Founding Member / Stick, Guitar, Violin, Vocals (1975 – 1987)
The Stickband was an amazing time for me. Getting a Stick and looking at the 10 strings and 25 frets as a huge blank canvas was really cool, as I was coming from guitar where so much had been done – this was an incredible tool, and forming a band with my guitar teacher and an amazing drummer who both were just as excited to explore new musical ground as I was, was more than I could have imagined.
The 12 years of the band for me were a time to let my imagination prosper and create with others in such a gratifying environment.
The band began with Jim Bruno getting a Stick. He let me borrow it to try it out; I was very interested, as I had seen Emmett Chapman play one at a demonstration at Guitar Showcase where we taught. I took right to it, and we decided to see what it would sound like to have 2 players creating and performing with this new instrument. We were both longtime guitar players, so we knew that we could always add guitar as we were learning the Stick. After about 2 months, I think, we had about 5 songs ready to play live with our drummer, Bob Cooper, who was also the drum teacher at Guitar Showcase at the time.
Soon after, we found ourselves really reaching for new creative ideas. We worked on an original baroque style piece on 2 sticks with classical counterpart. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that there is a recording of it, and I really don’t remember how the song went, but it was really something. Bob Cooper added 4 Syndrums to his set so he could play simple synth bass lines while we played double lead guitar, and Jim added the Lyricon – a synth horn fingered like a saxophone. I built the body of the guitar I played and the neck was custom made by Kent Perkins’ father, who was a legendary builder in the area. This would lead to more creative adventures in guitar building to be mentioned later.
The music at this early time was sort of a mix of Jazz Fusion and Rock Guitar. My background came from guitar-oriented bands such as Yes, Pink Floyd, Allman Brothers, Kansas, and Al De Meola. Jim’s background was more Funk, Motown, and Jazz Fusion. This made for a nice combination, with each of us adding sounds from different styles.
We performed several gigs such at the popular Jazz club the Eulipia and made trips to LA clubs and 2 weeks in Hawaii at the Blue Max. After a couple years of this wonderful experience, Bob Cooper decided to leave. I have fond memories of the fun we had together practicing, playing and just hanging out. Our next drummer, another teacher at the Guitar Showcase, was a young and very talented player named Don Telian. His creativity came out in his playing approach – he put together a ‘mirrored’ drum set so he could play grooves equally left or right handed, which led to some interesting polyrhythms. During this time we came to perform several gigs at the De Anza Planetarium laser light show in Cupertino. This has always been one of my very favorite shows that we played, along with our trips to Hawaii.
Another great moment was the Concert of the Inventors with Emmett Chapman And Bill Bernardi, the inventor of the Lyricon. We sold out the 700 seat theater and decided on impulse to hold another show. During this time, we were bringing a new king of Jazz Fusion mixed with fantasy and Prog Rock to the scene. Some examples were songs such as ‘Alien’ where I played keys, violin and Stick. Jim playing another new instrument, the EVI Steiner on ‘ ET’ and songs such as ‘Captain Nemo’ where the music had almost a soundtrack quality. We were into space and time travel as well as fantasy. I built a lightweight fantasy looking ship to fly over the audience. The lazer shows were also perfect. We even designed and consulted with a high end maker of magic props to build a ‘transporter’ so we could switch places on stage. Some of our ideas just cost too much to make work, but we really put a lot of creative energy into our shows.
We were having so much fun. All we needed was a label to pick us up and we were on our way, but all good things must pass, and Don left the group after a few years. We were disappointed, but we decided to keep it together and try a slightly new direction by adding vocals, and adding perhaps going a little more groove oriented to get into more venues and explore new ground. We added Ray Fink as our drummer and singer. Ray had an exceptional ability to harmonize. This even led to me singing some harmonies, which was to be the only time in my life I took up singing. I even remember doing a side solo gig where I sang 4 songs. The best compliment I got was no one really noticed and it was passible. I think I sang a total of 3 gigs and decided the level was not on par with my music, but I did continue to do some harmony during this time. We also added Verlene Schermer, a vocal instructor, harpist and violin teacher. We even tried out a bass player in Polo Jones, who was a monster player and great person. It was good experience to have someone take the bass and try other registers on the Stick. The music was a lot of fun; Ray was also a full time songwriter and Verlene added a lot too, but after a while we felt our musical directions were not the same and decided to take an even more radical turn.
