Winter NAMM Show 2000
National Association of Music Merchants Trade Show
February 3-6, 2000 Los Angeles Convention Center

Click any image to see the slide show

This year I was presented with the opportunity to attend the annual trade show of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) at the LA Convention Center. The NAMM show is an event where vendors of all things having anything to do with musical equipment come out and show their current stuff. More specifically, it's like being at the biggest and coolest music store you'll ever walk into in your life. The show is not open to the public but instead only caters to music retail buyers, manufacturers, studios, etc. Steve Osburn from Oz's Music in Ann Arbor was kind enough, during one of my Stick lessons, to offer me entrance and I decided to take him up on it. So, from February 3-6 ... off I went.

The events were pretty much in full swing the moment I stepped off the plane. Thursday evening was the annual Stick Night (an event that is becoming a NAMM tradition) where a bunch of top Stick players all take turns performing at a local night club. As a Stick player, this is a great opportunity to see all those names you hear about all year perform in one place. This years event was to take place at the Cafe Cordiale in Sherman Oaks and run from 9:30PM until about 1:00AM. My plan was to land in LA at about 9:30, pick up my friend Greg Peregon (who was kind enough to put me up during my stay), and get over to the club at about 11:00. Of course, since I was flying Northwest Airlines, my flight was automatically delayed for the lame reason du jour and we didn't get there until a bit after midnight. For some reason, I saw on the board upon entering the airport that my flight was leaving on time and I believed it. I should have remembered that when dealing with Northwest in Detroit, assuming your flight will leave on time is a little like sticking a VHS tape of your favorite movie into your VCR and thinking that the film is somehow going to end differently this time. Regardless, I was late but still determined to get to the club. When we walked in, Steve Adelson and Bob Culbertson were on stage playing together which was followed by Bob playing by himself. The music was excellent but I was, unfortunately, catching the tale end and trying to make contact with Steve Osburn at the same time so I couldn't really soak it in. The saving grace here was that I would get the opportunity to hear all of these same players again on the following day at the convention center. I did get the chance that night, however, to chat a little with Greg Howard, Casey Arrilliga, and Yuta Chapman (who, after dozens of phone conversations, I really wanted to meet).

The following day, Greg had to work so I was on my own. Still being on eastern standard time, I was pretty much wide awake at 7:30AM so I got up, got ready, and got out. I got down to the convention center at about 9:30 and discovered that the exhibit hall would not open for another half hour so I roamed around outside and then made my way over to the west hall where they had an excellent exhibit on the evolution of the synthesizer. They had units on display dating back forty or so years and some of these units were unbelievable. Aside from many of the classic Moogs that were popular during the 70s, there were a couple of units that were the size of a small office with small keyboards, dozens of switches, and patch cords all over the place. To top it off, there was a lone forty year old Theremin on display that you could actually toy with. Hours of entertainment. Back over in the south hall, there was a marching band playing in the lobby. I never did manage to find out where they were from but they jammed. I'm not usually a big fan of that sort of thing but they were very good. As they wrapped up their performance, they marched in two lines up the escalators and, upon arriving at the entrance to the exhibit hall, they threw the doors open and let everyone in.

My first stop was the Stick Enterprises booth. I was early enough where there really wasn't any crowd yet. When I got there, I found Greg Howard working the booth by himself. We talked it up a bit and I checked out all of the instruments they had on display. After that, I moved on to see the other booths. One of the first things that struck me was the number of basses and also the exceptionally high quality of the instruments. I was getting the distinct impression that high quality basses were very much in style right now and there was no shortage here. They were all over the place and most of them were beautiful. Of course, many of them were also completely hand made and carried some huge price tags. All in all, I was struck by the large number of instrument manufacturers I had never heard of before. Especially makers of fine acoustic guitars and basses. They were coming out of the woodwork and trying to keep track of even half of them was a bit overwhelming.

After moving up and down a few aisles, I found myself back at the Stick Enterprises booth. By this time, Steve Adelson and Don Schiff had shown up there and I also ran into Wes Teregan from the Michigan Stick Trio. Shortly after I arrived, Steve Osburn showed up and the Michigan contingent was complete. The crowds inside the exhibit halls were really picking up by this time and the various players hanging around the SE booth would be taking turns playing all day in order to show off the instruments. Don Schiff started up first playing the new NS/Stick which is an eight string tapping instrument co-designed by Emmett Chapman and Ned Steinberger. Don had only just started playing some tunes when Greg Howard noticed that he was standing in front of a life size picture of himself playing the same instrument in just about the same pose. It was kind of scary. Greg shouted out who has a camera? The resulting photo is what you're seeing here. By the time Don was into another tune, just about all of the performers from the previous evening were hanging around the booth and I got a chance to chat with all the folks I hadn't met the night before. To wrap up my morning, I finally met Emmett Chapman and managed to find a break in the action to talk for a few minutes.

