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An Interview with Emmett Chapman by Steve Adelson

In 1974 Emmett Chapman introduced his revolutionary musical instrument to the world through his manufacturing company, Stick Enterprises. His newly developed tapping technique, demanded a new musical tool to foster creative growth. The Chapman Stick was born, turning a guitar approach upside down (literally by way of tuning) and set the music world abuzz. History is now unfolding with two generations of players developing and expanding Emmett’s concepts. The Chapman Stick has become a very important contribution to the roster of musical instruments available to all players. It was time to get some background directly from Mr. Chapman.

You discovered a revolutionary way to play a string instrument. What was the inspiration and how did this new technique evolve?

I always loved chords and collected them for novel “flavors”, always with the idea of giving a meaningful skew to the melody phrase. It was the lead melody line, however, that seemed th ultimate reward (probably from my Mom’s Italian side). For the harmony I listened a lot to McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane’s pianist, also to Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans, all jazz pianists. For the melody I listened a lot to Jimi Hendrix and to Coltrane himself, along with other amazing jazz sax players.

I had to have it all on my guitar, which had expanded to nine strings including three bass strings tuned in reversed 5ths. My chords were jazz and my melody was turning into a kind of blues rock. I couldn’t do it all, at least not freely. My left hand was working too hard. I put Vaseline on the fretboard to make the strings slippery. I didn’t do anything good for the sound but it changed the feel. I started standing up while playing. I was trying to fly, or that was the sensation I felt as a guitarist.

One afternoon in August 1969 I made a simple gesture. I placed my right hand on the fretboard from the opposite side and began to drum my fingers. Then I squeezed some familiar jazz chords with my left hand, playing right over the top of them with my right hand (on the same strings). I realized that each hand was oriented at right angles to the neck and strings and so I lifted the neck of my home made 9-string guitar to a more vertical angle to make this two-handed fingering (tapping) more comfortable.

Immediately I knew I had it, a keyboard with string expression in my hands, bass with chords and melody, an open ended orchestra of capabilities. At that moment, I abandoned ten years of conventional picking technique on jazz guitar.

Obviously, this unique way of playing needed more than a standard guitar. What were the beginnings and describe the evolution of your “Electric Stick?”

A year later, in 1970, I designed the most minimal means of playing this maximal music on strings, a bodiless piece of ebony with the pickup in a box facing down toward the strings. I named it “The Electric Stick”, a very lightweight and brutally simple construction. Only the setup was important – very low string action across an even plane of fret tips. That Stick played as fast, as easily and expressively as my new Sticks from current productions. Every detail in the design, construction, materials and hardware is meant to enable this setup.

Emmett makes his television debut

The Stick is approaching four decades of life. How do you view it’s affect or impact on the music community, players and listeners?

Upon discovery of the playing method itself on my guitar, I immediately changed character as a musician and totally committed my guitar music to this new method. I’ve heard similar stories by many other Stick players over 36 years, that it changed their music, even changed their conception of music, and sometimes another recurrent theme, that it changed their lives, and it changed mine of course. And so the impact seems big and it seems small. I have no concept of size. I’ve built over 6000 Sticks of various models and tunings since 1974, and while some think that’s an impressive achievement, others are disappointed that it hasn’t been mass produced (“Is that all?”).

The Stick is sometimes associated with the bass world. Could you explain The Stick’s history in this respect?

You put your creation out there and you never know what the returns will be (“Message in a Bottle” or casting your “bread upon the waters). From my first Stick production in 1974 to the present time, my students and customers, came from guitar, keyboards, bass guitar and even sometimes drums. Then there were three bass players who “broke” The Stick to the public, most notably Tony Levin playing bass and Stick with Peter Gabriel and Robert Fripp’s King Crimson. Tony defined two-handed bass lines on Stick 5ths, adding simultaneous patterns on Stick melody 4ths as polyrhythms to Fripp’s guitar patterns. Two other famous bass players also brought The Stick and its new method into their bands, including Alphonso Johnson who had just left Weather Report (Jaco Pastorius took his place), and Nick Beggs in the English band Kajagoogoo, who gave The Stick a signature sound on a hit record in the band, “Ellis Beggs and Howard”.

Now can you explain The Stick’s more complete, guitar-bass-piano-orchestra possibilities?