Verlene and Ray left, and the band was back to guess who……..me and Jim. I am not sure how we found each them, but for the next version we added Michale Milburn-Jones as a lead vocalist and Mike Ardisson on drums and vocals. Everybody in the band sang lead vocals except for yours truly. Vocals became a big part of the sound but we always kept the prog/fusion jamming as an important element in our music. This was the early 80s and new wave on MTV was defining the current culture, and our band had fit right in.
Our players fit the image of the time – Michale was an extremely gifted and unique person in life and music. As a gay man he would dress up for gigs where many in the audience would perceive him as a woman. He had the voice to go along with his appearance and at the time this was a very special talent to bring into the scene. He was a pleasure to work with. Mike was a very talented writer and player. Mike had a huge influence in our sound at the time with his songs, and sometimes he would come out from behind his drum kit and sing after setting up a drum machine part.
My creative expression was to build instruments for the show that fit the songs and style of the times. I built 3 guitars; the first was a guitar with a working TV in the body to fit the MTV culture, for the second one I inlaid a guitar neck and installed bridge and pickups into a full size manequin. This project was the most difficult of the three, but it was fun to see people’s expression when I picked her up and started playing the leg. The third was inspired by my days of competitive frisbee. I built a small neck into a 15 inch circle so I could do simple tricks such as roll the guitar across my chest.
Each of these instruments had their problems, such as signal flow, but they were all worth it! At times it was kind of like a scene form the movie ‘Spinal Tap’. I also created a slide harp where I could pluck the strings like a harp with one hand and tap a bottleneck slide on the top 2 strings to create a slide guitar effect.
Each instrument had a song:
TV guitar was on ‘Just to Play On TV’
Manequin was on ‘She’s a Manequin’
Frisbee guitar was on ‘Constantly Cruising’
Harp Guitar on ‘Almost A full Moon’
During this time we had a regular gig at Gilbert Zapp’s in Campbell, CA. It was nice to have a once a week following and to continue to practice live on our shows. After the shows we had a routine of hanging out with Dave and Peter, the sound guys. We had such great support, such as Stacy, our biggest fan. Fortunately, over the years, Stacy has kept some of the material you see here.
Like many other musicians, we were looking for that elusive contract that would allow us to pursue music full time. We hooked up with some music people in San Francisco that worked to produce us and further our career in the record business. Theo Pappas was the main person we worked with; his connections led us to some financial backing and even recording some songs in studio D – the same studio that most of the top tier bands in the SF area recorded. One project I remember the most was filming the video ‘Turn Around‘ for promotion, airplay, and possible MTV. Sarah and Mickey Thomas from Jefferson Starship were featured in the video. The video was an anti war, particularly nuclear war, and the video is still relevant today. Unfortunately, the relationship dissolved and we parted ways, and the video and songs were never released.
After that, Jim and I started to feel that we should let it rest, although after the band broke up, we got together with songwriter Don Carlysle and drummer Rob Owens and thought about giving it another shot. During this time, I began to study West and South African music such as Shala Moanaa and Johnny Clegg. Our relationship with Don continued into this first post-Stickband era and we eventually met Babatunde Olatunji and became ‘African Rain’.
It was such a creative and fun time in my life. The time spent with Jim and the band members and supporters were not only musically amazing, but all of the time spent just hanging out was so special.
The best way to describe the Stickband and the Stick is to imagine going to a place where all the art, music, tools, canvas and materials you can imagine are there and all you have to do is jump in and let your imagination go!
Bob and I have continued to be lifelong friends and never truly lost contact after Stickband ended. Bob is very busy these days, and is known as one of if not THE best Stick player in the world. That’s saying something, but I’ll vouch for him. He’s that good.
I can’t say enough about how great of a musician that Bob is. He’s innately talented, but believe me, he also truly deserves the accolades as he has always been a hard and focused worker. The skills that he now possesses were earned through hours upon hours of focused practice.
