By Steve Adelson
IMAGINE CREATING MUSIC ON A STRINGED
instrument that is simultaneously a guitar, a
bass, a piano, and percussion. Add unlimited
electronic capabilities and forward-thinking
playing techniques for ultimate expression.
Now, design a tuning to make navigation
of the instrument amazingly
simple, and streamline the look and feel
for optimal accessibility. This instrument
already exists as the Chapman Stick.
In 1969, Emmett Chapman came upon a
discovery that would have a huge impact on
the way string players could approach their
instrument. By instantaneously placing his
right hand over the top of the neck of his guitar
and tapping the strings from both sides
equally, Chapman discovered a revolutionary
way to present new harmonies, rhythms, and
melodic counterpoint. Like a keyboardist, he
was now able to play simultaneous parts.
Whether it was chords and melody, two chords,
or multiple interweaving lines, this new
method of playing opened new doors to
Chapman’s “free hands” system cried out
for a bigger canvas, and the “Electric Stick”
was born, ultimately growing to ten strings.
Standard tuning was abandoned, as the treble
strings were now spaced in perfect
fourths, and the bass strings were tuned
in reversed perfect fifths. Therefore, the bass
strings (10-6) are E, A, D, G, C, and the treble
strings (5-1) are F# , B, E, A, D.
The simplicity of the Stick’s tuning and
its two-handed performance technique also
allows players to voice sophisticated chords
without the “Holdsworthian” gymnastics
one usually deals with on a conventional guitar.
A Stick player merely has to employ a
concept using polychords as a formula. Basically,
it’s the building of a larger, more
complex harmony by combining two simple
triads. (For example, a Stick player would
play a Cm11 by playing two, three-note clusters
of C, Eb, G, and Bb, D, F.) All complex
harmonies can be simplified when broken
into two parts. In this respect, the most difficult
chords imaginable can be easily
presented on the Stick fretboard.
Chapman performed internationally on
the Stick in the early ’70s, and, over 35 years,
the Stick has developed and evolved into an
assortment of model configurations, including
the NS/Stick (a collaboration with Ned
Steinberger), an 8-string Stick bass, the 12-
string Grand Stick, an Alto Stick, and the new
SG12 Stick-Guitar. Chapman Sticks have
stereo outputs, which enables players to
process the separate string sides independently.
You can add a touch of reverb to the
bass, while having the treble side monstrously
distorted, and send each output to a different,
dedicated amp. You can also opt for a
Roland GK pickup and expand the instrument’s
sound further by controlling synths,
keyboards, and other MIDI sound sources.
Artists such as Tony Levin (whose Stick
playing helped define the sound of King
Crimson, as well as gracing his session work
with Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, and others),
Dream Theater’s John Myung, Alphonso
Johnson, and Fergus Marsh (Bruce Cockburn)
continue to explore The Stick’s musical possibilities.
Here, Chapman sheds some light on his
inventive process, his musical inspiration,
and how everything boiled together to ignite
his concept of two-handed tapping and the
development of a completely unique stringed
I was inspired by jazz pianists and guitarists,
and then by Jimi Hendrix, and I tried
to do it all with my jazz-guitar technique—
which placed big demands on my left hand.
So I started adding extra capabilities to my
9-string, long-scale guitar, which led to the
first Stick prototype. The bass expansion
came along almost unintentionally, as I kept
extending the orchestral range, adding fifths
into the lower bass register. With my sudden
discovery of two-handed tapping on that
guitar, everything became simple again, and
I spent a couple of days stripping it down. I
lowered the action for speed and expression,
raised the pickups to get more volume for
tapping, and damped the strings at the nut
to quiet things down.
The first and innermost layer of my
creative dynamic is, of course, me. Since
childhood, I’ve felt compelled to do things
differently—working out my own methods
from scratch as if discovering the world on
my own, never trusting an adult authority, or
the team, or the collective mind. The next
layer would have to be the muse—that is, my
own brand of musical creativity. Then, there’s
“the tool maker” layer. I had to create a specific
instrument for my string-tapping method.
The invention itself was the playing method,
parallel hands and fingers approaching the
fretboard from opposite sides. The design
aspect was the Stick—minimal in name and
structure, although there has been a neverending
process of refinements. I’ll do whatever
it takes to keep the dream alive, and often I
don’t know where the path will take me
next—dignity or drudgery.
My particular form of two-handed tapping—
which I called “Free Hands” in my
Stick lesson book of 1974—can be played on
any number of strings, and with any tuning.
But it seems to cry out for more strings, as
two-handed tapping is inherently more
orchestral. The hands—approaching the
board from opposite sides with fingers parallel
to each other and to the frets—gravitate
toward independent play. You get lead and
accompaniment, lead and bass, accompaniment
and bass. The complete core concept
of the song arrangement can be performed
live, albeit without the extra orchestration
and “sweeteners” we’re accustomed to hearing—
that is, unless a Stick is outfitted with
MIDI capabilities. Within that movement,
my specific two-handed method rises in
influence—as I always knew it would—
simply because it suits the orchestral, polyphonic,
and polyrhythmic nature of guitar
and guitar-like instruments. The hands at
right angles to the board, approaching from
either side, gives them equality and independence
in constructing the music—more
like a keyboardist, but with the added elements
of string expression and a driving,
supporting bass line.
The playing method is very large in
scope, and it takes many directions. At the
same time, the instrument for this method
is a blank slate to be filled in with each
player’s individual musical goals and style.
Therefore, the Stick has the capacity to permeate
all genres, trends, fads, and styles.
How could I possibly predict where it will
go? You simply “cast your bread upon the
waters.” But there is a certain approach
that comes easily with the Free Hands
method, and I see it in various manifestations
among Stick players: interlocking
hands, interlocking fingers, upbeats against
downbeats, and a natural way of playing
more like on a keyboard than on a fretboard.
You gain twice the tempo, twice the
pulse, and you easily enter the territory of
counterpoint and polyrhythms. Will this
patterned, textured orchestration become
a dominant Stick style—even rising to a
new genre? Now, that depends on the influence
of individual players, unknown to us
at the moment. Such trends can turn on a
dime as the magnifying lens of the media
distorts all our dreams, and turns us into
giants or fools.
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