Global Bass Online March 2002
Global Bass writer and Stick enthusiast ANDY LONG talks to
An Electric bassist, an upright bassist, a veteran of the Chapman Stick and a leading exponent of the NS/Stick, Don Schiff has had a fantastic career in music and in conversation, he is a captivating and humorous partner.
Don grew up in Wilmington, Delaware and played bass professionally whilst still in high school. At a very young age he moved to Las Vegas and soon landed a hotel gig. In this meeting Don told me how it all happened...
(This interview with him is long and in-depth but I promise you will thoroughly enjoy it! So get a coffee, then settle down and relax as I let Don Schiff tell his own story.)
'When I was a senior a singer named Rosalind Kind needed a bass player and my father put me on the gig. So over the weekend I drove to New York to meet her and do some gigs with her. It turned out that Rosalind is Barbara Streisand's half sister.
I guess they liked me because after my high school graduation her management called and asked if I'd go to Las Vegas and play for her there. And so, right out of high school I went to Las Vegas to play!
Then the fun began. The gig lasted three weeks at the Flamingo Hilton. So the gig ends and she goes back to New York, but I wanted to stay and eventually go to Los Angeles. So, I ask her manager (figuring, hey he's a manager) to get me another gig in Las Vegas. He says, "Sure, meet me in the lobby tomorrow and I'll tell ya what gig you got .
Well, he got me a gig all right...A BUSBOY in the very same hotel we just played in!!!! I was shocked. I said, "A busboy!". He smiled and said, "If you're going to be a Vegas musician you gotta join the 'Musicians Union, Local 369,' and in that the rules state, you must stay in town for six months and not work as a musician!" (Obviously they don't want you stayin'). I took the job, changing in my tux for a... spiffy busboy uniform. Hey, I learned how to make deluxe folded napkins!
So now, for the "Behind the scenes of circumstances you don't know are happening..." While I was being a busboy, one of the sax players from the "previous gig" had a son that was my age that was killed in a car accident.
My youth must have reminded him of his son and so he wanted to help me out. He did so...every time a conductor would complain about a bass player, he'd pipe up and say, "I know this kid"...and they wouldn't listen until about 5 months with this guy sayin' "Hey, I know this kid".
Finally the showroom conductor says, "Alright, go get your busboy, we'll give him an audition". He runs down and finds me in the back kitchens of the hotel and tells me, "After your shift is over go get your bass and show up in the back stage area after the second show...you got a shot at the showroom gig."
So with electric bass in hand and smellin' like a variety of all foods I had bussed that shift, I auditioned. The conductor put a bunch of music in front of me to read from the show that was currently on.
That all went well. I put a nice "rock" edge on everything which at that time, unbeknown to me was what he was looking for. I also played a Rickenbacker 4001 when everyone else used a Fender Precision. This was back in 1974, pretty ballsy move. Something you only do when you’re young, inexperienced and end up doing the right things because you don't know any better.
He also asked if I knew tunes...meaning standards. I didn't want to say, "No" so I opted for "Yes." ("No", of course, being the truth.) I added to my answer by pushing the limit and adding, "I know anything you do."
Like I said...young, inexperienced and you end up doing the right thing because you don't know any better. He proceeded to play tune after tune...not realising I could see his hands and could see what chords he was heading for, between that and using my ear I held my own.
In the end (yes this story will end) he said, "Very good, don't call us (all together now!!) we'll call you". He called a week later and hired me. That's (briefly?!) how I got my start in the Las Vegas showrooms. Back then being a showroom musician, you either sank or swam, no in-betweens. Las Vegas, of course, had some pretty big names playing in it's hotels and Don played with the best.
I was fortunate enough to play for Elvis, Tina Turner, Sammy Davis, The Jerry Lewis Telethons, Ann-Margaret, Raquel Welch, Ben Vareen, ...it's a long list but those are some highlights. Pretty much everyone who came through the Hotel.