In spite of going in with the intention of seeing most of the exhibits in the morning, I somehow managed to blow most of the morning at the SE booth (which I really didn't have a problem with). Now lunch time had arrived and I was hungry. The great thing was that most of the players at the booth were heading out to the outdoor food court for a lunch time performance. So I made my way outside, snagged a plate of BBQ chicken, and grabbed a seat ($9.50 for the chicken ... It was good but not that good). The first performer up was Emmett Chapman. Emmett took a few minutes to get going. There was a flurry of activity behind him as he started to play that apparently revolved around some bad cables. At about that point, one of the facilities guys had the brilliant idea to grab this huge electric cable running into the wall and disconnect it. Everything went dead. Now I could hear people on the stage yelling at the facilities guy to plug it back in and don't touch anything else. The sound came back on and Emmett kicked into full gear. He did a lot of improvisation and explored several different avenues of tempo and texture. He made much use of his motor bass technique and kicked in and out of a killer space reverb effect that sounded like a chorus swelling up behind him. All in all, Emmett played a solid set and it was a real pleasure to see, for my first show of the day, the man himself play his instrument. After Emmett finished, Bob Culbertson came up for a short set. Personally, I have to say that Bob's set really blew me away. Prior to the performance, I was familiar with Bob's ability and material but had never seen him play live. Furthermore, in spite of the fact that I hold his playing in the highest regard, there were other players whose material I liked better (better suited to my tastes). Seeing Bob play live, however, was a major treat. His technique is arguably as good as it comes. The thing that struck me even more than his technique, however, was the sound. Bob doesn't use much in the way of effects on his Stick but he somehow managed to completely fill the area around the food court with about the thickest and most lush sound I heard all day. Next on the Bill was Larry Tuttle. Larry plays Stick with a group called the Freeway Philharmonic. Today, however, Larry was playing some tunes from his recent release of solo Stick recordings. Larry is great with rhythms and is a fun player to both watch and listen to. One of the highlights of Larry's set was when he finished up with his own arrangement of John Philip Sousa's Washington Post March. His plan was to show off the different music styles that can be played on the Stick and he certainly did the job with this one. It was something I had never heard anybody attempt on a Stick and Larry pulled it off beautifully. Next, Don Schiff took the stage. Don spent the weekend showing off the new NS/Stick which, as I mentioned earlier, is an eight string Stick bass co-designed by Emmett Chapman and Ned Steinberger. Don has been playing this particular instrument all through the various prototype stages and has become quite accomplished with it. He played a few of his own compositions where he sings and goes through a variety of techniques on the NS/Stick ranging from traditional bass playing to finger picking chords while tapping out bass lines to two handed Stick-style tapping. After Don finished, Third Door Down took the stage. This group is made up of Casey Arrillaga on Stick accompanied by Kira Arrillaga on vocals playing all original material. Casey plays a whole variety of what you might call textures while Kira sings with a voice that will cut through anything. With a little less focus on the instrument itself and more focus on the songs, Third Door Down got a great response from the lunch time crowd. Third Door Down was followed up by Greg Howard playing solo Stick material. Greg was largely responsible for coordinating the performances for the entire weekend and is one of the most active performers and teachers out there today. Greg played several selections from his recent Sol recording and did some great improvisational stuff. His technique is incredibly fluid and he is always a genuine pleasure to both watch and listen to. Last on the bill for the day was Steve Adelson. Steve is a jazz guy. He was accompanied on stage by Casey Arrillaga playing the Doumbek. Steve is really great at showing off what you can do with the Stick in a jazz context. His walking bass lines are a site to behold and he runs through his licks so smooth and effortlessly it looks like anybody could do it. Steve played a Grand Stick that was MIDI'd up to a Roland GR-30 and he used it to throw in some cool synth/horn sounding leads and did some great walking bass/piano work.

After the lunch time show, I was seriously ready to fly back to Detroit and put in some solid practice time. I had a couple more days before that was going to happen, however, so I moved back to the exhibit hall and moved onto to see more displays. By the afternoon, the crowd inside the center had grown almost exponentially. There were performers playing in a huge percentage of the booths and unless you were up close, there was just this blanket of noise the seemed to hover over the hall. I managed to find the Heritage booth and had to stop. Heritage is a Michigan guitar maker in the old Gibson factory in Kalamazoo. Furthermore, many of the guys making these guitars are old Gibson employees and it's said among local guitarists that Heritage guitars are every bit as good as the guitars Gibson made in the 50s and much better than anything Gibson is making today. Personally, I've played some Heritage models and would have to agree. They are sweet and the price is much lower on these guitars than a brand new Gibson of the same model. One of the other highlights of the afternoon was when I stopped by the EMF Acoustics booth and caught a performance by the California Guitar Trio. I had seen these guys a couple of years back opening up for King Crimson in Ann Arbor and had a couple of their CDs. They played some great stuff that afternoon.

