INTERVIEW from the Pasadena Weekly, 12/21/00

Major Achievement in a Miner Key

  • Armchair Musicologist Gregg Miner makes a fine stocking stuffer

by Caryn Gilbert

    From harp-guitars and ukuleles to resonator guitars and Celtic harp, the 12 or so instruments Gregg Miner plays are just the tip of the iceberg for this onetime rock and roll guitarist turned "armchair musicologist" and multi-instrumentalist.
    As the owner and curator of The Miner Museum of Vintage, Exotic and Just Plain Unusual Musical Instruments, Miner has assembled an amazing personal collection. But while he has made it a point to play each and every one of his unique collectibles, it is perhaps most astounding that he plays them all with impressive skill.
    Incidentally, Miner, who played recently at Caltech's Dabney Hall, is a unique Christmas artist and has two Christmas CDs available on
    "It’s actually something no one should or could do, playing 100 different stringed instruments," admits Miner, who has amassed his collection from years of flea markets and auctions. "Because, literally, you should take one and study it for a period of years. I played an instrument for two weeks, arranged and recorded a song, put it away and would then pick up the next one."
    The recording project to which Miner refers is the ambitious two-volume Christmas album he released in 1995.
    "My goal was to play each instrument once," Miner says of the undertaking that consumed his nights and weekends for four and a half years. "I was looking for some kind of a theme and the only thing that came to mind was Christmas music, which I love."
    The CDs feature a diverse array of tracks that range from the exquisite ("The Ukrainian Bell Carol" on banduras and balalaikas) to the wacky ("Santa Claus is Coming To Town" on assorted ukuleles).
     Nearly as impressive as Miner’s innovative arrangements and virtuoso performances are the photographs and extensive liner notes that serve to illustrate what is essentially an aural tour of the museum.
    "I treat it very lightly," he says of the educational aspects of his work. "There are lots of people who are into this who are very scholarly, but I'm a humorist who writes for the layperson."
    Miner explains that while the exercise of learning to play so many instruments has been a challenge; approaching each instrument as if it were the first helps.

