Sticking it to 'em
Q: What the heck is that?
A: It’s a stick.
Q: What the heck’s a stick?
Glad you asked.
Most Monday nights at Miller’s, when he’s not on tour, Greg Howard performs solo on his chosen instrument, the Chapman stick. Looking like a giant guitar fretboard on steroids that lost it’s body somewhere along the way, the instrument, named after its inventor, Emmet Chapman, looks and sounds strange yet familiar.
Though sticks come in multiple configurations, Howard’s has 10 strings, which he manipulates by tapping (also known as “fretting”) with eight fingers, the thumbs resting on the underside of the fretboard. The result, after some nifty electronic manipulation, sounds like the result of a two-, three-, sometimes even four-man band.
The stick (a player, like Howard, is known as a stickist), which Chapman fist custom made for himself in 1969, remains an unknown instrument. One of the foremost (some would say the foremost) stickists in the world, Howard took up the instrument in 1985. Previously he’d played trumpet and the keyboard, to which the stick seems just as kin to as bass and guitar.
The selling point of the Chapman stick is its versatility. It’s true, and often way past neat, that Howard can use his 10 fingers on the stick’s 12 strings to play rhythm, bass, and melody parts simultaneously, the latter ranging from guitar-hero screech to robot-voiced Blade Runner-era synths to electronica blips, bleeps, and slides.
Though he can coax tons of tones from his stick, something that’s fun to watch him do live and on the fly, some tones are better left behind. Because the instrument is played by tapping on its strings, it’s inevitable that many sounds retain a percussive quality. Sometimes Howard can mimic the purr of subdued slap bass, sometimes making it difficult to discern his parts from his bassist’s, Jan Van Olffen. Other times, though, you could swear the plinky ping-pong tones were vintage canned Casio.
On his 2000 Greg Howard Band release, Lift, he and his band (culled from the Netherlands), use an array of instruments (stick, synthesizer, fretted/fretless bass, drums, percussion, saxophones) and undeniable skills to herd together almost any sound they want. This anything-is-possible environment has plusses and minuses. Smoothed out mellow jazz can rumble over polyrhythms. Or, the band gets proggy with it, and too many disparate noises compete with each other. The constant: an irrepressible sense of adventure and curiosity.
Greg Howard performs at Starr Hill Wednesday, March 20. $6. Doors 8pm, music 9pm. No smoking at the artist’s request.