Perry Como did a TV special from the Hotel. Then they would do TV specials where different Hotels’ shows would guest appear so you got to play the Show Girl reviews or animal magic acts like Siegfried and Roy.
I had a year were I must have hit every late fifties early 60‘s star. There was Chuck Berry, the Diamonds, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vinton, the Lettermen. A lot of fun and a variety of music.
Later when I moved to Los Angeles I was introduced to Dwight Yokam by a mutual friend. Dwight used to come over my house to demo some songs before his first giant album and fame. I toured with Pam Tillis, met her in LA and then to...where else...LasVegas. I must have been having "country music" Karma that year.
I did some recordings for Sheryl Crow. I did about three albums with Eddy Money. If you haven't heard of the following names, Vaughn Monroe, Buddy Morrow, Peggy Lee, Warren Covington, mention them to your Mom or Dad...hmmmm perhaps even your Grandparents.
These were stars of the big band era that I got to play with before they died (God rest their souls) or became ill. A great experience and opportunity I appreciate more and more the older I get. There you have it, a broad spectrum of highlights.
Working in Vegas with great names like these inevitably led to touring and other opportunities. I am predominantly an ear player who can read. This means that, though I can read the chart you put in front of me, I might think I've got something better and will play that. (Please see...‘ young, inexperienced and end up doing the right thing 'cause you don't know any better‘ file).
I remember the Ann-Margret show. A huge extravaganza of music and production. She had just done the movie "Tommy" with the "Who" soundtrack. I had never seen so many notes stare at me from a page and what seemed like a new key change every 32 bars. Mostly 4 and 5 sharps.
My palms were sweating. I was 20 and so scared I couldn't even feel how fully scared I was. To heighten the fear, the conductor for the show also conducted for Elvis and Diana Ross. I thought, ¨Oh no, they're going to find out I don't read that well!¨
Well, the conductor waved and the 40 piece orchestra hit the music. Wow, what a sound. A voice went off in my head and said, "Just play boy, feel it... Rock it loud and with intention...if it's groovin' it will all be okay."
Well, I blazed through loud and strong, sometimes reading and sometimes on the fly, rewriting my part. When the smoke cleared, the voice was right. Though the arranger was present and knew I wasn't reading exactly what he wrote, he wasn't sayin' anything after the reaction of "How cool his charts were sounding" and how happy the star was.
Vegas Moral of the story is: Once again, local 369 rules stipulate that, each showroom player works 6 nights a week. On the 7th night a 'relief orchestra' (all new musicians) comes in and plays. Well, as you may have guessed, the relief bassist 'read' what was written, the star turns to the conductor and asks, "What happened to my groove?".
I was then paid to not take days off (local 369 rules stipulate, bigger bucks for such a happening) and that's how I got noticed. From there I was asked to tour with whomever came through the showroom.
I used that 'ear player' way of playing in everything, after all, that is why I wanted to be a musician. I have something to say and with my own style of saying it.
So, the obvious next question that generally appears around about now is, ¨What made you decide to take up Chapman Stick?¨
The Stick came about from jammin' with a drummer named Les DeMerle. He told me about this guy he played with in Los Angeles that played this instrument that could play guitar and bass at the same time. The guy was of course the inventor himself "Emmett Chapman."
I called Stick Enterprises, drove to LA with my wife Cynthia and dog Pete and bought one right then. I couldn't wait to play it... I could hear what I wanted to play but when I placed my hands on the Stick the fifths bass and fourths melody tuning took a bit to get used to. Three months to really start to feel comfy. Then I was flying!
Since then Don's session list as a Stick player is as long as... er... a long thing. Lana Lane, Erik Norlander, Nia Peeples, Stacia and many other artists have featured Don in one way or another, I asked him to tell us about a few favourites.
