Eighteen months after graduating from Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Tom Griesgraber was “hungry to find my own voice in music.” He grew up playing piano and then guitar, and he realized at an early age that he wanted to have a music career.
“I was writing a lot on my guitar, but I felt everything I did had echoes of other people,” Griesgraber tells City Paper. “One night I was in upstate New York, and I saw this trio featuring Tony Levin and drummer Jerry Marotta [both men played with Peter Gabriel].” The trio had recently recorded an album in a cave called From the Caves of Iron Mountain. But Levin wasn’t playing bass. He was playing both lead and bass on this tall, 12-string instrument called a Chapman Stick, made by musician Emmett Chapman.
“Watching Tony play all of the parts on this stick really planted a bug in my head,” says Griesgraber. While he is now recognized as one of the pre-eminent stick players in the country, it wasn’t always that way. He bought a used stick in 1997. “I started out playing it by laying it on the floor.”
He practiced 20 hours a week for the next 18 months to get an hour’s worth of material together. There weren’t a lot of tutorials at the time for the stick, so with the aid of two books, Griesgraber learned to play by ear. He started on a second hour of material, but realized by the time he learned that, he had forgotten the first hour. To build up his muscle memory, he began playing in San Diego’s Balboa Park. It was a good place for him to learn.
“There were only a limited number of spaces in the park to play, and they held a lottery each day to decide who could go in,” he says. “There were so many people there trying to get in, and I remember thinking, ‘I’m doing something unique. I’m a classically trained musician and I’m going to lose a spot to somebody who just decided to buy a saxophone last week.’”
Nowadays, Griesgraber has one of the largest catalogs of original music for the stick. His performances feature Griesgraber playing the stick alone and also adding an ambient synth and live looping. His style and commitment to the instrument is recognized by other stick players.
“Everyone has their own sound on this instrument,” he says. “But I do feel like I bring an expressive quality to my music from my background on guitar. I still hammer on and pull off, and use synth and looping because I don’t want every note to sound the same.”