Ask The Expert

Emmett Chapman

This interview with Emmett Chapman was conducted by Adrian Ashton and appeared in the UK magazine, Bass Guitar Magazine, issue 6/2003

No Tapping Instrument feature would be complete without speaking to Emmett Chapman, who is both the inventor of The Chapman Stick, and a noted performer on the instrument as well. Here, he gives us the low-down on what makes the instrument a favorite of bassists the world over.

We're obviously a bass biased magazine, but we have noticed that a good number of Stick players are bass players. Firstly, do you agree with that and, if so, why do you think that is?

I was a jazz guitarist in the 60s. My 9-string guitar turned into the first prototype Stick in 1969 when I discovered a new method of string tapping, with both hands perpendicular to the fretboard, each hand approaching the board from opposite sides. I kept adding 5ths down into the bass register, but had to pretend that the thicker strings sounded like decent bass support when tapped. The tuning concept was there but not the implementation of the sound with selected bass strings, which was to come later. I wanted then to play left hand guitar chords with a bass element simultaneously, with freely improvised right hand melody and chord progressions. It was a two-handed tapping guitar concept but then Tony Levin, Nick Beggs and Alphonso Johnson picked up on The Stick in the late 70s and began to make waves in the record industry. This put a skew on my perspectives, as bass players inevitably became interested in my instruments. But I was still smiling, obviously. If one is lucky enough to gain entrance into the media, one's fate always gets twisted in the process. Pop culture makes fools of us all. Still, I'm smiling, as The Stick has a powerful bass voice and the bass guitar is at the forefront of instrument R&D. I just like to balance it out a bit, as The Stick can greatly satisfy the musical aspirations of guitarists, drummers, and keyboardists too.

In what way to you feel The Stick offers greater opportunities over and above the traditional two hand tapping method (favored by players such as Stu Hamm etc.)?

The Stick design is one of minimum means, but its function is for maximum performance. That's always been my ideal in the performing arts and sports. More strings, stereo string groupings, increased range, and a longer scale length - now at 36 inches, surpassing most bass guitars - all of which provide more room to play, more solo possibilities in song arrangement and improvisation, and more permutations of patterns and lines juggled between the hands. Add to this an optimal low-action, light touch set-up, and the capability of such a set-up that's built into the structure and hardware, and you've got a minimalist stringed instrument that can launch your complete musical conception in any direction you want - live.

How easy is it to make the transition from bass guitar to The Stick?

Not having been a bass guitarist, I can't say directly, but I've always noticed an unusual kind of learning curve that bass players seem to fall into when bringing The Stick into a band. Tony is a good example, but other bass players seem also to gravitate to this approach: contribute a few signature licks to a given song from the unusual 5ths tuning in the bass register; add the right hand on the same bass strings up a 4th or 5th on the board for fast and expressive octaves and flourishes at the higher intervals; fill in some of the upbeats with right-hand chords on the melody side; then begin to play independent patterns (and finally counterpoint) on both string groups. That's a lot of rhythm section right there, creating a distinctive song arrangement in any band and genre.

Was there a pivotal turning point when The Stick became much more recognized?

No, there never was a pivotal point. I always had to say, "It's growing slowly but solidly, and with lots of fresh and creative music to show for it". That point is still ahead, of course.

A bit of a toughie, but do you have a favorite Stick player that you feel has really tapped into the vision you had of your invention?

I consider The Stick a transparent medium, a tabula rasa (if I may go so far). Each artist's knowledge and soul expression shows through. At any given "Stick Night" anywhere in the world, it's a complete variety show of musical styles, sounds, and playing sub-techniques within the tapping method. And no two Stick Nights are ever even remotely alike! Still, there are some players who seem to play the instrument according to "what it is", if such a judgement is mine to make. They tend to play more across both groups of strings, taking advantage of the Stick's two-boards-on-one-board, exploring permutations with all fingers and thumbs on all strings. Sometimes it's like a gigantic, tuneful drum solo with improvised harmonic movement and emerging lines from all registers and sectors. I favor this approach to Stick and try to develop my own music and technique in this direction.

Ok, I'm convinced I need a Stick: how do I go about purchasing one and which model should I go for?

Best is to visit our website at www.stick.com and go to its Instruments and Tunings page. All current models are shown and described. If you like to tap on bass guitar, and wouldn't mind a dedicated tapping instrument of the same shape, size, sound and feel of the standard 10-string Stick, then our 8-string Stick Bass (SB8) would be the way to go. Its strings and hardware are spaced further apart and the tuning is usually in uniform 4ths from the very low B in the normal bass position. You could almost say that for string tappers there is no learning curve on this instrument (or that it's straight up). If you want to play complete song arrangements and apply your music theory to composition and improvisation, then the standard 10-string Stick, with its family of Stick type melody 4ths versus reciprocal bass 5ths tunings, allows the most freedom, also for the soloist. For combined techniques on bass guitar and seamless transitions between two-handed tapping and conventional picking/plucking techniques, The NS/Stick with its unusual body and with no headstock (designed by Ned Steinberger and me) offers a huge range of expression and orchestration. And for keyboard voicings, close-interval chords and classical notation, the 12-string Grand Stick has the most overlap in register between the two string groups, offering an extra 4th down on the melody side (6th string), and an extra 5th up on the bass side (12th string).

Any final words of wisdom?

Nero fiddled while Rome burned. The fiddle lives on. From the ashes a new Rome rises. "Fiddle Sticks", I say!



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