One of the afternoon's unexpected highlights was when I wandered back outside through the food court and caught a performance by The Kurstins. The Kurstins are a jazz duo made up of Greg Kurstin playing piano and minimoog and Pamelia Kurstin on the Theremin. I've known of the Theremin since I was a kid and had a vague idea of what it sounded like because of the opening themes from the early NBC Mystery Movie's. I had never heard anything like this though. Pamelia Kurstin had taken the Theremin way beyond a novelty instrument and played some exquisite jazz that was both beautiful and haunting at the same time. I stopped to catch just a bit of the show and ended up parking myself there until they finished. Unbelievable! Really ... if you ever get a chance to see them, take it.

By the time the afternoon was drawing to a close, my legs were seriously getting tired. I wanted to stick around to see the Stick performances scheduled for the Rendezvouz Cafe at 5:00. The bill was made up largely of the same performers who played the lunch time show but also included Tom Greisgraber of Agent 22 who had just come in to play the evening show. I was fading fast though and when it became apparent that Tom wouldn't be going on early in the show, I had to split. Sorry Tom!

Back at Greg's place, we threw around some ideas of what to do with our evening. What ended up happening was that we had an excellent Mexican dinner and then crashed hard. The next day I was heading back to the convention center and this time, Greg was coming with me. Steve Osburn had an extra pass for a friend that couldn't make it so he gave the pass to Greg and Greg became Gretchen for the day. Nobody letting us into the show seemed to notice so we went with it. We were a little late getting in that morning so the first items on our agenda were to stop by the SE booth to see if they had any strings for me to buy and then catch today's lunch time Stick performances. On Saturday, Greg Howard was alone on the lunch time bill at the Rendezvouz Cafe and played solo for about an hour and a half. Again, Greg's performance was superb throwing in quite a bit of material from the records Sol, Shapes, and Stick Figures that I hadn't heard the day before. It was a real treat to hear him perform Charmed Life which was one of the first solo Stick pieces I had ever heard and a piece I had been breaking my fingers trying to learn.

After the lunch time show, Greg and I set off to check out the electronica filled west hall where exhibitors were showing off software, lighting, and techno electronics. Specifically, we were looking to try out the theremin at the Big Briar booth which we did. Of course, trying to do anything with the theremin reminded me very much of the first time I ever picked up a Stick. This was something that had to be learned and practice so Greg and I were content to just make alien noises with it.

From electronica land, Greg and I ventured over to check out the huge array of drum and percussion vendors. While we were walking through an area filled with drum kits and players who were quite happy to pound on them, we heard a killer drum solo rising up above the din and noticed a huge crowd gathered around the Fibes display. We assumed that some famous drummer must have been performing so we stopped to try and see who it was. What we saw was a kid that couldn't have been much more than ten years old just jamming his little heart out. This kid was unbelievable.

The end of the afternoon was drawing near so Greg and I decided to start thinking about wrapping it up for the day. This would be it for me, however, so I had to stop back over by the Stick Enterprises booth and say my goodbyes. When we got over there, Tom Greisgraber had shown up and was playing an NS/Stick. I told him that was the one item I hadn't tried out but didn't sweat it because the last thing I needed was to get hitched to another instrument to buy. Tom took it off and stuffed it in my face like a drug pusher (I say with a smile). I messed with it a bit and have to say that it is a cool instrument. As a part time bassist, I found the NS/Stick to be a hugely viable instrument. You can pretty much jump right into playing it (much more than a regular Stick) since the tuning is in ascending fourths and it can be played using your regular bass technique. Think of it like an eight string bass. The cool part comes with the ability to mix standard bass finger techniques, pick techniques, and tapping techniques all on one instrument. The NS/Stick really opens up the possibilities of what you can contribute to your group as a bassist (do I sound like an advertisement? I really liked this thing). So with that small detour aside, I said my goodbyes to most of the folks I had met and to Emmett and Yuta Chapman. From there, Greg and I grabbed some dinner and a video and loafed the rest of the evening until my red-eye flight back to Detroit departed LAX.

My overall feelings on the show are that it was a great experience. There is a definite danger of brain overload walking through there just because of the amount of stuff. I'm sure anything I've written here doesn't even begin to describe the sheer volume of stuff. The huge thing for me personally, however, were the performances and the people I met. As a budding Stickist, seeing performances by all of the names in one place was just a huge opportunity that I wasn't about to pass up. Getting in some conversation time with these guys was a great thing also. I really enjoyed meeting everybody and I won't forget it. Mainly, I want to throw out a word of thanks to Emmett, for making such a great instrument and being such a pleasure to talk to, and to Yuta for being every bit as cool in person as she is on the telephone. Keep up the good work and I hope to see everyone again next year.