Tag Archives: Famous guitars

Bob Culbertson and the Chapman Stick

Bob Culbertson playing on Pier 39, San Francisco, August 2013

Bob Culbertson playing on Pier 39, San Francisco, August 2013

Walking along the Embarcadero in San Francisco very recently, I heard the most beautiful music floating across the late afternoon breeze. It sounded like a trio, playing a gorgeous flowing piece of easy-listening jazz; there was no percussion, but something that sounded like a marimba, accompanying a harp or two – an actual sit down harp, not a harmonica.

I approached Pier 39 in search of the trio, but what I found was something and someone far more amazing. I had discovered Bob Culbertson, master of the Chapman Stick. He was playing a tune I did not recognize, but I stood enthralled for a full ten minutes, listening, for it sounded like he carried an entire band in his two hands.

The Chapman Stick: where guitar meets piano.

The Chapman Stick: where guitar meets piano.

I had never seen a Chapman Stick in person before. It is a remarkable instrument that resembles the neck of a guitar, but longer, and with no actual body. It is worn vertically, from belt buckle to shoulder and is played with both hands primarily pressing the strings down onto the frets. There are different models, having either 8, 10 or 12 strings, with the heavier bass notes in the centre, and lighter melodic notes toward the outside.

The result of this complex playing arrangement, at least in the hands of a master, is remarkable, and Bob Culbertson is indeed a master. His slender fingers walked up and down the Stick’s fretboard, threading their way constantly and carefully to new footfalls. The was no dramatic strumming, as guitarists are prone to do, no rocking of the body as pianists do, and of course no sharp intakes of breath as horn players most do. Instead the music just came from this delicate dancing caress, and it was remarkable.

Dubbed “The Segovia of the Stick,” Bob’s playing delivers everything that a jazz trio can do. Sensitive, captivating melodies backed by a walking bass line, with counterpoints weaving seemingly effortlessly between. That one person can keep track of so much and deliver so much is truly amazing.

Many years ago when Stanley Jordan was still relatively unknown, people marvelled at the idea that music could be drawn from a fretted string instrument by hammering rather than plucking. I remember hearing a jazz station DJ introducing a Jordan track one time by daring the listeners to believe him when he said there was only one musician playing.

The hammering technique for guitar has a number of masters and devotees. In Toronto we are lucky enough to have an amazing player by the name of Andrew Lopatin who actually plays in the subways. He too, is worth stopping and listening to, even if you are late for work.

But the Chapman Stick goes far beyond what a six or seven string guitar can do. It has a soft, flowing musicality that truly benefits from sensitive pickups doing the work of amplification. It is not well known in popular music circles; perhaps the most well-known player is Tony Levin, an alumnus of King Crimson, and acts as diverse as Mike Oldfield, the Blue Man Group and the Dave Mathews Band have also experimented with it.

Listening to Bob Culbertson play is simply awe inspiring. There are moments when it seems he is not actually playing at all, but merely holding the Stick upright, while it does the work. But that’s an unfair description. Bob is a master – one of those extraordinary musicians who becomes part of the music. It flows through him, to the instrument. Glenn Gould, the pianist, was like that. So was Vladimir Horowitz. Robin Williams and Eddie Izzard share this talent in storytelling and comedy. There is something that seems to go beyond mere practice and delivery, beyond merely working an instrument to make art. With artists like Bob, there doesn’t seem to be any force required. He simply lets the music descend into him and play itself on the strings.

But it would be unfair too to dismiss all the years of hard work and practice that Bob must have put into his craft. His face is placid as he plays, but his eyes are sharp. He scans the crowd, singling out those who truly enjoy the music and he makes a true connection.

Thankfully, for those who cannot get to San Francisco to see him, his music is available online, and this is obviously the easiest way to experience his true genius. His website is www.stickmusic.com.

For me, a musician who has always struggled to make a guitar do what it is supposed to do, it is a rare privilege to look over the fence and observe a true virtuoso – someone who is a conduit of melody – and to partake in its all encompassing beauty.

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Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Lucy

They all loved Lucy.

They all loved Lucy.

Today (March 30) is Eric Clapton’s birthday. Of course the man needs no introduction, so I would rather talk about Lucy. Mr. Clapton is known as one of the pre-eminent and most famous users of the Fender Stratocaster, definitely a guitar that suits his clean and melodic style. But he was not always a Strat man. Back in the days of Cream and the Yardbirds, Eric played Les Pauls and Firebirds. He was a Gibson guy.

One of the most famous Les Pauls in rock history, then, has to be Lucy, the red 1957 Les Paul Goldtop upon which Clapton played the beautiful solo on George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

According to Wikipedia, the guitar was first owned by John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, who then gave it to Rick Derringer in a trade for an amp.  The finish became very worn, so Derringer’s father took it back to the Gibson shop where it was repainted red. Derringer did not like the feel of the repainted guitar, so he sold it to a New York music shop, where Eric Clapton found it and bought it. He played it for a while, but because he “already had a Les Paul” he gave it to George Harrison. George was struggling with the writing of “Gently Weeps” so he invited Clapton to come to the recording session. Clapton noted that George’s solo didn’t sound “Beatle-y” enough, so he sat down and delivered. Again, according to Wikipedia, “Clapton laid down the track in a single take; but later stated that he was so high at the time he doesn’t remember it at all.”  George kept the guitar, but it was stolen during a robbery of his Beverly Hills home in 1973, where it traded hands a couple of times, it went to Mexico and eventually was recovered by trading a couple of other guitars. George kept Lucy, and presumably it is still part of his estate.

This leaves me with a couple of questions:

With so many guitars in the world, how come just a handful get to live storied lives like this one?

And also, these musicians have piles of money and access to all kinds of instruments. How come they lend and borrow from each other like this? I think it’s cool, but are they really that stuck for a good guitar? George Harrison’s brown Telecaster has a similar story. It was given to him by Joe Walsh.

It all makes for wonderful lore, and it certainly helps out the marketing of high-end Signature series reproduction guitars, but you have to wonder a.) whether these stories are true; b.) whether any of the world’s greatest guitar solos would have happened the same way if they had just picked up any old studio guitar lying around;  and c.) whether they will live on for centuries, like Stradivarius violins, to be played by successive generations of gifted artists.

Anyway, happy birthday, Mr Clapton. Thank you for making it all look so easy.

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