Tom Griesgraber says he started out on piano as a child and switched to guitar as a teen. He was good enough to be accepted into the program at Berklee College in Boston. After graduation he came home to San Diego with a case of what he describes as post-grad Berklee guitar burnout.
"I felt like I wanted to do something different." Then: "I saw Tony Levin playing a Stick at the 1997 NAMM trade show in Anaheim, and I bought one that year," says Tom Griesgraber. The 12-stringed Stick (popularized by Levin during stints with King Crimson and Peter Gabriel) is played by tapping the strings like piano keys, with bass strings tuned in ascending fifths and melody strings in descending fourths, providing a wide tonal range of sounds.
"It sounds something like electric guitar, electric bass, piano, and synths -- all thrown into a blender," says Griesgraber. "When I started, there was nobody teaching it, really, so I bought the only two books in existence for it. The Stick itself gets amazing reactions. I used to draw small crowds in Guitar Center just by playing a few notes to test amps for it, and I've sold CDs just by pulling it out of the case and not playing a note."
It's amazing, the depth of the sounds Griesgraber makes on the Stick. And he does a lot of that stuff all at once rather than multi-tracking - watching him play is the same kind of jaw-dropper as the first time you see Stanley Jordan or Jimi Hendrix play, using fingers like a little orchestra. Many people actually like Griesgraber's Stick music better than Levin's. Though Levin has breathtaking chops, he's still grounded in basslines and guitar technique, while Griesgraber goes at it more like a pianist
Of course, you don't go to a neighborhood Guitar Center to buy a new Stick. Unless purchased used through collectors, all Sticks still come from the workshop of their inventor, a musician named Emmett Chapman.
"It's still a little family business in Woodland Hills," Griesgraber says. "They started the company in 1974." To date, he thinks they've produced around 6,000 of the instruments. "The big corporate expansion was when they added a second garage a while ago." Chapman's daughter helps run the business and his wife still answers the phone."
Griesgraber says a 10-string model is the least expensive option, retailing for around $2,000. It may seem like a lot of coin, "But," he says, "they actually go up in value." How many Sticks does Griesgraber own?
"Right this second? I own five." He has models that range upward to 12 strings, and one in which eight of the strings are tuned like a bass guitar.
He's highly influenced by King Crimson. Asked his favorite lineup of that band, he says "The double trio: Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Tony Levin, Bill Bruford, Pat Mastelotto, and Trey Gunn. Just so many great musical personalities, and they're all such good players that they make the over-the-top instrumentation actually work. It was actually the first lineup I saw, on video, and it's the one that pulled me into the band in general. Plus, they have two Stick players."
Now considered one the best Stick players in the U.S. (behind Tony Levin), Griesgraber says, ironically, "I can't drive stick shift. Quite the issue while touring Europe."
Typically performing over 125 shows a year, Griesgraber has toured throughout the United States and Europe with artists like Bert Lams, Agent 22, the California Guitar Trio and Jerry Marotta. He has also performed several times for the Grammys and has opened shows for a who's who list of rock and jazz groups like Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel), Stanley Jordan, Paula Cole, Andy Summers (The Police), Tim Reynolds (Dave Matthews' Band), Steve Hackett (Genesis), Tower of Power, Al Dimeola, Adrian Belew (King Crimson), and Tuck and Patti.
"I guess the best local gig for us would have to be the time we played at The Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad. They always do such an amazing job of promotion and audiences are really great listeners there. But more than that, they recorded the show and it actually became a live album for us, which was part of what started us down the long road to [a new album]. Having the live album captured what we'd been doing up until that point, so we felt there was no need to do a studio version of the same pieces."
As for his worst gig, "We play a lot of house concerts on our tours, and we were in Kentucky once, playing in this gorgeous setting against the Kentucky River. Nice big open lawn, and the homeowner was such a music fan he actually had built a stage complete with concert lighting in his yard, with the river and a sheer cliff behind it as the backdrop. He had a guest suite in his house too that we were planning to stay in. About five minutes before we were to go on, he had about 100 guests seated and we were warming up in the guest suite. He came to get us and we noticed some water on the floor in the corner of the room and asked him about it. He instantly started grabbing his chest right above his heart yelling 'Oh Jesus! Oh Jesus! Oh Jesus!' over and over. We both thought our host was having a heart attack! Apparently the water was his septic system backing up and he was just panicked thinking about all the guests in his back yard! But, the show went on, and went well."
"I think our host unfortunately missed the first half at least while dealing with the situation. We still had a good time, but did opt to not stay in the room with the septic leak and found some other accommodations."
Griesgraber next recorded a sort of prog-rock wagon train western set in 1840, recorded with Bert Lams of the California Guitar Trio, Unnamed Lands, telling the Reader that it's “My most ambitious project yet...it's a concept record, complete with twelve-page booklet.”
“I had this three-part story idea come to me, about a group of covered-wagon travelers,” he says of the narrative, which developed after the duo distilled around 30 hours of recorded instrumentals down to 14 potential tracks. “I knew nothing about the period, hadn’t been reading or watching anything about it, [so] it was really strange the way it came to me. That gave us the title ‘Prairie Suite’ for that piece.”
"We wrote most of the material together over a period of about four years. Bert would fly out and stay here for a week or so at a time. Most of the pieces started with improvisations in the studio. We would just set up all the gear, hit record and see what happened. Eventually, we would listen back to the improvs and find our favorite moments. Using these as rough ideas, we then started trying to combine and elaborate on them and slowly turned them into pieces that could be played live."
"We took these out on tours around the US, further refining them each night. Along the way, we wound up with about 30 hours of material recorded. Eventually, we realized there was a core group of fourteen tracks that seemed to really work together as an album."
Combined with Bert Lams’s adventurous guitar work (which continues to evolve, long after touring with Crimson’s king Robert Fripp), Unnamed Lands, explores tonal territories rarely covered. “I’ve played with quite a few musicians over the years, but most of them drummers. In that scenario, it’s easy, because the Stick and drums each have their own sonic space. With Bert on acoustic guitar, the two instruments are much more similar.... Bert doesn’t think anything like a conventional guitarist. In fact, I don’t think you’ll find him strumming chords on the entire album! He plays tuned in 5ths, Robert Fripp’s ‘new standard tuning,’ and spends a lot of time playing counter riffs and melodies to what I’m doing.”