Unique instrument adds
soothing sound for
Culbertson learned to play
the Stick from its inventor
(September 2013) – One day back in 1976, Bob Culbertson had plans to spend a fun afternoon out at the beach. Instead, a friend managed to convince him to briefly stop and hear a musician who was playing a new type of instrument upstairs at a music store. He never did make it to the beach that day, but what he heard instead would change his life.
Photo by Don Ward
Californian Bob Culbertson learned
to play the Stick
in 1976 and has
since made a
career out of it.
The musician performing was Emmett Chapman, the inventor of the Chapman Stick. At the time, the Stick had only been in existence for about two years, but Culbertson was immediately hooked by the potential it offered. “I saw the inventor play it, and I really liked the sound – really a full sound,” he recalls.
Looking rather like the neck of a guitar, the 12-string instrument is played by tapping the strings with the fingers rather than strumming. Culbertson quickly saw that this style of play “could give you more possibilities playing two parts – more like a pianistic approach.”
He describes the experience of playing the instrument as being like “playing guitar with one hand and bass with the other hand.” Within a few months of his introduction to the Chapman Stick, he was playing with two other pioneers of the instrument, Jim and Bob Bruno, in a group they called the Stickband.
Culbertson has never been one to shy away from new or unusual instruments. During the 1980s, he played in a group that experimented with instruments that were as fun to watch as they were to hear.
Some of these included a mannequin guitar, made of a six-foot-tall mannequin with fretboard in the leg, a TV guitar with a 12-inch TV body playing videos, and Frisbee guitar that included a circular body the player could spin or flip around. He says that group was “always trying to make a good show, make it entertaining.” He looks back on those years and says those shows had a lot of “fun, gimmicky things – all in the past now.”
Culbertson’s serious musical ability is shown in his work stretching the boundaries of the Chapman Stick. He played an important role in developing the acoustic Stick, and with Acoustick Dawn became the first person ever to release a recording of that instrument.
Culbertson was also responsible for adapting the music of many classical composers such as Mozart, Bach and Beethoven to be played on the Stick.
After playing the Stick for more than 30 years now, Culbertson finds that he often gravitates toward art festivals for his performances.
He explains that such festivals typically draw bigger crowds than even large halls would be able to seat. “Plus, I get to meet the people one-on-one and explain the instrument. It’s fun, people are always asking questions,” he says.
Based in Lake Port, Calif., Culbertson makes the effort to travel widely in order to share his unique music with a broader audience,
“Typically, I do about five events off the West Coast.” He enjoys attending shows where people are not familiar with the Chapman Stick and appreciates it when “a lot of people who come from the local area and have never seen the instrument” get the chance to hear him play.
He believes that part of what makes his music the perfect soundtrack for festivals is the fact that “it’s nice to listen to and can play as background music.”
Chautauqua entertainment co-coordinator Allison Hall says of Culbertson’s sound, “I think what makes his music so appealing is that it is so complex and dynamic, yet extremely easy to listen to. He incorporates elements of classical guitar, jazz, improv and world music into his style of playing. Bob is also very good at engaging with his audiences by speaking about his instrument and his songs. He clearly has a passion for what he does.” She points out the importance of music to the festival saying, “It adds to the overall sensory experience that Chautauqua provides to its patrons.”
Hall explains some of the criteria for the event noting that, “First of all, the acts have to contribute to our family-friendly environment. We tend to look for acts that are simplistic, yet unique and refined. Acts that don’t have too many production requirements tend to work best in our venue, given the set- up.”
Culbertson remains hard at work sharing the Chapman Stick with new instrumentalists. He teaches classes and gives seminars on the instrument and has available a series of free online video lessons as well as DVDs for those who wish to learn to play themselves. While he came to the Stick having been a guitar player, he says that it is not necessary to have a strong musical background before picking up the instrument. “It’s a different technique,” he explains. “I’ve taught people who have never played before.”
• Bob Culbertson will be performing from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days of the Chautauqua at the foot of Broadway Street. For more information, please visit www.StickMusic.com.