The instrument has a transparent sound simply by virtue of its tapping technique, where the attack is quick and the sustain is long. You can play a lot of strings at once and hear them all with the ears of an arranger/composer. The chords are clear and clean, and the melody is articulate and expressive in response to hundreds of what I call “finger effects”. Some regard Stick melody as less expressive than guitar because just one hand generates the notes. My transition to two-handed string tapping came by way of Jimi Hendrix and I was well aware of the expression inherent in low action, light gauge strings and just the right touch. He played some snaky lines with a flurry of tapped notes using just his fingering hand.

The Stick also has a revolutionary tuning. Can you explain how this came about and why it works?

The overall design as well as the hardware inventions and innovations will accommodate any tuning in any sequence of strings, limited only by tension of the thinnest string at the high end, and the human hearing range at the low end. We set up new Sticks and also older repairs for any possible tuning under these two limitations, and about ten percent of our orders are for various custom tunings according to the needs and musical concepts of the customer. The other 90 percent or so are set up with one of the “Stick” family of tunings – descending melody 4ths from a highest 1st string and ascending bass 5ths from the center to a highest outer string. Lowest melody and bass strings are thus at the middle of the sequence and spaced a bit further apart to separate the two groups – two boards on one board.

I reversed the three lowest strings on my 9-string guitar in the late ’60s (before my tapping discovery) so that I’d have a comfortable bass note in every chord. I raised the lowest E string up an octave, left the next higher A alone, and lowered the next higher D down an octave (voila, the bass in inverted 5ths but with the same lettered notes!). The lowest bass strings were thus positioned toward the middle of the sequence of strings, allowing easier fingering of chords with a bass note on this new division into two string groups.

This “Stick” tuning and its variations allows the hands to be independent, left hand bass and chords accompanying right hand melody and chords, more of a pianistic concept. The hands can also be interdependent, all eight fingers focusing on either the bass side’s uniform 5ths (as Tony Levin introduced to the world) or on the melody side’s uniform 4ths (as some two-handed tapping guitarists later explored).

What are the different variations of Stick models?

We make Sticks with 8, 10 and 12 strings on very long 36-inch scale length necks (total Stick length is 46 and 47 inches), and on short guitar length necks, as with our new 12-string “Stick Guitar” model. Also, we make an 8-string NS/Stick bass guitar designed by Ned Steinberger and myself as a “multi mode” electric bass extending into the guitar register. It’s the only Stick model with a body and can be played by tapping as well as all the regular bass guitar techniques, or both together.

Do you have any new modifications on the drawing board?

Yes, it’s a radical Stick design with a patent granted and another one pending. I wish I could tell you more but I first need to make sure the next prototype will actually fly.

Tell us a bit about Emmett Chapman, the musician not the inventor.

I’m an improvisor and I built the first Sticks for that. I needed to improvise the chord progressions as well as the lead melody lines, and then the bass line began to emerge. I also like to “rearrange” well known songs from all genres, almost beyond recognition, and then use them as vehicles for more improv.

As an improvisor I try to find that zone where I listen to what was just played, enjoy it, and pin the next idea onto it. This is truly playing the intervals, a focus on distance and movement rather than on the notes themselves. You give a speech, you read the words. You speak extemporaneously and no one knows how the mind works – something about the shape of movement.

The Stick has already made its mark on recorded music. How do you see its impact in the foreseeable future?

The instrument design is minimal but with maximum musical capabilities. The two-handed tapping method, which I named “Free Hands” in my mid ’70s lesson book, brings together the performance disciplines of four major instrument of our time, including:

– Guitar, with its soulful string expression, fingered with eight or even ten digits if thumbs are included.
– Keyboard, with its independent lines and orchestration.
– Bass, with a powerful drive of tapped bass strings down to the lowest register.
– Drums, with polyrhythms in “quad”, considering that each hand conceptually has two sides.

In the early ’70s I focused on the expanded guitar possibilities, then got absorbed with the bass, adding lower strings in 5ths. Playing in Stick/drum duos in the ’80s, my hands began to take on some of the drummer’s role, playing fills and counter-rhythms. With age I find myself gravitating to The Stick’s pianistic qualities and I long ago put my rack and pedalboard aside and play with no effects, just the “room” sound. It’s a lighthearted feeling – no plugs and connections to go wrong. I feel like I’m carrying the finest grand piano on-stage. It’s more than a piano though, as the fingers directly engage the strings and the bass register has a resonance and drive. To be fair, it’s not acoustic like piano, and needs an amp, or two in stereo (or the room sound).

Coke or Pepsi?

I’m too old for that. It’s filtered coffee with honey and cream in the morning.

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