“I wanted to do something different.” With those words musician Tom Griesgraber describes his instrument, his music…
And, for that matter, Tom Griesgraber describes his life.
The trailblazing musician, who has often performed with his unusual instrument, the Chapman Stick, is now also a member of the California Guitar Trio. A year ago, the trio was scheduled to tour the U.S., opening for King Crimson. Because of COVID restrictions, one of the trio, Hideyo Moriya, had to drop out from the tour and move back to Japan. When called, pretty much at the last minute, Griesgraber says, “I started practicing like I haven’t since college days, learning their material.”
Griesgraber got himself up to speed with the trio’s repertoire and completed a successful tour with King Crimson. “We played amphitheaters, famous venues like the Ryman in Nashville, Fox Theatre Atlanta, the Greek Theatre in LA, and a first for me, a Sports Arena in Austin,” he says.
This last year, the California Guitar Trio headlined across the United States, joined the Montreal Guitar Trio for another U.S. tour, and released a new recording, a live album from the last show of the Crimson tour in Phoenix. This month the band performs along the West Coast, including a concert on July 16th at the Ritz Grand Theatre in Escondido.
Establishing himself as a full-time member of the California Guitar Trio has been less of a recent decision than a years-long process. Griesgraber and the members of the trio formed a mutual admiration society in 2001, when he opened for the group at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano. Over the last two decades, Griesgraber has sat in with the trio on a number of occasions. He and Bert Lams, one of the trio members, have collaborated as a duo and have produced two CDs together, a live recording from a performance at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad and a studio recording titled Unnamed Lands.
Founded in 1991 by Paul Richards, Hideyo Moriya, and Bert Lams, the California Guitar Trio is a direct descendent of Robert Fripp’s League of Crafty Guitarists, a unit that explored the guitar tuning advanced by Fripp—known for his pioneering work with the progrock group King Crimson and one half of Toyah and Robert’s almost-not-G-rated Sunday Lunches—in which the guitar is tuned like a cross between the guitar and the violin. Several years ago, I saw the trio perform in North County, and the tuning gives the guitars an overall brighter sound.
Besides the unusual tuning, the trio is known for what might be insanity producing approaches to their music. For example, they perform a Bach prelude in which the guitarists take turns playing each successive note. What could turn into counterpoint madness turns out to be a completely new and refreshing take on the well-known baroque masterpiece. Griesgraber says of the trio that the audience should leave aside any expectations before they enter the performance venue. He says, “They are going to hear anything from classical compositions to Ennio Morricone, the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. They might hear Pink Floyd or Duke Ellington.”
Growing up, Griesgraber endured one of the universal requirements of childhood, piano lessons, never truly taking to the instrument. He nonetheless found his love of music when he picked up a guitar and discovered rock ‘n’ roll in high school. Deciding on a career in music, the Encinitas native was off to Boston to pursue a degree from the prestigious Berklee College of Music.
Griesgraber relates, “At Berklee I was one of a thousand guitar players, a thousand great guitar players, but I wanted to stand apart, do something different.” Attending a concert by Tony Levin, Jerry Marotta and Steve Gorn in 1997, in which bassist Tony Levin played the Chapman Stick, Griesgraber found what he was looking for. “I was struck by the sound of the stick. It doesn’t sound like a bass. It doesn’t sound like a guitar,” he says. He picked up one of the instruments and set about to learn the technique for playing it. “At first I played guitar and occasionally brought out the stick, but more and more I was playing stick.”
A little taste of the California Guitar Trio:
The Chapman Stick (or just plain old “stick”) is totally electronic; to play it, you have to plug it into an amplifier. Unlike electric guitar, bass, or piano, there is no corresponding acoustic version of the instrument. Invented by Emmett Chapman in the early seventies, the instrument consists of ten strings strung on a long, straight, fretted board that is usually made of wood (hence the name “stick”). If you see sticks from a distance, they look like pencils with dark erasers at their ends. Now here’s the thing with the Chapman Stick, unlike lutes, guitars, banjos, violas, zithers, autoharps, and every other stringed instrument in the world, the strings on the stick are not bowed, plucked, or strummed. The stick player (or would that be stickiest?) sets the strings in motion by placing his or her fingers down on the fingerboard, what is sometimes employed with other stringed instruments and is called hammer-on or tapping.
Griesgraber chose jazz and rock classics, such as “All Along the Watchtower” and Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” as part of his repertoire and for his CDs, but most of his performances and recordings consist of his compositions. When putting a piece of music together he finds inspiration in the vast amount of classical, pop, jazz, and every other type of music that he has been exposed to and the more than 2,700 albums that he has in his musical library. “When I’m writing a new piece of music, I want to find something that I haven’t done before, whether it’s a chord voicing, chord progression, or a percussive technique that I haven’t tried before,” he says. “When I compose, I want to do something different.”