#794: “Hockey Sticks”

GETTING MORE TALE #794:  “Hockey Sticks”

Though Jimi Hendrix is responsible for the invention of the “hockey stick” guitar, it was my old guitar instructor Gary Mertz who coined the phrase.

In the 1960s, it was difficult for Hendrix to find good guitars for a lefty like him.  Ned Flanders’ Leftorium store was still decades in the future, so what was a young Jimi to do?  Like many things in his life, he got inventive.  He simply flipped a right-handed Fender Stratocaster over, restrung it for a lefty, and played it.

Flipping the guitar not only enabled Jimi to play a Strat, but also gave him some unique advantages in his quest for new sounds.  In this new orientation, the strings were now over the pickups in unusual locations, and had different tension than intended.  The long strings — the highest — were now the shortest strings.  Since the high E was shorter it didn’t have to be as tight, and this made it easier to bend.

This arrangement also had the effect of making Jimi look even cooler.  The iconic image of Jimi playing the upside down Strat became world famous.  With tuning pegs facing down, young righties were envious of this cool new look.

When those young righties grew up and signed to big labels themselves, they popularized the flipped headstock for righties — the “hockey stick” neck!  You can see it, can’t you?  Look at this photo below, of Criss Oliva from the band Savatage, and Tim “Dr. Hook” McCracken from the movie Slap Shot.

That’s a high sticking penalty.  Incidentally, the character of McCracken inspired Marvel’s Wolverine.  You see that too, don’t you?

It wasn’t always players with the calibre of Oliva playing these hockey sticks.  For every Criss Oliva there was a C.C. DeVille.  You knew C.C. wasn’t doing it to gain any string-bending advantage.  He was doing it strictly for image, and that’s one thing my old guitar teacher hated about it.  I think he also hated the sharp jagged headstocks on those Charvels, Jacksons and B.C. Rich’s.  Turning them upside town made them to look even more ridiculous to him.  Like you were about to hit the street for a little two on two ball hockey.  Utterly ridiculous.

 

I always had rock magazines and videos playing in the basement, so when Gary came for lessons he would often comment on what I was listening to at the time.

“Oh no, you don’t like those hockey sticks, do you?”

Sheepishly I said that I did.  I thought they looked cool, like a weapon.

But a guitar is a musical instrument.  The subtle curves on a Fender Strat echo those of a classic violin, not a melee weapon or a piece of sports equipment.  Regardless, by 1989 both Criss Oliva and Christopher Caffery were playing hockey sticks in Savatage!  They looked lethal in the video for “Gutter Ballet”, wielding those implements of both rock and high-sticking.

Although I wouldn’t fully confess my deep love of hockey stick guitars to Gary, I found drawings in my old school books that prove it beyond a shadow of doubt.  See below, this page removed from a grade 11 history note book.  I found three hockey sticks on one page alone!

I clearly liked the shape.  The proof is in the puddin’, or in this case, the 30 year old notebooks that I kept for occasions such as this.

Whammy bar, too.  Floyd Rose, no doubt.  Two open-coil humbucker pickups and a single coil in the middle.  Not a very common arrangement.  Was I trying to combine the best properties of a Fender and a Gibson?  Or was I just doodling?  The latter, most likely.  I screwed up the tuning pegs.  For all I remember, that mysterious top pickup might have just been for flash bombs like Ace Frehley’s.

The guitars do look a little silly today, but the 80s were a different time.  Every band had a shredder and you had to do whatever you could to look different.  Savatage’s dual hockey sticks complemented their jagged logo and looked damn cool being foisted in the “Gutter Ballet” video.

Raise a goblet of whatever you’re drinking, and let’s salute the hockey stick.  With all due respect to Gary Mertz, looking cool, young and lethal on stage used to mean something.  We all wanted to stand out, and a hockey stick was one way to add to an image.  I always wanted one!  Just watch your bandmates’ eyes when you’re swinging it around.  Taking an eye out is a lot worse than high sticking!

23 comments

  1. How do you know C.C. isn’t doing it for the bending advantage to play on his eloquently emotional solos on such undisputed classics as “Play Dirty”, “Let Me Go to the Show”, and “Unskinny Bop”? You know he puts so much effort and care into crafting them that every bit of vibrato he can get out of the thing is probably important to him. I didn’t think anyone could ever accuse Poison of style over substance. That wasn’t their style at all. I mean, just look at their first album cover. It’s clearly an artistic condemnation of the homophobic nature of the 1980s by embracing aspects of drag. “Cry Tough” is a rousing indictment of repressed feelings in a masculine environment. “I Want Action” is an elucidating excursion into the nature of the mundane monotony of modern suburban life, and the plight of the working class man in a society that increasingly turns the other cheek at meaningful progress and change.

    It’s my belief that Poison were the most incredibly prophetic group of modern times, and their masterworks are all cornerstones of 20th century music. C.C. DeVille is an extension of that astonishing prowess, and I believe he knew exactly what he was doing when he used an upside down head-stock. Every move they made was pondered, as back in the ’80s they were all clear-headed intellectuals on a mission to preach the gospel of Poison.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. Would you to know how many customers confused them for Hanson?

          Especially confusing when their kids asked for the “Hanson brothers” for Christmas and the parents asking us for that exact name….

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        2. Nope! They all got returned. It was a confusing time.

          Did I ever tell you about the first request we ever got for Hanson?

          “Yeah, it’s three guys, that sound like Michael Jackson, but white.”

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        1. Oh, God. It can’t be true!

          Well I haven’t seen this since I was about 16, so I guess I’m allowed a mulligan here. Plus I’m American, so the sport doesn’t have the same stature down here in the heartland. It’s fuckin’ freezing in the winter, and blistering in the summer. Best of both worlds.

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  2. I used to have a ‘jagged Jackson’ back in the day. White. I have no idea what I done with it. The Floyd Rose was a pain in the arse and, well, the jagged look wasn’t for me. I think I may have given it to a shredder pal. I think. I certainly didn’t look at all cool.

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