Eric: I was raised in St. Louis and I went to school at Mizzou (University of Missouri) and although I owned a couple Grateful Dead albums, I was more into the country side. So I kind of came to the Grateful Dead oddly enough I guess through New Riders of the Purple Sage and kind of the more country route. At first I wasn’t really big into the electric stuff as much as I was into the more Workingman’s kind of New Riders-y stuff. That changed when I went to see my first show, which was ’87; and after that, it was, you know, the Grateful Dead planned my vacations from that point on. 

I went to school to become a teacher, which I think is common for a lot of Deadheads, and for me it was mostly, oddly enough, because it gave me a lot of vacation time. And, you know, there is spring tour. There is the winter tour, which coincided with our winter break, and of course, summer. You know, so it allowed me vacation time at the most likely time to see the band, either going through the Midwest or having the time to travel to see them. So I was fortunate to see them many times, and still to this day they take a big part in planning my travels; and, you know, I’ve since retired from teaching, but I was an industrial arts and then engineering teacher. 

Eric Mitchell

I started playing guitar in my late twenties, kind of late to the game; but I was involved in an accident to my left hand where part of my recovery was strengthening it and the guitar was part of that. So it’s always been a hobby; and for the last twelve or thirteen years I’ve rented a studio space with a couple friends called Jam Space. We were a bunch of likeminded Deadheads that, you know, all had real jobs or we did, and we go to this warehouse that kind of looks like a hippy TGI Fridays and, you know, we’ve we’ve it’s packed of musical equipment. And over the last 12 years we’ve upgraded, upgraded, and upgraded, and so, you know, we record everything and we just play for us. We’ve only played out a couple times and we really have no interest in moving the gear. Because of this we ended up with more gear than anybody would ever really be able to move. So, you know, my rig is a guitar rig, yes, but there is also keyboards and synthesizers and percussions and, you know, it’s—it’s over the top, because it can be and why not?

Armando Bejarano

Armando: I grow up in northern New Jersey. In high school I started seeing the band at the Meadowlands and at Madison Square Garden. In my early twenties I wanted to be a drummer, but my drum teacher was playing conga drums and then me growing up in Jersey and spending a lot of time in New York, I was really influenced a lot by Puerto Rican-style conga playing and I almost immediately switched over from drum kit to conga player. And by the time I was 26 I had been gigging, and I pretty much gigged straight until the pandemic kind of put a halt to it. At one point when I was in high school I dropped out of school and I got my tractortrailer license and I realized with my license that I could get a job anywhere in the country. So I would jump on Dead tour. And then once I was close to running out of money, I would go and get a job and a shower. 

And I lived in Phoenix, southern California, northern California a couple times, Florida a couple times, the southwest. I played with bands all over the southwest and west coast and the east coast. In ’95 when Jerry died, I was here in Sonoma County and had nothing to do, so I stayed. And I got pretty tied in with the Grateful Dead scene here in the Bay Area, played in a good amount of the bands here in the Bay Area. Dead Again, Loose With the Truth, a lot of the other—I played with a bunch of bands. As a conga player and a second drummer. Like my percussion set up is congas, but also I have tom drums and a few other instruments. You know, I’ve never really introduced myself as a drum kit player, because I’ve been a conga player almost my whole life. 

Mickey Hart and the Beam, Chase Center, SF 12.30.19 | Photograph © Bob Minkin

I played at NAMM (a big annual music business conference), and I played at some pretty prolevel settings as a percussionist, so I know the difference…as far as drumming, I consider myself like a barbecue backyard drummer. If you’re going to have people over and we’re going to do bong hits and beers, I’m perfect on the kit. To go up on stage to play, I’m a percussionist. I’m a conga player. Like at the last Skull & Roses festival I played with a band called One Eyed Jack on the main stage ther. They’re friends of mine from Jersey. They were touring in California and they were like, hey, we’re playing Skull and Roses. And the Pranksters that asked me to bring my beam to the late-night stage, and I said, oh, I’m going to be there. And they’re like, oh, come up and play with us. So as a conga player, I’ve had a chance to play in some pretty cool settings. And also there aren’t really that many congas players playing rock and roll. Like most conga players are funk or Latin jazz, so I’ve got a chance to play with some pretty cool and pretty good highprofile musicians over the years in some pretty cool settings, both Dead-related and non-Dead related.

