Thunder's Mouth, CD by Scott Ainslie

Thunder’s Mouth:  Instruments

  1. Down In Mississippi - Froggy Bottom Guitar - [C-G-C-G-C-Eb]
  2. Grinnin’ In Your Face - Accapella Vocal w/Feet
  3. Oil In My Vessel - Froggy Bottom Guitar - [D-G-D-G-B-D]
  4. It’s Gonna Rain - Froggy Bottom Guitar - [Standard Tuning]
  5. If Anybody Asks About Me - Fretless Gourd Banjo - [e-E-A-B-D]
  6. Another Man Done Gone - Froggy Bottom Guitar - [C-G-C-G-C-Eb]
  7. Little Trip To Heaven - Gurian Guitar - [High Strung, Standard]
  8. I Should Get Over This - Gurian Guitar - [High Strung, Capo 4, Muted]
  9. Dust My Broom - 1931 Style ‘O’ National - [D-A-D-G-B-E]
  10. Thunder’s Mouth - Froggy Bottom Guitar - [E-B-E-E-B-E]

Froggy Bottom Guitar, Model G

Michael Millard
All tracks except 9 and 8.

This amazing instrument was build for me in the winter of 2004 by Michael Millard and Andy Mueller in the Froggy Bottom shop just north of us in Williamsville, Vermont. Between Christmas and New Year’s, I met with Michael in Williamsville to play a couple of guitars and choose a body style, neck profile and scale length. Once we’d settled on those, Michael took me out to the shop to pick out woods, back, front and side sets.

We were like a couple of kids on Christmas morning. It doesn’t take long to become old friends if you fall in with the right people.

Koa and 130 Year Old German Spruce

We settled on some highly figured, double-quilted Koa for the back and sides – amazingly beautiful wood. Then Michael pulled out his four or five remaining sets of old German Spruce which he’d shepherded through three decades of guitar building: wood that was cut down in Germany in 1873 and that had been waiting to become a guitar ever since! He had two sets left that were large enough to make the jumbo guitar we’d settled on, and one of them had a sap pocket in it that took it out of the running. I wound up, after his thirty-some years of building special instruments out of his stash of old German Spruce, with the one and only set left that was large enough to make my guitar. A profoundly stable piece of wood!

An Intrument Built For and By Friends

I remember Michael emailing me when I was on tour in February of 2004: the guitar was going together easily, the body was purfled and everyone in the shop was excited to see it come together. He and Andy had commented on how much they enjoyed working on an instrument for a friend, someone well-known to them. Out on the road, full of wonder at the whole process, I felt the same way about having friends, world-class luthiers, making an instrument for me.

Ready for the Feral Crow Sessions

The guitar was finished just a couple months before I began the sessions for my fourth CD, The Feral Crow. It played beautifully and sounded great. But it is also the primary instrument on my fifth CD, Thunder’s Mouth. And the change, even in the recorded sound is palpable. That stable old piece of German Spruce is beginning to wake up. The tree is dead, but the wood is not. After lying around quietly for 130 years, it is starting to get used to being a guitar.

Over the next five or six years, this guitar will begin to reveal itself, to come into its own as a guitar, to develop its own voice. In 2004, it was like a puppy with its eyes still closed, but with really big paws. Each day it comes a little further into its own.

Gurian C-Series, Style 2 Mahogany

Michael Gurian
Little Trip To Heaven, Track 7
I Should Get Over This, Track 8

A Handmade American Guitar

I found this guitar in a specialty guitar store outside of Raleigh NC back in 1992: a handmade American guitar for $600! Build in the late 1970s in Michael Gurian’s Hinsdale, NH workshop this instrument has Honduras Mahogany sides and back and a Sitka Spruce top. It has a fairly long scale length which helps account for its brightness.

High-Strung Set Up

I was searching for a new sonority for a couple of tracks on Thunder’s Mouth, I high-strung the Gurian, leaving the G-string as the lowest pitch on the instrument [e-a-d-g-b-e] (like a 12-string without it’s low courses). Weaving a large rubber band in the strings down near the saddle, I recorded the African and mbira-inspired guitar part for I Should Get Over This.

On Little Trip To Heaven, I decided to try it as the lead accompaniment instrument, opening the tune with it alone and then playing the instrumental leads with my Froggy Bottom Guitar. The high-strung set up gets the guitar out of the sonic territory of the male voice and opens up the sonic palette in an interesting way. It’s a lovely little guitar.