He and I share so many great memories, but I’ll focus on the 80’s when we were in Stickband together. Bob was a guitar student of mine and after a while, moved from being a guitar student to becoming one of the teachers in my music school.
We both ended up purchasing Sticks and ultimately, forming Stickband. We would each be in our guitar studios teaching and whenever we had a break, we would be practicing techniques on the Stick, so it was nearly constant working on new techniques and writing songs – we were pretty much obsessed. Bob spent a LOT of time in the late 70’s and into the 80’s practicing and was constantly trying to come up with new techniques on this newly developed instrument.
We both felt an urgency to get good on these instruments as quickly as we could. We had about a six month head start on other people learning the new instrument, and we believed that we needed to work really hard to stay ahead of new players and to come up with ideas. The joke was on us – it’s 2017 and to this day not that many people really know about the instrument. Our head start was a lot larger than we thought.
It’s not just about technique with Bob; he’s a very good songwriter and very creative with arrangements. Bob’s back up plan if the music thing had not worked out was to be a graphic artist. He went to school to learn graphics arts, and has used those skills for all of his CD releases. He’s the full package – Bob can arrange the songs, record the songs and create all the graphics for his CDs. Very creative, indeed.
In the late 70’s early 80’s, Bob’s skills improved in leaps and bounds as a Stick player and he also invented all kinds of fun guitars – mannequin guitar, frisbee guitar, television guitar and a system for double guitars mounted on a stand and played at the same time. Add to all of that he also played violin.
Bob also wrote a guitar technique system book. It was early – way before touch would be made popular in the late 70’s by Eddie Van Halen, and although the style ended up having an expiration date in popular music, Bob’s love of playing and devotion to the Stick continues to drive him ever-on ward with the style. He’s never stopped innovating, and is now one of the great ambassadors for the Stick as well as one of the great players. He is constantly working on recording material and coming up with new concept albums, and on top of that, he still plays out a lot both in the United States and abroad.
Another wonderful thing about Bob he is such a nice guy that he really doesn’t realize how good he is. He’s a very down to earth kind of guy. Bob and I still play together once in a while and we will be doing a Stickband reunion performance soon. That performance will be recorded on video and shared on this website.
I’m very much looking forward to it, as playing with Bob onstage is always a really great time. All I can say is that it’s been a pleasure knowing you most of my life, Bob, I’m very proud to call you my friend.
Bob Culbertson was born with an extraordinary musical gift. His talent is inspirational. I recall meeting Bob for the first time and watching him analyze and navigate his newly acquired Chapman Stick. His focus on the instrument was more than an ordinary cursory observation, as one would behave in picking up any new instrument and saying, “how does this thing work”? For Bob, it was a deeply spiritual musical bonding experience. As he began to assimilate the Chapman Stick, his playing rapidly evolved into the virtuoso we see and hear today.
From that moment forward, I wanted to be a collaborative part of Bob’s musical creativity. As most musicians do upon recognizing another’s gift, I had a strong desire to contribute my rhythmic interpretations of Bob’s music and be supportive to his unique playing style and newly acquired sound.
The musical chemistry between Bob Culbertson, Jim Bruno and me in the rehearsal and recording studio was gold and a very intense creative adrenaline rush. It wasn’t long before we had two hours or more of original music to share during live performances with those interested in the sound of the newly born Stickband.
We had an incredible amount of respect, appreciation and patience with one another. There was never any unhappiness and never was there an argument on any matter between us. Our musical and working relationships were creative bliss.
We had boundless energy. With us, it was always, “Now let’s try it this way” until we found our unique sound for each composition. The creative exchange went on for many hours during our rehearsals and we were often disappointed when a rehearsal had to end. We left one another more energized and with great anticipation for tomorrow and for the next rehearsal and performance.
A big part of my life was lived alongside Bob Culbertson. He is a person who embraces everyone and everything with curious fascination. He does a great job of filtering out negative energy. Bob has a knack for retaining and conveying only the positive creative energy in his life. His personable skills are very enjoyable. It was a grand and wonderful experience for me working with Bob Culbertson in Stickband.