I’ve been here in Sonoma County since ’95. I drive semis and stuff around the Bay Area and stuff and I got a family. And I always joke that when Jerry died, I had nothing to do so my girlfriend became my wife. I sold my van and I bought a house, cut my hair. I kind of landed. From ’85, when I got out of high school, to ’95, I was on the road doing something in between driving semis and Grateful Dead shows. And Sonoma County is right there at ground zero of Grateful Dead land. Like once I realized that, and the trucking industry is so vibrant here. There is really no reason for me to leave, so I’ve been here ever since. 

I get brought down to the NAMM convention each year by a company here in Sonoma County that makes percussion instruments they’re called Slaparoo Percussion and they hired me—Andy Graham has an instrument called a Slaparoo and he also makes different other percussion instruments that he’s invented. So he brings me down to NAMM each year to demo his products and one year he was going to pay me and I said, how about build me a beam; and he’s like what the hell is a beam. So I went on YouTube and I took snapshots of every Mickey thing that I could find and I was like I need this. Why I needed it was interesting. I always joke and say when I want to travel the cosmos, the beam is my first choice of travel. You know, of means to get there, so to speak. It’s my first choice of transportation. Growing up as a Deadhead, when Mickey first got his beam it was called Mickey’s Giant Bass and then I looked up what it was and there is a guy here at Sonoma County who told me his dad built Mickey’s first beam, a guy up in Laytonville. Which is similar to the kind that Eric and I have style-wise. You know, real primitive. If you look at Mickey’s beam now, it’s pretty elaborate compared to his first one in the ‘80s.

And so I, being a percussionist and playing in Dead bands and just loving being out there and in the zone, so to speak, my beam was built for me by Andy Graham of Slaparoo Percussion and I just run it through all sorts of pedals and effect pedals and I’ve been asked to do scary sound effects for different people. I was actually told to try to get in touch with some of the people who make sound checks for video games that they would love the beam as far as soundscapes go. I’ve used it at Halloween parties, like scaring little kids. I’ve used it on stage. It’s just one of those things that you can get lost in it for hours. I mean, that’s not even an exaggeration when I say I’ve gotten lost in it for hours. So the beam adds well to my percussion kit and that’s why it works for me. 

Eric: It started with watching Mickey, of course. I was a shop teacher for thirty years, you know. So I almost always had some kind of project that I’m working on, something I’m building. I own an old AustinHealy, so I’m working on cars and working on, you know, my house and other people’s—I just like having a project. 

I built a lot of equipment, including some guitars, but I was just having fun with it. And then over this past summer we were at Deer Creek for Dead & Company and I’m watching Mickey play his beam. And I remember looking over at my girlfriend and her friend that we were there with and I look at them I said, you know, I wonder if anybody builds those things. I wonder if there is anyone out there that actually constructs them and if they’re available. So as soon as we got back to the lot I was on my cell phone doing a little bit of research and just quickly found out the answer is no. Nobody’s made them for a long time. 

Andy Graham, he showed up in some of my research; but so did Francisco Lupiecia, who in the early 1970s made huge beams. These were 12 to 18 feet long, and Mickey probably ran into him. He’s a Bay Area guy and he’s a performing artist and it’s likely that they probably crossed paths before Mickey built his. So because of my teaching engineering I really went fullon research into this and looked up the patents that are on it. And there is a patent that is owned by Huxley. Sorry. Hundley, Craig Hundley. And the patent was from 1984. But his features movable pickups. I know that Mickey’s—the pickup slide is his; but this one has motorized pickups and a little car, the patent does, that would go back and forth with a foot pedal. 

Armando: Wow. I never knew that. Really? 

Eric: Yeah. He would actually have the pickup skate down the beam and come towards you in a channel. 

Armando: We need to do that. We need to 

Eric: Well, you know, it’s interesting that Mickey’s beam—the pickup is movable, but I’ve never seen him move it while playing the beam. It seems to be stationary for most of the time. So I started looking at building my own. And the next thing I did was go to a local aluminum and metal supply company and started buying parts and learning as much as I could. You know, the beams are all fit with piano strings. And this is a whole ‘nother story, because piano string aren’t like guitar strings. You can’t just go and buy a set of piano strings. They’re all custom made. And they’re custom made based on the measurement between the end pin and the bridge, the voice distance, and then from the bridge to the tuning mechanism. All those measurements are taken and then sent to a string designer who then uses a calculator to figure out what the tension of the string will be at pitch and, therefore, what its weight needs to be. So the physics of it are the voice distance, the mass of the strings, and the tension of the strings give you pitch. Right? 

