The Stick: When Six Strings Aren't Enough
"Right now I have 12 paid admissions, which is exactly my target." It's Tom Griesgraber talking about the upcoming series of Stick seminars and concerts he's hosting in conjunction with the Mira Costa College Music Department and the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad.
By Stick Griesgraber means the Chapman Stick, a rare stringed instrument that has a distinctive look, feel, and sound. Like the Sitar or the Turkish Oud or the Japanese Koto there aren't very many Stick disciples around San Diego, meaning one's chances to hear Chapman's invention being played out are slim to none.
"The Stick community is so small."
Griesgraber, from Encinitas, thinks he may be the only guy doing shows here. He discovered recently that one of his Stick contemporaries had relocated to Temecula. "That's the closest I've ever been to another [Stick] player in my world."
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. Famous Stick players include Tony Levin who gigged and recorded with Peter Gabriel during his "Shock the Monkey" phase. Griesgraber now owns Levin's silver Stick but says he doesn't play it.
"It's on loan to the Museum of Making Music."
The Chapman Stick bears the name of its inventor, Emmett Chapman. It is a relatively recent addition to the stringed arsenal of the world, having come to be in 1969. As the story goes Chapman, a guitarist, was never satisfied with just six strings. He'd made himself a nine-string guitar and somehow along the way discovered that he could tap the strings with his fingers and get sound, rather than just by picking or strumming.
He liked the tones he got so much he eventually mutated his nine-string into a 10 -string wide neck with an electronic pickup embedded into it. In time Chapman learned to play chords and bass lines with his left hand and melodies and chords with his right hand simultaneously, something more along the lines of what a piano player does but on a stringed fretboard instead. The net? An impossibly rich and textured performance that sounds as if three guitarists are all going at once.
From the landing page of the Stick Enterprises website: With Emmett's method, both of your hands are equal partners. As they approach the fretboard from opposite sides, your fingers line up parallel to the frets and a powerful new musical language emerges - bass lines, lead melodies, chords, and rhythm, simultaneously, and in any combination you desire.
Although never a tapper, an entertainer named Robert Johnson was doing this sort of thing in the Mississippi Delta in the 1920s on a beater six-string Gibson L-1 acoustic. Johnson's playing (he learned from Ike Zimmerman, not the Devil) is hard to re-create in that Johnson sounded as if more than one guitarist was playing. This came from his habit of fingering/picking bass notes on the bottom strings while chording and picking the melody on the remaining strings. That took compartmentalization and a division of purpose, both traits that are endemic to Stick aficionados.
Chapman, in fact (and not Eddie Van Halen or slide guitar genius Sonny Landreth) was the first musician ever to fully use both hands in this manner, with the fingers of both hands playing perpendicular to the strings in what has become known as the free hands technique. The left hand plays a tuning that amounts to an upside down cello and the right hand plays something resembling conventional guitar tuning.
But here's where the Stick gets really interesting, at least from a gear-head perspective: Sticks are split down the middle electronically, meaning that each string set has a separate output which allows the player to produce multiple sounds simultaneously with multiple musical parts.
"The Stick," states Chapman's web site "is unique, expansive, versatile, like each of its players; a blank slate upon which to "tap your potential."
But the Stick is an engineer's dream that possess none of the sexy-ness of the modern electric guitar. It is a playing machine, an ugly thing with a wide guitar neck and no body. Like lap or steel, the Stick is, as Bugs Henderson would say, a sit-down guitar. A performer props the extended fretboard along one's chest and shoulder.
Henderson, a Texas guitar master with roots going back to pre-ZZ Top sock hops says conventional guitar is simple. "These things are easy to play." Not so the Chapman Sick: it appears to be a devilish instrument to master. That said, Stick players, however few they may be in number seem more cerebral than Stratocaster players. No one lights their Stick on fire or skewers their amplifiers with the spear-like instrument.
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." He saw his first Stick performance at a NAMM (an annual music instrument manufacturer's trade show.) Tony Levin was there playing. Griesgraber was hooked. But now, is it lonely being the only Stick player in town?
"Yeah. But it's a double-edged sword. So many people don't know what it is. You don't get called for gigs like a guitarist would. And not too many corporate event planners are gonna say hey, I want a Chapman Stick player." The trick, he says, is getting people to listen. Once that happens, in his experience they are usually hooked. "People are used to the sound of guitar or piano. But with the Stick, they just stop and stare."
On Friday Night March 23, 7:00pm the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad is hosting an open mic event called Exploring The Stick. http://www.museumofmakingmusic.org/events/events/details/57-exploring-the-Stick
On Saturday and Sunday March 24 and 25 Mira Costa College's Music department will host two days of Stick workshops, instruction, and concerts. Registration and ticket information is available online at http://www.thossounds.com or by calling 760-942-1031.
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