Run it up the Ragzpol
Local musician Rags Tuttle brings a new tool to the world of musicians
It looks easy.
Standing behind his keyboard in the middle of the Mr. Lucky nightclub in downtown Chico, musician Rags Tuttle plays a smoothly walking blues bass line to accompany the scorching solo by his band mate, sax player extraordinaire Feeney, a.k.a. David Arnold. The bass notes are well rounded and distinct, and with Charles Mohnike’s crisp drumming providing a solid and tasteful rhythmic foundation, the trio plays just the right soundtrack for a Friday-evening Happy Hour: grooving, free-flowing and capable of taking off in pretty much any musical direction that a person relaxing after a long week of work or school could want.
Subconsciously bopping to the bass, you might be compelled to glance up at the band to observe the physical action that produces such pleasant convergences of sound. And that’s when you might get a bit of a surprise, because that smooth bass line that’s got your toe tapping isn’t coming out of a big-gutted bull fiddle, a slender-necked electric bass guitar or even an electric keyboard—it’s coming out of a two-and-a-half-foot-long section of two-inch diameter plastic tubing that’s wrapped in bright red tape interspersed with narrow white and black oblongs that in turn enclose some sort of coppery looking rectangles.
And Tuttle isn’t plucking strings or pressing keys on this “instrument,” he’s sliding his thumbs, wrapped in Band-Aid-like strips of metallic cloth, up and down the shaft of his instrument, pausing almost imperceptibly at the intervals over the oblong triggers that send the notes through his MIDI keyboard and on to the amplifier that produces the sound.
Tuttle, who not only plays but invented the unique instrument described above, may not fit your picture of a typical bar room musician. Neatly groomed, trim figured and boyishly intense in conversation, the musical inventor strikes one as a modest but knowledgeable and intuitively creative craftsman.
With his English degree from Sacramento State and a supplementary degree from Chico State in a self-designed, interdisciplinary major involving computer-generated musical technologies, Tuttle is easily imagined as the kind of guy that would make a great music teacher. But his talent as a pianist and love of live performance have instead kept him on the road as a professional musician for most of the past 20 years.
It was during a stint as one-half of a dueling-pianos duo performing in Denver, Colo.— a gig that kept him booked for most of a year—that Tuttle became engrossed with musical computer games, software designed to teach musical theory by means of interactive play.
“Originally I was just thinking I could create a better musical computer game than the ones I was seeing,” says Tuttle now about the inspiration that led to what has evolved into something quite different.
In the process of developing his computer game Tuttle hit upon the idea of representing the “circle of fifths” used by musicians to transpose keys of music as a graphic spiral of interlocking points that could be activated by clicking on them with a computer mouse.
The Rags Ball, as he wound up calling it, didn’t exactly set the world of computerized music games on fire, but from his work developing the interface Tuttle realized, “I could take the circle of fifths and wrap it around a pole and create an actual instrument that would be totally logical to play music on.”
With the inspiration planted, Tuttle got to work using the trial-and-error method of research and development to arrive at his original prototype, a section of 5-inch sewage pipe outfitted with triggers manufactured out of, as he says, “that burglar alarm tape that they put around windows. And I could actually play bass on it.”
The public debut of the “Rags Pole” took place at a dueling-pianos gig at which Tuttle was allowed to introduce his newly invented instrument while playing bass on it during the grand finale of the show. “It sounded great, and people were like, ‘What the hell is that thing?’” says Tuttle, smiling with amused pride at the memory.
Returning to Chico from his sojourn in Colorado with his new invention in hand, Tuttle asked his friend, local guitar legend Charlie Robinson, if he could sit in playing bass with Robinson’s band using the new instrument. “It was really nice of him to let me do that,” said Tuttle. “We played on the back of a truck in a parade at Cherokee, and later that night I did a blues gig with Eric Ramos. It was great.”
Now, several years and many refinements down the road, the Ragzpol is about to make another debut. Tuttle will be an exhibitor at the 2005 NAMM show Jan. 20-23 in Anaheim. The NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show is the marketplace for music technology and instruments and is attended by 70,000 or so enthusiasts and sellers and around 1,350 exhibitors. Making even a minor splash at NAMM could push the Ragzpol into major music retailing markets.
Based on observation of the unique qualities of the Ragzpol in performance, Tuttle’s commitment to and optimism about the instrument seem justified.
'I’m going to go all-out for the show," says Tuttle.