Photograph © Jay Blakesberg

So if you change any of those three, the pitch changes as well. So I started playing around with that idea and I got ahold of a string manufacturer and had him make me a set of strings, and I borrowed a metal lathe off a buddy of mine and I started putting it together. Then I talked to Brad Sarno, because he is an electronics wiz and a friend of mine, so it was good to get ahold of him. He gave me a couple of suggestions but really they were—he wanted to, originally, make pickups for it, but the impedance or something wasn’t right for the size we needed. And he was like just go buy cheap pickups, and it will be fine and he was right. So, yeah, that’s how I came across it. I built my own. And now, I’ve had a small amount of interest, anyway, in other people wanting them. So I’ve now got two sizes that I made. One is a sixfoot beam. It’s very similar to Armando’s, the one that his buddy made. And then the next one is smaller. It’s only 42 inches long, so it’s a—it’s eight strings. It’s a 36 inch voice, so total length of 42 and it’s an open D monochord. All of the beams, Mickey’s as well, are a monochord. In other words, all the strings are tuned to the exact same frequency. Mickey has on his, it looks like three strings are tuned to a different frequency. They’re at the very top and shorter than the other ones. This is his most modern beam. But he’s always said that it’s always monochords so all of the strings are tuned the same. I believe those are probably an octave higher. So my beams also have an octave. So there is D1. Most of the string are D1, the first D on a piano; and then the other three strings on the 11string one, and that’s it. I mean, can you see that? [The Interview was on Zoom and he’s sharing a picture.]

Armando: Yeah. 

Eric: All right. So that’s the big beam, that’s the sixfoot guy—it’s tuned in D1, mostly; but, also, there are three strings that are D2. So I want you to hear that. So, yeah, I made my own; and, again, like Armando said, you run it through effects… At Jam Space I’ve always been the guy that wanted to go spacey. I’ve always been the guy that’s in charge of the weird note, the weird sounds, the wishie and the synthesizer kind of sounds that, you know, like sometimes before “Eyes of the World” there is that little wooshy kind of spacey intro. That, in my band, is me. I’m the one that goes out there and—so for me the logical progression next was to have a beam. You know, the guys in the studio were all like, this is brilliant, you know. And so it’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a weird couple months now that that I’ve finished it and playing it and sharing it and talking to people all over the country about—about them. And I’ve got a couple people that are interested in buying them, some from bands, some that are using them in sonic therapy. 

Armando: Yup. I’ve been asked to do yoga with it, for meditation. You know, it’s interesting, the beam and the piano. This will make sense to you [Eric], like until you own one, you don’t realize how much when you’re playing a beam it actually sounds—it can sound like a piano. Like I’ll be bowing mine and I’ll say to my wife, that’s a piano sound right, like, without any of the effects. Obviously, it’s got piano strings on it. But, you know, on stage when you hear Mickey or if we’re playing it in our band setting you don’t always get that; but when you’re home alone and if you’re plucking on one of the chords, you’re like, wow, like this if you close your eyes, this could almost pass for a piano. You can almost see what you’re doing. 

Eric: For hitting the strings I use a big piece of aluminum; but I also use percussion mallets that are used for timbales. And like xylophone, almost, mallets that I’ll hit it with; but, also, upright bass bow, slides, picks, you know. 

Armando. I was at a show with a band called Dead Ahead at a guy’s house. He owns Santa Rosa Plumbing and he’s Deadhead. He says ‘you need one of these.’ And he reached into the van and hands me this (lengthy piece of pipe). And he goes and I’m like oh, my God. That’s right Mickey. I had the bow, but I didn’t have this; and he’s like here, I have a second one that’s a little bit smaller. He’s like ‘now you own a beam’!

Eric: We’re going to Skull and Roses to melt people’s faces, of course, but we’re not sure yet what the setup will be. I’m sure we’ll be part of the parades. 

Armando: And all of the bands will have access to a beam onstage, and we’ve been asked to play the Merry Prankster stage in some regards, which ought to be a blast.

Photograph © Bob Minkin