I got hired by the director/screenwriter Patrick Sean Duncan, who wrote such films as Mr. Hollands Opus, Courage Under Fire, Nick Of Time, Home Of Our Own and '84 Charlie Mopic, to do a filmscore for the movie "Family Values." They wanted a famous jazz musician to feature in the sound track but found they didn't have the budget for it and so they left it to me to deal with.
So, I had them fly my brother Dave in from the East coast. Now, my brother's really got the talent gene. He is a GREAT jazz sax player, he's just not world famous! Of course to the film company, they think I'm just getting my brother in on the gig.
So on the first day of recording the score I start with the big feature sax solo. The piece that sets the 'tone' of the film. The studio has the director and producer sitting behind me waiting to see what they're spending money on as my brother proceeded to flawlessly "blow their heads off" with great jazz playing.
Ahhhhh, it brought tears to my eyes, I was so proud of him. I turn around and the director had tears too. Cool studio moment. On that same session, the end of the day rolls around and I discover I forgot to write a cue.
I take my brother aside and whisper that I don't have music for the last scene and I don't want anyone to know. So he goes back in the recording booth with a TV screen so he can watch the action and I go into the room next to his with a glass window between us. We can see each other. I have the engineer roll tape and picture and proceed to give my brother 'hand signals' that jazz musicians use to signal key changes.
Like holding one finger up is the key of 'G' and one finger down toward the floor is the key of 'F'. So tape rolls and I flash my brother four fingers down (A flat) and off we go, playing to the action on the video monitor and flashing hand signals back and forth.
A beautiful cue was written on the fly and no one was the wiser.
Let's just take a break for a moment and listen to one of Don's top studio tips. I just bet that none of you have tried this one and I doubt whether many of you will, but if it works...
Here's a cure for ground hum. Once on a session I had a ground hum problem. When I touched the strings the hum stopped. Lift the fingers off, hum came back. So needing both hands to play the Stick, I figured I needed to attach a string to my body to always have it grounded.
So, I took an old high string and tied it to some metal on the stick. The session was ready to record and I was running out of time and needed a body part to attach the string to. Well, out of time and grace, I reached down into my pants (unnoticed, thank God) and wrapped the string around my 'Captain Happy', 'Big Wally', 'Little Eddie', 'King Richard'... (You get the idea).
Well, it worked like a charm, securely anchored and no hum. The tune played on and was recorded and turned out to be a wonderful take. The engineer, excited, called out to us to come into the booth to check it out. Being excited to hear it myself I forgot 'how well grounded' I was. I yanked the stick off, nearly slicing off my 'manliness'. Aaarrghh, needless to say, a most memorable session. I almost became my own sister.
Yeah, well, thanks for that magical moment Don! Back to those favourite sessions. Don told me he has a gold album for a song he wrote for Pat Benatar.
Cool things seem to come out of the blue. Tully Winfield and I demo-ed songs at what was becoming a very popular studio in LA (Woodcliff Studio). She has an incredible voice and we had just recorded 'Cerebral Man'. If I recall correctly the demo just had Tully's voice, Stick and drums.
Peter Coleman was producing Pat's next album for Chrysalis and happened to be the next session in and heard the tune. He asked if he could take the song to Pat Benatar and hopefully put it on her next album. Her camp liked it and they did a wonderful job with the song.
I thought Tully and I would get a few more songs on that album as they liked the style of our song but at the last minute she decided to go back to her more familiar rock style, leaving our song the only one stylistically like it on the album. The album is called 'Wide Awake In Dreamland' and our song is side two, song two, 'Cerebral Man'. The album went gold and I now hang my gold album up in my home studio.
After that success we got together with Nia Peeples who was with Motown at that time. We collaborated on a song, one of my favourites that we've written actually. It, 'With EveryWord' became the featured single. The album called 'NiaPeeples' didn't go gold though, dagnabbit. Let's all go out and buy more copies and push it over the edge!
