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 musical expression.
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 instrument.
What inspired the design and evolution of the Chapman Stick?
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.
Can you identify the layers of your creative dynamic?
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.
Tapping on a conventional guitar has become a standard technique for shredders. Can you evaluate the Stick’s role in the string-tapping arena?
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.
What do you see for the future of the Stick? Do you have a vision of how it will continue to have an impact on the music world?
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.