The Struggle is Real

As we get ready to go into our fourth month of self-quarantine, at least there are some silver linings. We’ve expanded our morning walks to almost five miles, and we have developed a very efficient pantry and garage-shelf food storage system.

With all of the time at home, Rita has started sorting and digitizing boxes and boxes of old photos. I was able to finish and publish my book on touring the Galápagos Islands , and I should be ready to publish a more serious book on battling Survivor’s Guilt via the Inca Trail by the end of July.

I’ve been able to amuse myself musically by recording versions of a few songs like “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Little Sister” (currently trying to get “Unwell” to sound, well, a little less unwell).

But I’ve also been struggling with something lately that I had been putting off for years, and it is getting a little frustrating.

The cause of all this grief? Trying to learn to play the Chapman Stick Bass.

Actually, I have two versions; the classic Stick Bass, and the NS/Stick.

Stick Bass


Both are similar in that they have 8 strings, and are tuned from low string to high in fourths like a regular bass guitar – BEADGCFBflat. However, they are made to be tapped with both hands, rather than plucking or picking with your right while your left moves on the fretboard. The NS/Stick is made so that it can be plucked or tapped or both at the same time.

Since I’ve been playing bass guitar since I was 16 (started out with a bass I bought from the Montgomery Ward catalogue), you would think this would be no big deal, I could just pick one up and wail away.

You would be wrong.

To play them well, you must use your left hand to play mostly bass lines by tapping the lower 4-5 strings. You then play a melody or chords with your right hand by tapping on the higher 4-5 strings. In this manner, it is kind of like playing a piano.

Except that on a piano keyboard your hands are oriented the same way, and everything is laid out in front of you. On the Stick Bass, your hand point in opposite directions and it is hard to see both.

Here’s an example of what this can sound like when played correctly:

Stick Bass

And now, the NS/Stick Bass, showing it’s versatility. Don Schiff here is tapping, plucking and strumming.

NS/Stick Bass

So you see, although being a bassist gives me a leg up on knowing where the notes are on the fretboard, actually playing the damn thing is a completely new procedure.

I’ve tried to make it as simple as possible, starting off with very basic three-chord songs like “Down on the Corner” and “Neon Moon”. However, both tunes come out sounding an awful lot like “Polly-Wolly-Doodle”.

But I struggle on, telling myself it is getting a little better each day and one magic evening I’ll be able to get through an entire song and play it in a recognizable form.

Of course, glutton for punishment that I am, I’ve also taken things a step further. I’ve ordered a classic Chapman Stick.

The difference? Night and day. For one thing, it has 10 strings. Second, it can be strung and tuned a number of ways, but I ordered the standard setup. This means that half of the strings will be tuned in fifths rather than fourths.

If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry – it just means that after almost 50 years of getting used to notes being a certain distance apart, that will change.

Which brings me to the third and major difference. The lowest strings are in the center of the fretboard, and the bass strings ascend to one side in fifths, the higher strings to the other in fourths.

The humanity …!

In other words, it should totally mess with my mind. Here’s an example of what this instrument can do.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Fortunately, these instruments are custom built to order, so it will be six months before it arrives. I’ll have plenty of time to drive myself to distraction on the Stick Bass before it becomes time to debase myself on something new.

And hey, if that doesn’t do it, I’ve got a saxophone around here somewhere …

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  • Mary Riley says:

    totally did not understand anything about your guitar section but have greatest respect for you for continuing to “stick” with it… i am forwarding this to a friend of mine who is an accomplished guitar player…don’t know if he plays this instrument but he likes a challenge.
    stay well.

    • Betty says:

      Hi Jim,
      I enjoy reading of your adventures with your wife. Are you going to stay in the states? I have a piano keyboard and I am attempting to learn how to play. I can with some difficulty, play “Jingle Bells” and “When the Saints go Marching in”. Who knew? Several months ago, I couldn’t play anything. Good luck with your instrument. I love the saxophone!

      • Jim Santos says:

        Thanks for you comment. We are in the states until there is a safe way to travel, and more countries that will let us enter. I fool around with piano as well, currently working on “hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. I can stumble through a few tunes, but mostly it helps for learning chord structure.

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