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StarF**ker Central, Part I – Tony Levin

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a number of my musical idols. Being that I’m not all that famous myself, it’s cool that so many of them are down-to-earth enough to have a conversation with a relative nobody like myself. Here, first entry in an occasional series about my brief encounters with musical “heroes.”

Tony Levin is generally considered to be a very cool, somewhat quirky guy. He’s a great bassist and an innovative musician (among other instruments, he also plays a Chapman Stick). His book “Beyond the Bass Clef” is a fun read, with gig anectdotes and studio stories – and the odd crazy invention (bass rig with capuccino machine) and oatmeal cookie recipe(!) It was during a book signing that I got to have a brief conversation with him, and I just so happened to have a fun story to tell, which he quite clearly appreciated.

As you may have read in a previous post, I own several pair of Tony’s “Funk Fingers” (small drumsticks that attach to a bassist’s fingers for a percussive sound.) Tony used them on several tunes with Peter Gabriel. In the meantime, I actually used them on two of Second Story’s more popular tunes, and as a result, if you came out to see us, you were quite likely to see them in action at least once.

A friend and regular audience member came up to me after a show one evening all excited – he told me that, the previous weekend, he had watched Peter Gabriel’s “Secret World Live” video. “And his bassist – he had those crazy drumstick thingies like you have!” I, of course, filled him in that Tony was actually the inventor of those “drumstick thingies.” As you can imagine, when I recounted that story, Tony got a nice laugh out of it.

I found him to be generous with his time, attentive to his fans, and quite friendly overall. Cool guy. And he signed my book.

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Funk Fingers?

These are some of my favorite toys. Originally developed by Tony Levin and his bass tech, based on an idea that Peter Gabriel suggested – I believe the story went something like this: When they were rehearsing or recording one of Gabriel’s tunes, to get a percussive sound, Tony was whacking his bass with a spare drumstick. Peter said, “Why not attach the sticks to your fingers? The result was this:

For a brief time, Tony actually had a bunch of sets made, and sold them on his website. I was lucky enough to grab a few sets for myself when they were there, since he no longer produces them. As a result, he gives his permission to recreate them yourself for personal use – but mandates that you cannot mass produce or sell them for profit (I think he owns a patent for them). I’ve since seen original pairs of the ones he produced sell on eBay for over $100 (which is ridiculous since they should be easy enough to make for yourself.)

I actually got pretty good at using them; I performed with them regularly in live concerts and bar gigs with Second Story – as well as recorded two of the songs for the second album using them (“Dancing on the Hill” and “Abducted”). I hope to soon have some video available of them in action.

But they’re neat, very cool, and they never failed to get a reaction from the crowd when I started smacking my bass with them. And they can provide an ultra-percussive bass sound that just can’t be matched with the thumb alone.

Here’s a clip from the studio (pre-vocals) of “Dancing on the Hill,” which features me playing the Funk Fingers through a distorted amp.

And here’s a sound clip, from a live performance with Second Story

Ahhh… toys.

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