And then the excellent writer Patrick Sean Duncan (who I mentioned earlier) asked if we would score a TV movie for him called 'Life From Death Row'. And so we did and had a blast. I even got a 'blink of an eye' acting part in it. I run up to a van and yell, "Alana I love you, I love you." Originally the line was just "Alana I love you" but thinking I could win an Oscar if they just saw me a little longer... I added the extra "I love you." Dagnabbit... overlooked for the Oscars again.
So while Don was being called for all these sessions, primarily as a bassist, how did he begin to incorporate the Stick into these sessions?
The Stick had to at least have a starting point in something I already had going. For me, that was bass. So, before the session would even start, I would bring the Stick out first, plug in and try it on the tracks. If I brought the electric bass out first the 'Time is Money' school of thought would not have given me the time for trying something new after the track was already laid down. So I would just bring the Stick out first.
It was always a huge success, more than covered what they expected as a bass part and brought something new to the mix. While laying down a bass track (on Stick) I'd also play some top side 'because we can' and end up laying those parts down as well. By the end of the session, the producer and engineer were well versed in what the Stick could do and would then eagerly request it for next time.
---A side note to recording the Stick: it is not to think how many parts you can play at the same time, but rather create the parts. Then be able to record them separately so that the engineer can concentrate on the EQ, and placement for each part. I‘d like to expand on that in that if it makes a better fuller part. I'll play a two handed part for each side.
Sometimes that turns around and bites you on the butt, for being the 'Rocket Scientists' we are, we'd all lay down outrageous parts never planning on ever having to tour with this band... Ooooops !!!
Wow, were those rehearsals a work out! I ended up with both hands flying, midied and playing Taurus bass pedals to boot.'
As we know the bass side of the Chapman Stick is tuned in fifths, not the fourths that a bass player is used to. Did this tuning change Don's approach to creating a bass line?
Well, not only is the bass side of the Stick tuning in fifths but it's also inverted, meaning that the lowest strings are in the center of the neck (both bass and melody) working their way out higher in pitch towards opposite edges.
Then tapping inverted fifths creates a different look at constructing bass lines especially in the basic layout of your hand. On electric bass, the 'bass line' approach to a chord (speaking in numbers rather than notes) would be I, IV, V, VII and VIII all in easy reach of the palm of your hand.
With Stick, the 'easy reach from the palm of your hand' changes slightly to I, IV, V, VIII and IX. To me, that 9th adds melodic color to my line. The ninth says, "ohhhhh, nice melodic touch," but points your ear toward the root of the chord. Before restating the root (I'm thinking for example in a G7 chord), you can dive lower in pitch, hitting a few passing notes in easy reach. Then hit the7th (F), adding an aggressive edge to the line. The result being a crowd pleaser in drive, percussion and harmonic openness.
When the NS/Stick was in it's development stages, Don, along with a certain Tony Levin, was one of the first players to get his hands on a prototype model. I wondered what his reactions were.
First let me take a moment to enjoy the fact that in your question a reference to me appears in the same sentence with Tony Levin... Ahhh look at that, I'm hobnobbing with the best of 'em!
Okay, back to the question. Originally it was to be a tap instrument much like the Stick is. When I held it in a more bass like position (not so vertical) I discovered you could not only tap it like a Stick but you gained the advantage of plucking or even picking it like a bass or guitar. As I worked with it more I found you can seamlessly go from one technique (plucking to tapping or picking and any combo therein) to another, even in the same song without having to make volume or tone adjustments.
I was so amazed...and I still find new techniques all the time. Since I've had it, 90 percent of my session calls have been with it. Last week I discovered I could tap a bass line with my left hand first and second finger and at the same time reach across the neck (looks like a giant bar chord) and form a chord with the remaining fingers of that hand.
I then pluck or strum the chord with my right hand while independently tapping a bass line. So I'm using two techniques at once, independent of the other. Sure it's like patting your head while rubbing your stomach... while balancing on a ball... while sky diving - BUT! It's incredible, nonetheless.
