We guitarists tend to fall into two camps: those of us, typically classical and folk players, who revere the history of the instrument and value heritage and legacy over innovation; and those of us, typically rock and jazz players, who applaud the pioneers and mad scientists whose breakthroughs changed the way we think about the instrument.
But this is an age in which such elementary “either/or” distinctions no longer hold against the flood of exceptions, players and craftspeople whose work straddles both old worlds and new. It is an exciting time that calls us to re-examine both old novelties and new traditions, and to synthesize these two ways of seeing in a fresher, more playful union.
An exemplary Man-of-the-Zeitgeist, then, is Emmett Chapman, inventor of the “Chapman Stick” – an instrument that combines keyboard and guitar techniques (and tones) for a sound and playing philosophy that integrates the due diligence of classical, orchestral virtuosity with the freewheeling explorations of jazzier, more contemporary schools.
The Chapman Stick is easily one of the most significant developments in electric instrument design ever – the full fruition of the electric guitar’s amp logic – and yet falls so effortlessly into the realm of fugues and figured bass that it seems antique, re-discovered, more from 1669 than 1969.
As a man, Chapman lives between the two worlds of incessant innovation and patient, conservative cultivation. He holds numerous patents on the regularly-updated Stick design, which at various points in its brief history utterly rewrote the lutherie playbook and integrated the newest technology available…but he also still builds and repairs every Stick in his garage, surrounded by a small and dedicated family company that maintains personal relationships with each of their clients.
And after all these years of adding MIDI capability, additional strings, carbon fiber necks, and so on, the word is that Emmett plays his simple bamboo Stick with the clean and undistorted signal of its legendarily quiet-yet-sensitive pickups.
Like a Zen master demonstrating his enlightenment with one perfectly-articulated flute note, Chapman knows the relationship between the simple and the complex, the inner world and the outer, the ancient lineage of players in which he belongs and the utter freshness of every moment.
And he calls us players into community to explore the new musical possibilities of the Chapman Stick together – cherishing the history of this instrument, still steaming like a new volcanic beach, while we collaboratively discover and create our own.
You can read more about the Stick in my ode to the instrument here. But for now, enjoy this conversation with the man himself…
Matt Warnock: The Chapman Stick is a very unique instrument, what was the initial inspiration behind developing The Stick back in the ’60s?
Emmett Chapman: I built an extra-long and extra wide 8-string guitar in 1966 using an Air Force wood shop where I was stationed at Strategic Air Command near Omaha, Nebraska. At the time I was listening to jazz guitarists and pianists including John Coltrane’s quartet with McCoy Tyner. I was trying to play jazz chord progressions and free-flowing melody all at the same time and I had developed a complicated guitar technique that would allow a degree of free melodic expression along with chordal accompaniment.
Then I started listening to Jimi Hendrix and realized that my melody with chordal backing was sadly lacking in expressive freedom and abandon. Still, I needed my novel chords to give meaning to the melody and I was frustrated not being able to do both at once – the structure of the keyboard with the expression of the fretboard.
With just one fretting hand taking on both the chords and the melody, it was easy to fall into elaborate clichés that created the illusion of creative improvisation. I was feeling boxed in. One day in August 1969 I placed my picking hand over the top of my guitar neck and started drumming my fingers. It was a revelation. Adding some string bending, slides and pull-offs, I could immediately play some of Hendrix’s snakey licks with just the right hand.
Then with my left hand, I fingered familiar chords but now just tapped them independently. After ten years of jazz guitar, I instantly changed character as a musician. I had discovered a simple, basic, open ended method on strings that would give me free melody with structured chords, the goal I had been seeking. What I didn’t know was that a strong bass line would soon be added to the mix, a little drum percussion too.
I called it “open architecture” and my guitar became the “freedom guitar.” In 1976 I published a lesson book, Free Hands, still in print today. Thinking about these names, my goal was always about a free and unlimited technique on guitar, one that led me to invent and design a dedicated and minimal “Stick” instrument for the method.