Fretless Gourd Banjo

David Beede
If Anybody Asks About Me, Track 5

Grown to Be a Banjo

In the summer of 2006, this gourd was grown to be a banjo. Trapped between two boards that caused it to grow out more flat than round and basketball-like, its destiny was plain. Florida musician and instrument builder David Beede procurred it at my request, trimmed it out, glued a piece of cow hide onto it, and fashioned a fanciful, 19th Century-inspired cherry neck with friction fit pegs for this little fretless travel banjo.

Part Africa/Part America

Part ancient African and part contemporary American, this banjo was made for nylon or gut strings. There’s not a piece of metal on it. It’s light as a feather. But there is nothing else light-weight about this instrument. It makes a sound that is fleeting, temporal, and disturbingly ancient.

Gourds: The Mbira, the Kora, the Berimbau

Gourds have been a part of African music amplifying technology for what is most likely thousands of years. The mbira, or thumb pianos of Zimbabwe and big African gourd harp, the 21-string Kora both employ gourds as their resonators, as does the Berimbau of Brazil.

The Akonting and Daniel Jatta

After nearly 150 years of pretty strong circumstantial evidence pointing toward Africa as the ancestral origin of the banjo, thanks to work of Gambian Jola scholar/musician Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta, who pioneered the research and documentation of the akonting in the mid-1980s, we know have some actual facts that make clear that the instrument and its traditional Applachian playing style – known as claw-hammer or frailing – both come directly out of West Africa.

You can see Daniel Jatta playing and demonstrating on an akonting at the popular site.

National Resonator Guitar, Style O

Dust My Broom, Track 9.

Built by the National Guitar company in California in 1931, this instrument came to me out of Jack’s Pawn Shop on Broadway in Columbus, GA in the winter of 1991 during the first Bush’s Gulf War.

Jack’s Pawn, Columbus GA

I’d heard that there was a metal guitar there, but I owned two 30s Nationals that I’d come across, a 12 fret Duolian in 1979 and a 14 fret Duolian in 1989. The word on the street was that they wanted $2,000 for it and I didn’t have that kind of money. I didn’t rush down. But one day, on another errand, I found myself in front of Jack’s Pawn and decided to go in.

Broken Down Skill Saws and 8-Track Tape Players

The only clerk in evidence at Jack’s was doing his best to sell used wedding rings to a young couple. He was unsuccessful, but it took about twenty minutes. The guitar was no where in evidence. I looked at every broken down skill saw and 8-track machine in the place, stopping to admire an ivory slide rule with brass fittings in a leather case. Kids don’t know what these are today.

“Billy Did The Deal on This One”

When I finally got the attention of the clerk and asked about the guitar, he had to go root around in the back to find it. That took another ten minutes or so.

Flipping up a piece of worn out shag carpet that was duct taped to the rear of the jewelry case with the used wedding rings in it, the clerk carefully laid the case on top of it. I flipped the latches as if I didn’t care what was inside and opened it. There lay a Style O National in nearly mint condition, with very little neck wear on the original paint, but lacking a tail piece. I’m sure it was worth at least the two grand rumored, but that still didn’t mean that I had it.

“How much you want for it?”

“I don’t know. Billy did the deal on this one and he’s at lunch.”

I looked at my watch. It was 4:20 in the afternoon. I KNEW this guy. He’s a musician: breakfast at noon, lunch at 4:00. Things were looking up.

“People Have Come From Memphis, TN
and New Orleans Just to Look at This Guitar”

After another interminable tour of the broken down and shop worn hand tools and construction devices, Billy returned from his lunch. He says, “Yeah, this is a great guitar.”

“I don’t know where to get a tail piece for it.”

“I do. I play these instruments. I’ll buy this if you’ll give me a good price.”

“We’ve had this for two years. We’ve got a lot of money in this guitar. People have come from Memphis, TN and New Orleans just to LOOK at this guitar.”

“Yeah, but Billy, it’s a pawn shop, not a museum. It’s been sitting here for two years and you haven’t made a penny on it. Give me a good price and I’ll buy it.”

Will You Take Six?

So, Billy says, “Seven hundred dollars.”

Now I know I’m going to spend time in hell for this, but without blanching or hesitating for a second I say, “Will you take six?”

Billy tilts his little handheld solar powered calculator toward the late winter sun pouring through the front windows of the pawn shop and taps a couple of buttons: “$682.50,” he says.

And $1500 More

I gave him $200 to hold it and came back the next week with the rest. In the interim, I ordered a tail piece from Stewart-MacDonald up in Ohio. That Spring, I spent $1500 bringing it back to life, stabilizing the neck, replacing the fingerboard and pegs and generally preparing it to be a professional’s working instrument. It’s been under my arm ever since.