Not to mention the most unbelievable bass tone ever. Engineers and producers jaws drop when they hear it. The string action is very low. To get the tension on the string I like, so I can 'dig in' without 'clunking' the string to the neck... I just pluck back further toward the bridge. Works like a charm.
I don't have to compromise my tapping low action to accommodate my bassist desire to dig in on the string when I pluck. Oh wait, let me finally answer your question... I took to it quite easily.
Given the NS/Stick's more familiar bass/guitar-like tuning, I asked Don how it compared to the regular Stick and what were the strengths and weaknesses (if any) of each.
They both have great strong points and each offers something the other does not. All the years I've played Stick, about 27 years... (started when I was two!). As much as I tried when tapping to get that 'driving, pumping plucked bass feel' I could only get close, and really it was another feel. Well, with the NS/Stick I have both, Pump action and Tap action. Sounds exciting, doesn't it?
BUT with the 'Stick' bass side having at least five strings to reach across in fifths, (and the low strings starting in the middle of the neck going higher and in the opposite direction of the melody strings) it gives you the ability to play a bass line and grab a chord with the same hand.
That leaves you another hand to play the melody strings (in fourths), to play a solo or to elaborate more with the chord. The NS/Stick being in straight fourths across the neck doesn't give you the chordal reach on the bass side.
BUT the string spacing on the NS/Stick is wider with it's 8 strings making plucking between the strings very nice. The Stick with it's 10 and 12 string variety has a closer string spacing and no real pluck room.
BUT I find the Stick easier to tap in general. I could not choose one over the other. For me, I need both. It's a great double. The expressiveness in each of these instruments is astounding and the tunings and techniques unique to each are extreme advantages for each of them.
Oh but wait, there's more. Much much more. It's just hard to talk about really. For every "BUT" I give you, there is a way around to "UN-But" it and so much to explore really. Playing two hands on one side for instance, or switching the NS/Stick into mono giving you the run of all eight strings, and using a two handed tapping technique to play EXTREMELY fast runs all the way up and down the neck. You too can easily become one of those musicians we all complain about who play incredibly fast runs. But don't ever say anything.'
Don has travelled the world quite extensively as a musician, playing gigs, clinics and demos in a variety of settings.
I go to Japan mostly with Lana Lane, she does well over there. We just finished up her latest CD and we'll leave in April to tour and support the CD. Starting in Tokyo. Then we'll go to Italy, France, Holland, Germany and hopefully Spain again. We did a similar tour last year.
Usually I stay over in Japan a little longer than the band I went over with does, so I can do some clinics and concerts on my own. 'Rocket Scientist' usually tours Germany and Holland when not combining with Lana Lane.
There is a 'WorldStick Seminar' in Rome this year May 9-11 2002 and I was asked to speak about my experiences with the NS/Stick and play. Those were wide open dates for me and then suddenly a tour looks like it will run right through it.
I'm hoping to be able to fly in for a day and be a good 'Ambassador' and speak and play. A singer and band named 'Lance' used to take me through Stockholm every year for about three years. I'm actually in the studio with him now, he has a brand new record coming out this year and we'll tour the US mostly.
I also used to travel with Ann-Margret a lot. We went to Africa and Stockholm, I got to meet the King and Queen and see their palace in Stockholm. I toured with Shirley MacLaine and played for the Queen of England at the Palladium. That doesn't happen everyday.
I've been in the studios mainly for the past 10 years so I haven't been doing an excessive amount of touring like I use to. Perhaps that will all change this year. I like getting out, my son's 20 now, I think he'd enjoy it. I used to take him and my wife out on the road with me before he was school age.
Wow, what a blast we'd have. We'd stay at Caesar's Palace when we'd play there. I remember we'd always get the room with the huge circular marble sunken bathtub - and it was in the middle of the living room! I loved it. I'd fill it up a little for him so he'd have his own little indoor swimming pool.... while we ordered room service and watched movies.
