The Chapman Stick by Steve Adelson
Building the ultimate musical instrument would be a noble goal for any inspired craftsman. Such an instrument would need to have multiple sonic capabilities and an expressive nature. The ability to play melodies, rhythms, bass lines, harmonies, chords, and multi timbres would be high on the wish list.
In 1974, Emmett Chapman produced his first commercially available “Electric Stick” later known as The Chapman Stick (TM). Now almost four decades old, this “futuristic” tool enables the player to present all the aforementioned possibilities in a unified voice. Mr. Chapman developed The Stick to actually accommodate his string instrument technique discoveries. Visually, The Stick is a long bodiless fretboard with a unique tuning. His early concept was to allow both hands to have equal roles on the fretboard, each “tapping” out an ingredient of the music. By hammering on the strings with 8 fingers (sometimes more) the possibilities became endless. The door was flung wide open and the revolution was to commence. Emmett called this system “Free hands”
Conventionally, a bass player or guitarist needs two hands to produce one sound. One hand holds a position on the neck and the other plucks, slaps, pops, or strums the strings. With Emmett’s technique, the string is set in motion simply by tapping it against the fret, creating the vibration. This is processed through the electronic pickup and sent to the amplifier. The fingers act much like the hammers inside a piano. With each hand having equal capabilities, the player can now tap chords, bass lines, melodies, rhythms and improvs simultaneously in real time. Add to this the processing possibilities, and the goal as stated is within reach.
Mr. Chapman’s explorations went further with the introduction of a new ingenious tuning. The melody or treble side of The Stick is tuned in ascending Perfect fourths, while the bass side is tuned in inverted ascending Perfect fifths. The lowest string is in the center of the fretboard and continues higher in pitch outward to each side of the board. Once explored, this system becomes a fantastic study in logic. Its symmetrical, its user friendly, and it stimulates new ideas.
For years, the Stick has been a bit underground. It became associated with rock bands like King Crimson and Peter Gabriel. The most well known players like Tony Levin and Alphonso Johnson, were primarily bassists. But The Stick community is steadily growing and showcasing new music with a new style. Bob Culbertson from California has pioneered many unique Stick techniques. Emmett himself has led the way with his view of music as applied to his instrument. Thirty seven years into the evolution, the output is pouring in from many international players. Andres Pelat, Greg Howard, Kevin Keith, Jim Lampi, Don Schiff and Guillelmo Cides are few of the more accomplished performers. I’ll throw my own hat into the ring as well; having written a Stick method for Mel Bay Publications called “Stickology” and recorded a tutorial DVD for TrueFire called “Ultimate Stick. There are many recordings featuring The Chapman Stick (TM).
The Chapman Stick (TM) has evolved over the years from a nine string prototype in 1969 to ten strings and now The Grand Stick with 12 strings. Other models like the 8 string NS Stick designed in conjunction with Ned Steinberger are also available. There are electronic pickup options, including the Roland GK3 MIDI system. As well, Chapman Sticks can be made from various woods including bamboo, maple, rosewood, and padauk. There is a history of evolution of course which we may touch on in the future. But for now, this is a taste for your curiosity into a truly remarkable musical tool. Emmett Chapman’s technique discoveries led to the necessity of an instrument. It’s available to any musician who wants something more, something that will expose creative paths and inspire sonic output forever.
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