With the recent news in Bluegrass Today that a capo has been developed that doubles as an electronic tuner (unless that’s a tuner which doubles as a capo), I was reminded that I haven’t yet compiled the annual review of the past year’s best, or at least most interesting bluegrass accessories. As it turns out, products that have secondary functions, or “things that do other things” figure prominently in my list. Here are my picks for the top five of 2017:
The Smart Pick: This is a product that will make the Apple watch and any other tiny smart phone-related device seem large, clunky, and very 2015. It’s a smartphone contained within a flat pick. This pick can perform most of the functions of a typical smartphone, including the ability to download apps, text, make calls, check email, the weather, sports scores, etc., all while in between songs at a jam session or on stage. It also has a 12 kilopixel camera. A bandleader can book gigs, hire and fire side musicians, and call home, all while appearing to be nervously fooling around with his/her pick. For the moment, because of the amount of hardware installed, it’s only available in extra heavy but other gauges will be available in the future.
The Massage Strap: This is exactly what the name suggests: an instrument strap that has a built in vibrating massager, which can give at least your left shoulder and a diagonal strip across your back a therapeutic rubdown while you’re busy performing stressful songs and tunes like Big Mon and Man of Constant Sorrow. Studies show that singing about constant sorrow causes significant tension in the body, and that’s before dealing with the weight of a 20 pound banjo around you. There are also feelings of guilt, alarm, and empathy which arise from singing songs in which people are shot with no apparent warning or motive (Little Sadie), or people are stabbed for “some unknown reason” (The Hills of Roane County), which manifest themselves in stiffening shoulders and back. The strap massager has five different settings: Swedish, Deep Tissue, Inappropriate-touching-by-fan, Murder Ballad, and Bar Gig. Coin-operated models are available.
Aside from the dual-purpose products above, there were three other new offerings I thought should make it on to the final list:
Talkback: This is an app which generates pithy comebacks when having a dispute with a belligerent or incompetent sound engineer. This is also dual-purpose in a sense, because all the lines generated can also be used the other way: by sound engineers needing a cutting remark for uncooperative and prima donna-ish musicians. Examples:
“I’ve been doing this for thirty years, pal; I think I know what I’m doing!”
“You know this mess could have been avoided if you’d just done what I asked during sound check!”
From the same company who brought us last year’s inflatable sideman comes Instacrowd, which is a set of inflatable audience members. When blown up to life size, each doll looks like a friendly and attractive member of your otherwise slim crowd. Through a remote control device you can even cue these members to applaud and even shout out vague requests. These are ideal for a club with low turnout (and dim lighting) or to fill up the front row at an outdoor festival, during the blistering hot 2:00 p.m. time slot. Standing or sitting models are available (chairs not included) and come in sets of 5, 10, 20, and 2,000.
Crowdpaper: In a similar vein, this is wallpaper available for music clubs imprinted with a photograph of hundreds of additional tables of paying customers. This is perfect for acoustic music clubs who have no following of their own and who do little or no promotion of their shows, the kind whose web site only list shows from the previous year (you know these places—they’re always no-guarantee door gigs). On a night when only eight people have shown up for the show, the wallpaper raises the morale of the club owner, the band, and even the real members of the audience, who don’t feel they’ve just paid to see a band that apparently no one else wants to see; there are all those other people seated in the back of what appears to be a very large room. The wallpaper photograph is taken from a highly successful and unspecified nightclub in L.A. A CD of ambient crowd noise is included with every purchase of one or more rolls.
Pocket Bass: There has been continued innovation in developing upright basses, both electric and acoustic, which come apart, fold up, and get down to more manageable travel sizes for musicians who have to fly. Still every bass option is still pretty unwieldy, and none of the variations I’ve seen can fit in a plane’s overhead compartment, the way a mandolin or fiddle can. That’s all changed with this amazing new acoustic bass, which through an elaborate series of hinges and joints, folds in on itself in a 30-step process to fit into a reasonably-sized pocket. It ends up no larger than most smartphones or wallets, when fully compact. Bass players who have tested it have admitted that it “doesn’t sound as good as a true upright bass, but you have to love being able to pull it out of your pocket and place it in the tray with your keys and wallet when going through airport security.” The folding and unfolding process takes no more than 90 minutes, roughly the same amount of time it takes to arrange ground transportation to the stage for a traditional upright bass.