Don will soon be releasing a solo NS/Stick album, but first I asked him to tell me about his previous solo Stick album 'Timeless'.
I love to sing and play the Stick or NS/Stick. You get so much sound behind you for support you feel... invincible. You have such control over groove and sound when you play live because you control so much rhythmically and harmonically. Everything rocks in the direction you want it to... you more or less pull everyone your way.
Though I tracked the CD I kept the idea that I could pull most all of what you hear on the CD live with a drummer. John Snider played drums and Greg Ellis played ethnic percussion. It was produced by Raj Naik, all very talented friends. A treat on the CD is called 'Emmett's Prelude' in which Emmett Chapman himself, the man, the genius, the inventor of the Stick plays his rendition of the song that follows his track... hence it's 'Emmett's Prelude'. I felt so honored by his great playing and contribution.
So what about the new album?
It was an extremely fun album to do. I finally mastered it 2 weeks ago. These aren't major label album releases, so they pretty much get released when I get around to it. You can get them through Stick Enterprises at www.stick.com. The NS album is called 'Wait By The River'. The CD will have a video in it. You can see it now if you'd like.
Go to www.donschiff.com and click on the words "Wait By the River". If you have a 28k modem.... you'll be -waitin'- all right! 56k isn't so bad... about 4 minutes. Here's another site you can hear 3 tunes off the album, see this video AND another video taken of me demonstrating the NS/Stick at the NAMM show this past January.
Go to www.nedsteinberger.com (no, not now, wait till you’re done this fascinatng article! Yeesh!) Once there, hit "NS/artists". Once that page comes up, scroll on down. You'll see me and the Mp3s.
For the most part the tunes are somewhat 'Pop', like STING, but if you click on 'Louienstien' you get a surprise. One day my son comes into the studio and says "Hey D" (he calls me "D") I like this band 'Rammstein', can you write me a song like this?¨
I said, "Sure, come back in three hours." I listen to it and think, "Wow, that's not what I would normally write like." It's pretty aggressive and loud. But I want to impress my son so he comes back in three hours. I've got it all tracked and I put the head phones on him.
Now he's known me and my playing all his life. So it's average to him. Well, I see his face, as he starts to crack a smile. That smile of "Whoa, I didn't think the old geezer had that in him!" The smile gets bigger and looks like, "Wow, sure people always said he was good, but now I'm hearin' it."
He takes the headphones off and is so happy I pulled off what he had asked. I, of course couldn't be happy with just winning his approval. I had to then push even further.
I said, "Louie J. (I call him that even though his name is Aaron.... go figure) Rammstein is a German group and they sing in German. It gives it edge. So we should sing this song in German. He's so happy and says, "Good one, 'D' " .
Too bad you don't speak German. "I said, "I'm no quitter, that won't stop me, I'll make all the German words up so to you and me, and everyone else that doesn't speak German, it will sound like we do!" And so my friends....click on "Louienstien" and hear a father and son moment.
Ok everyone, thanks for reading. I hope your coffee didn't go cold and I hope you enjoyed meeting Don. I'll let him have the last word.
The Sticks are so expressive that it is quite natural to develop your own style with it. From the number one Stickist and inventor Emmett Chapman always leading the way to Greg Howard who always inspires me with his style and playing ability. As does the wonderful creativeness of Steve Adelson, Bob Culbertson and Larry Tuttleto...to name just a few with totally different styles.
I've known them for years. I‘ve watched how each of us and others every year at Stick Night get up and display how far we've taken the instrument in totally new directions. Each creative and uniquely our own.
For questions regarding Sticks, seminars, videos or CD's go to www.stick.com.
If you'd like to contact me, put Global Bass in the subject box and e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit me at:
I'd like to personally thank you, Andy, for this interview with wonderful questions and I appreciate Globalbass creating another forum for Stick and bass discussions.
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