Two Necks Are Better Than One
Michael Bianco, a 42-year-old guitarist with a distinct Boston accent, sits in an alcove in his musical home, the Now Art Cafe in Hollywood. With his longish black hair, casual sweatshirt, black jeans, and white sneakers, Bianco looks more like a second baseman for the neighborhood softball team than a musician whose guitar technique is nothing short of a marvel. At the moment he's proudly displaying the new toy that consumes his life: a ten-string, single-fret board, bass-and-guitar combination called the Chapman Stick.
"After I tried the Stick for the first time, I said, 'I don't need a Stick,' until I finally felt I should buy a Stick," says Bianco, looking around the room like a wound-up teenager. "So now I'm a Stickist. I have been studying this intently for the past three days. You can say I have Stickorexia -- I haven't slept or ate in three days because the Stick won't let me. I can't put it down, and I'm not getting the proper diet or sleep that I normally do."
A passing waitress glances at Bianco's prized instrument. "It's ugly," she remarks. The guitarist nods in agreement, unfazed.
Bianco is at home here in this New-Age coffeehouse and art gallery, where he performs Wednesday through Sunday evenings. Sometimes he plays a seven-string guitar, which extends the normal guitar-range to a low B. But he's known for playing two six-string guitars at once. With one resting on a stand and the other hanging from his neck, Bianco fingers chords and bass notes with his left hand while playing melodies up and down the neck with his right. Instead of strumming the strings, he taps them, not unlike a keyboard player. The Stick is the newest instrument to be incorporated into his act.
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"I added a second guitar to beef up my act a little bit, because I missed wailing on distortion," explains Bianco. "You can't do that with normal two-handed tapping, because as soon as you put on the distortion, your two hands become a big blur. So I put the second guitar up here two years ago, and that became like a band member. On that guitar I can play screaming distorted leads, and it doesn't affect my chord playing."
Not many guitarists do the kind of work Bianco does. Eddie Van Halen is renowned for his tapping technique, Stanley Jordan is recognized for his two-guitar jazz music, and Tony Levin (of the band King Crimson) has won praise for his handling of the Stick. At the Now Art Cafe, Bianco taps, plays a Stick, and handles two guitars at once.
"I look at it as a Field of Dreams type of thing," Bianco explains. "This is my baseball field; I'm building my field. 'If you build it, they will come' -- that's the attitude I have. I like being exclusive, because there are too many musicians out of work. Maybe you could call that fear... but I like the fact that I can build a following. I turn a lot of gigs down because they come on weekends. I'm going to stay here and try to find out how to get onto that other level and still play here, and not do the circuit."
He's already done the circuit. Among other gigs, he once toured as the opening act for the popular guitar-and-vocal jazz duo Tuck and Patti. "I thought that this is what I should be doing, half an hour a day for six days a week, going around the world," Bianco recalls. "Both of them said, 'We need to get Bianco signed,' and I was so excited. They gave me their home phone number and told me to call them, and I called their home. But they weren't there, so I didn't leave messages. Maybe I don't pursue hard enough. I don't get calls back."
Instead, Bianco took matters into his own hands. Last July he released his first CD, Bianco, which was recorded during two sessions at the Now Art Cafe. The CD offers a dreamy, New-Age soundscape with beautiful, echoing melodies. But, strangely enough, it doesn't feature much of Bianco's two-guitar playing.
"There's not enough guitar on the CD, no question about it," Bianco acknowledges, tapping at the Stick. "I put this CD out because of the title I was given and the place I play -- because I'm advertised as a New-Age guitarist. I figured, let me at least get the New-Age material out of the way. My next CD isn't gonna be all these textures and echoes; it's gonna be burning guitar, very fast, with walking bass lines and fast solos done on second guitar."
Bianco's loyalty to the Now Art Cafe is mutual. Angel Spence, a 36-year-old retired model, has owned the cafe since her partner, artist and Now Art founder James Morlock, passed away in November 1996. "Michael and James were the original reasons I got involved," says Spence. "Now Michael is the Now Art, and his music has grown into Now Art music. If Michael got discovered, I would leave, too. I would have no connection to the Now Art. It would just become a business, and I have no interest in running a coffeehouse business."
Spence hopes that Bianco will someday be given the opportunity to leave the cafe. "Every night I tell someone that we are so lucky to be sitting and listening to someone this talented," she says. "I would be blown away if he got discovered at the level he should be, and [got] off of that stage. If he stays in South Florida, he is limiting his prospects."
Bianco started playing guitar -- a six-string Harmony Acoustic -- at the age of thirteen. "I think I traded my cousin a couple of Beatle albums for it," he recalls. "It didn't have all six strings on it, only four, so I strung the last two strings with the yellow rubber cords from some Fisher Price pull toys." He played in bands throughout high school, attended the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston for two years, then hit the road with a disco outfit called the Blue Fox Band for five years.
In the early '80s, he lived in New Orleans and played with a seven-piece funk band called AM/FM. After enjoying the endless party that defines life on Bourbon Street, Bianco's energy began to fizzle. He moved to Los Angeles, where he was unemployed and played guitar only rarely. After several months he moved to Fort Lauderdale and didn't even look at his guitar for a year.
He took a job as a hairdresser and met his wife, Patricia, when she sat down in his chair. They eventually married and had a daughter, Chanelle, then spent a year in France. When they returned to Fort Lauderdale, Bianco picked up the guitar again. While playing merely for his own enjoyment, he began to turn his two-handed tapping technique into more complex fingerings. Bianco was soon approached by the booking agent at Now Art and asked to play originals at the cafe. Because of the New-Age atmosphere there, Bianco came up with appropriate compositions. Last year he quit cutting hair and began playing music full-time.
As Bianco takes the stage at the Now Art on a recent Wednesday night, there are only six people in the cafe. He begins the set with a gentle, Eastern-influenced tune. His playing is sharp and well-defined, with a repetitive bass line droning beneath the song's melody. After the successful test-run, Bianco switches to his seven-string Ibanez guitar.
"Welcome to the Now Art Cafe," he says in a deep, simmering voice. "How's everyone doing out there?" An elderly birthday boy named Barry screams out, "Play, 'New York, New York.'" Bianco responds with a casual, "How about if I wing it?" then plays the standard as if he'd recorded the original with Ol' Blue Eyes himself.
On standards like "Misty" and "Summertime," the depth of Bianco's talent surfaces. Melodic leads intertwine effortlessly with left-handed walking bass lines. Bianco switches his right hand to a six-string Fender Stratocaster propped up on a stand and wails out rapid-fire runs while continuing to play a strutting bass line on the Ibanez. He plays both guitars simultaneously without looking at either, eyes closed and head craned back.
Soon the bass and melody increase in speed. Bianco's fingers sail in every direction, one hand sliding across one neck, the other attacking the second neck. Barry screams "Thatta boy!" as Bianco loses himself in the song, ensconced in the comfort and security of home.
Michael Bianco performs Wednesday through Sunday, starting at 9 p.m., at the Now Art Cafe, 1820 Young Cir., Hollywood. Call 954-922-0506.
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