INTERVIEW from the promotional video for A Christmas Collection, Winter 1996

Q1. Gregg, why did you decide to record "A Christmas Collection?"
A1. I came up with the idea several years ago when I was looking around at the walls at all these strange instruments hanging on them. And, not for the first time, I wanted to come up with some excuse, some project, where I could use these things, many of which, I hadn't touched at this point. So, I came up with the idea of a recording, a companion book and photographs to present to the public these wonderful instruments that no few ever seen. And for a musical theme, I chose Christmas, because I love Christmas music, we all love Christmas, there's a wealth of wonderful music out there that would lend itself perfectly to these odd choices and all the different styles of music that I would need. So, what ended up being the project was a collection of Christmas music on a collection of antique and unusual instruments.
Q2. How many instruments did you play?
A2. Ultimately for the two volumes of "A Christmas Collection," I ended up using approximately one hundred completely different instruments -- literally everything in my collection. In fact, that was my personal goal, once and for all, I was going to play these! If they could make a musical noise, I was going to get them on the project somehow. From the concert harp, all the way down to the Flexitone!
Q3. What is the Miner Museum of Instruments?
A3. I've labeled my collection, officially, The Miner Museum of Vintage, Exotic and Just Plain Unusual Musical Instruments, which really sums up sort of the range of things that I've found over the years -- exotic instruments from around the world, such as the Oud, the Saz, things like that. American instruments like the Marxophone, Octofone, Resophonic Mandolins, real interesting things like that, and even a couple I created myself. Other things, inventions from the 17th Century, Tromba Marinas -- the list goes on and on.
Q4. Who did the arrangements on "A Christmas Collection?"
A4. Because the instruments in the collection are so unique and different, I ultimately did the arrangements myself, because there really weren't any arrangements out there for Tiple or Octofone or Harp Zithers, etc. from around the world. So I had a lot of fun coming up with my own personal style, using all these instruments, somewhat traditionally but always giving it the Miner Music twist, which is sort of a blend of Bluegrass, Jazz, Classical, Folk, World Music -- the whole gamut.
Q5. Tell us how long it took you to do this project and how you put it together.
A5. The process to complete "A Christmas Collection" was unbelievably complicated, as you can imagine. In the first place, I'm playing many instruments that haven't been played in perhaps 100 years. So, there aren't any "how-to" manuals out there so I had to research the strings and tunings. I had to find repairmen willing to work on the instruments, set them up, string them up, most of that I had to do myself. Ultimately then, I did my own arrangements and performances -- solos, duets, multi-track recordings all myself, playing engineer on top of that. The whole process took about four and a half (4-1/2) years to finish.
Q6. You mentioned World Music. Does that mean there are carols from other countries?
A6. Volume 2 of "A Christmas Collection" features a World Music mini-set and this doesn't imply that I did carols from other countries, rather, I used the exotic instruments in the collection on versions of classic American and English carols that we would all recognize. For instance, the Middle Eastern Saz and Oud were used for "We Three Kings of Orient Are." Then I played "The Little Drummer Boy," except that I used the Indian Sitar and Tablas, which turned out quite interesting. And then, the Japanese Koto for a version of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel."
Q7. Can you talk a little bit about the accompanying booklets?
A7. I also wrote two companion booklets that go along with the CDs and in them I picture the instruments with beautiful full-color photographs and describe some of the histories and peculiarities of some of the more unusual things. So, you'll hear a Mandocello, you'll see a Mandocello and you'll learn something about the Mandocello. And when you go and listen to that song perhaps the next time, you're listening on a different level, hopefully, a little more enjoyable.
Q8. What is one of your favorite songs on the "Collection?"
A8. One of my favorite selections from "A Christmas Collection" is probably "Jingle Bell Rock," which is a perfect example of one of my favorite styles of arranging. I can probably only describe this as perhaps -- Chet Atkins meets Spike Jones, and that probably sums it up. For this song I used 8 or 9 instrument from America, 1920s through 1930s. Strange things, cute little things like the Octofone and the Tiple, Resophonic Mandolins, little strange shaped Tenor Guitars, etc. And I'd treat each one sort of like a character in a play or a little set piece, and they're sort of clamoring for attention and taking on such a life of their own, that by the end of the recording, I'm sort of out of it and they're taking over. In fact, I even refer to them in the third person. "Did you hear what the uke did there? That cute little guy, what a cut-up!". (Note: An extremely silly costume epic "Jingle Bell Rock" music video was then created to go along with this.)
Q9. What would you say is your favorite instrument in your collection?
A9. Without a doubt the Dyer Harp Guitar. In my companion book, I describe this model as the "Holy Grail" of Harp Guitars. In fact I'd been looking for one for 20 years and only found one just in time to finish this recording. The Harp Guitar has a normal 6-string guitar neck with additional open bass strings reminiscent of a Harp. Pretty difficult to play, but I was determined to do a solo piece on this instrument and chose one of my favorite carols, the beautiful, "Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Isabella." (Note: We then produced a second, serious music video of this song.)
Q10. How did you first become interested in collecting?
A10. I can vividly recall the day I unintentionally began collecting. It was back in high school, and at the time, I was playing electric and acoustic guitar badly, and saw a used mandolin in the paper in the classifieds, and went down just on a whim to see what it looked like. And it turned out to be this great old antique with a musty case and everything and I fell in love with that whole era. And the gentleman also had a 1940 Lap Steel Electric Guitar which in fact, is on this project -- I still have it to this day. From then on, my eye was sort of drawn to the stringed instrument family, the more unusual the better. I remember the next year, I saw a lute hanging in the window, and, yes, it went into the collection. And, I really haven't stopped yet!


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