival of Bert Jansch ("the first player who really created, not copied"). Davey Graham represented another departure, introducing DAGDAD tuning. "He did it to play Indian material", remembers Archie, "and it also proved for Scottish songs. Different tunings helped me personally. 'Dropped D' compensated for the weak 'bottom end' of the Kalamazoo. Mind you, DAGDAD confused folk, I'd say it took over a decade to become widely accepted.

Ideas were also advancing about what a folk line-up might consist of, and what it might do. Archie considers that The Clutha and The Laggan (with fiddles and whistles) were a watershed in instrumental playing, whilst the Boys of the Lough realised perhaps the first full line-up that we'd recognise today. Then there were The Whistlebinkies as maybe the first big Scottish instrumental and song sound. Added to them, there was more 'free-style' solo playing, like Aly Bain's.

Instrumental playing in bands became commoner. Some bands even began to look different, as their members sat to perform. "The Fylde guitar got me sitting", explains Archie. "Its sophistication enabled the left hand to do wonderful things; trouble was, you couldn't play standing what you'd learned sitting. So, as part of the Liberated Guitarist's Movement, I burned my strap and sat!"

Some instruments began to fall our of favour, like autoharps. Others came in, like the bouzouki after The Johnstons in 1969. When the 'Sobell sound' emerged, it was a crucial development - "slightly aggressive but with tone and balance, powerful enough to cut through the pipes - so, fine for Battlefield-style bands", says Archie. Eventually, mandolas started appearing - "a valuable addition, because their dynamic range, like the guitar's, supports the voice much better than the mandolin".

More and more, it was clear that musicians were wanting quality. The makers obliged. And innovated, too. "Just take bagpipes", enthuses Archie. "Twenty years ago, if you wanted 'oomph', it had to be Highland. But with changed manufacturing techniques from people like Hamish Moore, smaller pipes can give us vibrant a sound as the big ones and still fit the voice ... Or listen to Fred Morrison's 'A' pipes, wonderful".

Looking back now, Archie's quite adamant about the improvements he's seen since the revival started. "Think about the young bands now, with their astonishing techniques and skills ... Excellent players, but it's not that they're some race of geniuses, it's partly that they've been exposed to vastly more experiences than we were. We had few role models, few recordings - and few decent instruments. They've all these things, and they've rightly capitalised on them. Particularly instruments. There are so many good ones around these days. When it comes to hand-made instruments, I think they're as good as they've ever been ... No, better ... Let me leave you with a thought: for last October's Celtic Colours Festival, we had seven guitarists up on the stage for the G7 spot. But before we actually performed, we each had to introduce our instrument ... Now, who would have wanted to do that 35 years ago?"

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