DIY: Ugly Stick

Jason Sellars extols the beauty of an ugly stick.

Summer Time. The sun is here, the tourists are flocking, and it is time to make some noise.

What if you are like me, and can’t fiddle, or whistle, or rock? We are a people known for being as musical as we are handsome, and I don’t want to be overlooked.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried to be musical. I’ve memorized all eleven and a half verses of “Wave Over Wave”. I’ve spent hours adjusting two soup spoons until they clicked and clacked at the correct pitch and pace. I’ve even attempted to transpose “The Ode” so that I could rock it on my recorder, but none of these attempts has gained me the rock star status I have been seeking.

My solution: Get noticed getting ugly—by rocking out on an ugly stick.

Though it may not have the academic appeal of a fiddler who knows the complete catalogue of Émile Benoit, or an accordion player who can play eighteen variations of “Aunt Martha’s Sheep”, the ugly stick deserves a chair in our clattering cultural kitchen. Yes, it’s high time this musical innovation, an invention of our curiously musical forefathers, had a revival. It’s time for a hideous, loud revolution.
Long before the synthesized drum machine, the ugly stick kept time for the jigs and reels pumped out on accordions in kitchens across the island. I remember as a boy seeing my Pop stomping his ugly stick so hard that it made the kitchen table bounce.

Traditionally an ugly stick is made from a recycled broom or mop handle, spiked by bottle caps skewered on nails by the half-case. Tin cans, bolts, bells and just about anything broken that will bang when beaten should also be hammered to the stick. There’s commonly a rubber boot at the base, and a beef bucket at the top. Of course there are as many variations on this formula as there are ugly sticks in the world.

The stick must be chosen wisely.Remember: your creation can be simple or complicated, but either way it will be eccentric. To acquire enough bottle caps for one ugly stick, you’ll need to preplan at least two long weekends before your first big gig. A couple dozen will do, but the more bling you collect, the louder and uglier your stick will be. Go out back to the tool shed (just like Pop would do) and dig out all that jingles and clangs.

If you can stick a nail through it, and it makes noise, it will work great on an ugly stick.

An essential to the ugly stick is the soul of the stick, the sole. An old rubber boot works wonderfully, or you could break out one of last year’s high-top kicks for a more urban sound. Attach  by nailing the footwear to the bottom of the stick.

To really make your stick ugly, add a tin can top, a mop, a mask, a wig, a prosthetic head, false teeth, pearls, shoulder pads, something teal, or a moustache …and anything else ugly, used, and useless.

And, suddenly, it’s time to rock out.

Play the stick by holding it firmly and stomping it on the ground to the beat. Use a second stick—a drumstick, ruler, or wooden spoon—to tap the tins, beat the bells, and blow people’s minds. Suddenly, you’re a big ugly rock star.

For a look at the ugliest ugly stick in town check out the window display at O’Brien’s music store on Water Street. This spectacular stick is spring-loaded and decked out with hundreds of bottle caps, bells, and its own purple pashmina. It was created by Corner Brook artist Michael Hayes, who also supplies the shop with a selection of musical spoons.

Inside O’Briens you’ll find a fine a collection of locally-made ugly sticks, all for individual sale—some with carpeted grips, riveted sticks for extra reverb, or hard-soled tap shoes. Many are made from mops, which are perfect for getting those toes tapping during the post party clean-up.

Angela O’Brien from O’Briens says despite its silly appearance “the ugly stick is a serious instrument,” and an important part of a kitchen party jam session. She says many tourists are attracted to these contraptions, and one by one the sticks are making their way to music scenes around the globe.

Illustration by Kira Sheppard.

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14 August 2008

  1. Tracy Weaver · August 14, 2008


    I just heard about Michael Hayes and his musical spoons this morning on CBC, and I’m hoping to find out how I can get this product sent to me here in Kingston, Ontario. Do you have contact information for Mike that you could share with me?

    Thank you. I appreciate any direction you can give me.

    Tracy Weaver

  2. AL · August 14, 2008

    Hi Tracy

    Check out O’Brien’s Music (if you haven’t already), I’m sure that they would be happy to ship you a set of Mike’s spoons…

  3. Dan Bursey · August 14, 2008

    According to wikipedia, Ugly Sticks are not unique to Newfoundland. Here’s a quote…

    “The mendoza or mendozer (also monkey stick) is a traditional English percussion instrument, widely used in folk music. The origins of the name are not known but it is believed to stem from an association with one of the many Gypsy, Spanish and Italian buskers who were popular in London in the Victorian era.”

    Good to know that our proud Ugly Stick also has a long and proud tradition in other parts of the world as well.

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