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!