The Birth of Two-Handed Tapping

By Jim Reilly

Originally published in the UK publication, Bass Guitar Magazine, issue 6/2003

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 together.

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 available.

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.