Matt: Did you go through a series of early prototypes before settling on the current design of the Stick, and if so, what did those early models look and sound like?
Emmett: The first prototype was a big 9-string guitar with a table-spoon shaped body and two negative curved cutaways that I had built three years earlier in the Air Force woodshop. With my new dedication to two-handed tapping, I added a string damper by the nut and lowered the “action” for the lightest touch.
The action had already been set low, and the strings on my guitar were quite thin per given pitch. I used very thin acetate picks which barely set the strings in vibration, and I turned up the volume. My left hand fingering was already very light, the right hand picking too, which made for fast and expressive fretboard action. Thus the transition to two-handed tapping was waiting for me there in the instrument that I had built and set up many times for light, fast and easy play. With my discovery, both hands became equal partners approaching the neck from opposite sides.
The “Stick” design began a year later in 1970 when I built the first “Electric Stick”, as I first called it, out of a single 3/4-inch thick board of black and brown striped Macassar ebony. It was as minimal as it could get. It had a square headstock with violin tuning pegs coming from behind. Then I needed thumbscrews between the pegs and the nut to fine tune the strings. I also mounted a pickup in an ebony box facing downward toward the strings. It was as simple and compact as it could get for a long scale stringed instrument - minimum means, maximum music.
Matt: Did you try and approach a big guitar company like Gibson or Fender about mass producing the Stick, or did you want to keep this project to yourself as a small business venture?
Emmett: I was on my own, but then from 1974-79 I spent a lot of time in New York City, trying to seek my musical fortune there. I formed a band and played at various jazz clubs in Manhattan and tried to get a recording contract. I also demonstrated The Stick and its playing method for Fender executives who seemed enthused but later told me to “keep preaching the gospel” to the world, meaning that they weren’t interested in marketing something that needed public education.
Emmett: Right from the beginning it was all positive. Wherever I played there was a lively curiosity about bass, chords and melody all played at once – the complete conception of a song arrangement. Musicians and audiences liked the expressive sound and were intrigued by the novel method of play. It’s the same today and other Stick players often post on line about their experiences similar to mine, that is, after the show the audience comes to you, asking all sorts of questions about the instrument, the music and technique.
Matt: Since the Stick lies somewhere between a guitar and a piano, who did you have in mind when you built it? Were you intending it to expand the guitar, to bring pianists over to a string instrument, or both?
Emmett: Both. My music was already headed in that direction as I’ve explained. I was influenced as much by pianists as guitarists. My musical purpose was to play bass, chords and melody all at once. Before I discovered this method of parallel hands playing independently from opposite sides of the board, I already had nine strings with the three lowest ones tuned in reversed fifths, dividing the strings into bass and melody groups. This unusual configuration of strings might well have been a factor in my two-handed tapping discovery.
If you take the low E on a standard guitar and raise it an octave, then leave the next lowest A as it is, then drop the third lowest D an octave, you’ll have my reversed 5ths at the low end, and with the same lettered notes. Later I added 5ths on the bass side until I got to ten strings, five on each side.
Matt: Now that the Stick has been around for more than 40 years, has the instrument grown and evolved to where you had envisioned it would be all those years ago?
Emmett: It’s the artists who are evolving, and their music. The instrument itself? I think I got it right the first time and played it to the max. Since then there have been small innovations and inventions added to the hardware and construction which make the instrument more versatile and adaptable to any conceivable tuning, but The Stick has essentially remained the same since the very beginning. Even the very first ones still play great today.
There are over 6000 Sticks in the world, and every week we receive one or two for repairs, retrofits and re-setup. Some are just three years old and others are 30 years old but we make them all sound and play like our newest production instruments.
I’ve mechanized much of the production, from CNC machining of metal parts and hardwood beam to injection molding of other hardware, to electronic assembly of the three pickup modules. Still, there’s a hand made quality to The Stick, mainly because of the precision that goes into the setup and fret work for very low action and light touch. With my next model, now in prototype stage, I hope to mechanize much of this final setup work too. We’ll see if I can ease my work and expand my production.