The Birth of Two-Handed Tapping
By Jim Reilly
Originally published in the UK publication,
Bass Guitar Magazine,
House lights dim. A musician starts up, fighting for attention over a
boisterous crowd in a small coffee shop. A street busker drops his hat and
plays for passing tourists. But something is different. There's too much
sound coming from just one musician. Bass lines merge with melodies. Chords
play off each other. It would be all right if this were a piano but it sounds
like a guitar, or maybe a bass, maybe even both at the same time. The
musician is holding an odd looking instrument. It looks like a big guitar
neck-but just the neck, no body. While listening to the instrument's inventor
performing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, 14 year-old Morag Musk
leaned over to her father and whispered, "It looks like what's left over
after you hit somebody over the head with a guitar". Quickly she added, "But
I like the way it sounds".
It looks like an odd guitar but the musician isn't playing it like a guitar.
The instrument is hanging almost vertically, right in front of the player.
He's not strumming or plucking the strings like he would on a guitar. Both
hands are reaching up from either side of the instrument and tapping the
strings. Both hands create all the sounds coming from the instrument. Each
hand, each finger, determines pitch, volume, expression and tone. One hand
chases the other, one steers, the other follows, both drive unhurriedly ahead
This story began on a typically hot Southern California evening, back in the
late 60s. A 32-year-old guitar player was woodshedding in his Yucca Trail
home near Los Angeles. He was inspired by the times: his ears full of the
revolutionary sounds of McCoy Tyner and Oscar Peterson, his heart full of the
electricity of Jimi Hendrix. He'd been tinkering with his guitar. He added
strings, changed the tuning and oiled the fretboard so his fingers could fly
up and down the neck. He had started standing up: before he had always played
sitting down. That night, around 6:30 p.m., after already playing for a
while, something happened. In an instant, without knowing why or stopping to
think, this soon to be ex-guitar player brought his right hand up from above
the pickup and began tapping the strings. In the next instant he shifted the
angle of his guitar from its traditional horizontal position to a more
vertical one so both hands lined up at right angles to the guitar neck and
reached around from opposite sides. The night was August 26, 1969. The player
was Emmett Chapman. History had been made.
Other guitar players had tapped on their guitars before, but none had approached the neck in the way Emmett did that August evening in 1969. By approaching the strings at right angles, the notes lined up as a sequence along the frets. Harry DeArmond, Dave Bunker, Jimmie Webster and others tapped while holding the guitar in its traditional manner, with the right hand's fingers parallel to the strings. In order to play scales, or runs of single notes, these other guitarists had to move their entire right arm at the shoulder. The old technique was used successfully but lacked practicality. It was cumbersome. With Emmett's technique, the right and left hands could stay in a single position along the neck and access a full range of notes and chords. The technique was a synthesis of guitar, bass, piano, even percussion.
Between 1969 and 1974, Emmett created the Chapman Stick - a ten-stringed
fretboard, tuned in a uniform tuning, with the strings arranged in two groups
of five to enable one hand to play the lower bass strings and the other hand
to play the higher melody strings. Gigs with Barney Kessel and Tim Buckley
brought Emmett's new instrument and technique to the attention of musicians
on the West Coast. Gigs in New York at the Five Spot and at the Museum of
Modern Art led to articles in Downbeat and Guitar Player magazines and an
appearance on the television show What's My Line?.
The Chapman Stick found enthusiastic players since its first production run
in 1974. One night in New York at the 5-Spot, Joe Zawinul, who had already
made a name for himself with Miles Davis and Weather Report, picked up
Emmett's Stick, climbed up on a table and with much gusto and showmanship
tapped away, playing the instrument quite well. The rest of Emmett's band
joined in and off they went on an impromptu concert. Zawinul was so
impressed, he bought one of the first five Sticks ever made. Later Emmett
would see a young bass player named Alphonso Johnson playing with Zawinul in
Weather Report. Bass legend Tony Levin bought a Stick from Emmett in 1976 and
was using it live and in the studio with Peter Gabriel as early as 1977. The
Stick is now a main part of Levin's arsenal. He has tapped his Stick on
albums by Laurie Anderson, The California Guitar Trio, Paula Cole, Al
DiMeola, Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Yes, to name a few.
Through the 70s and into the 80s, The Stick made its way from Emmett's
workshop out into the world. Tony Levin was only one of several thousand
players using Emmett's technique on the Stick. Fergus Marsh toured with Bruce
Cockburn and recorded his Stealing Fire album with him. Nick Beggs made a
name for himself first with the 80s pop band Kajagoogoo, then with a host of
other projects including Belinda Carlisle, Warren Cuccurullo and Gary Numan.
Pino Paladino played Stick with Paul Young. Alphonso Johnson continued
tapping and playing Stick on various projects. Emmett himself recorded a solo
album titled Parallel Galaxy.
The 90s saw many Stick players come into their own and create some
outstanding music. Greg Howard of Charlottesville, Virginia shows off the
polyphonic potential of The Stick and two-handed tapping. He has several solo
recordings and a touring band, and made a guest appearance on the Dave
Matthews Band CD Before These Crowded Streets. New York's Steve Adelson
recently released a straight ahead jazz album featuring performances with
himself and Larry Coryell on guitar and Tony Levin on Stick. Guillermo Cides
from Argentina recorded a stunning CD of Bach concertos. San Jose's Bob
Culbertson explored the classical music repertoire on a pair of discs called
Romantica Vols. 1 and 2. Nick Beggs released his solo Stick debut, Stick
Insect, to rave reviews. Tony Levin, Alphonso Johnson and Fergus Marsh are
reported to be working on solo Stick projects.
The number of Stick players and others using Emmett's technique continues to
grow. Recent estimates place the number of active Stick players at over
5,000. Countless others are tapping on guitars and basses and other stringed
instruments. Emmett is still busily working away playing and building Sticks.
Sticks are now available in 8, 10 and 12-string versions with a hybrid
guitar/Stick instrument, the NS Stick, co-designed with Ned Steinberger also
New musical innovations are rare. Howard Goodall chose five for his book Big
Bangs: The Story of Five Discoveries That Changed Musical History. He
prefaced his five choices with the following stipulation: "Changes to music
that happened in one place at one time: one day the invention wasn't there,
the next it was." This ruled out things like the symphony or the violin, both
of which evolved slowly over centuries.
Following Goodall's edict, we have to go back to Adolph Sax in the late
nineteenth century to find the previous inventor who successfully created a
new musical instrument with a lasting social impact. Beyond that we need to
go back, with smaller stops along the way, to Bartolomeo Cristofori and his
'amazing loud and soft machine', the pianoforte. The saxophone, the piano and
now the Chapman Stick all involved a shift. A shift that may have seemed
radical, but with hindsight proved an inevitable reflection of the musical
times. These shifts altered people's perceptions of how sound can be created,
manipulated and maintained. Rather than merely offering a new tonal palette
for the musician to explore, as with the modern day synthesizer, Emmett's
realization in 1969 brought forth a new way for the musician to interact
with, to control, to converse with his instrument.
The fact that The Stick is, in itself, the physical embodiment of a technique
puts Emmett's work in a category above the common instrument maker. The fact
that the technique predates the instrument is at the core of why the
instrument works. The shift in perception Emmett experienced in 1969 makes
the story extraordinary. The fact that he had the character to fulfill the
potential presented to him that day makes this whole thing revolutionary.
All contents of this website are protected by US and
international copyright laws