The Chapman Stick – Versatile, Unique, and Portable

Article by Stephen Wise, who writes instrument and gear reviews for Music After 50, where this review first appeared.

Stephen Wise
Stephen Wise has owned a Chapman Stick for 30 years.
Moving a new, alternative instrument into the mainstream is a truly arduous task. Most attempts, in fact, will fail. It is not surprising that in over 35 years on the market that the Chapman Stick® is not yet a household name. It took the saxophone over 100 years to achieve that mark. Yet, The Stick® has made steady gains. No one who has seen it, it seems, ever forgets it!  (Watch Rob Martino and then Kevin Keith play the Stick®.) Those who play it become disciples.

Another trait that The Stick® shares with the saxophone is that it is a modern instrument, developed from the ground up to be easily played using a logical technique. I know all of these things because I have been a Stick® owner for over 30 years. Although I have learned to play more than a dozen instruments over the years, if you came to me today and told me that I could only have one instrument for the rest of my life, I would keep my Stick®!

The Stick® was first marketed by Emmett Chapman in 1974, the culmination of his experiments in “touch playing” of fretted instruments in the guitar family. As a jazz guitarist, limited to six strings and five fingers, Emmett began to envy the freedom and space that keyboard musicians enjoyed, but still wanted to have the degree of nuance that only fingers on strings can deliver. In a flash of inspiration, he up-ended his guitar, reached around the neck with both hands, and began tapping out riffs.

Chapman Stick
A Chapman Stick
Several years and several prototypes later, The Stick® emerged, named for its truly minimalist design. It was an instrument of ten strings spanning over five octaves. Today, the original Stick® is a member of a growing family stick-like instruments, all with the same logical, easy-to-master design.

Although The Stick® can sound like anything from a clavichord (when amplified cleanly) to the nastiest metal (in extreme overdrive), and although The Stick® has all of the nuance of the guitar and then some, the real power of The Stick® is that it is an easy instrument to learn while offering no limits to the virtuoso.

Emmett’s roots as a jazz musician led him to create an instrument that is a dream to both the experienced improvisational performer and the beginner. The touch is light – no heavy callouses needed – and the action is quick. Shifting the hand position one string to the left takes you through the “circle of fourths.” Shifting the hand position one string to the right takes you through the “circle of fifths.” Moving up or down the fretboard transposes you in “half steps.”

The implication here is that no matter what key you are playing in, you can move to any other key and your fingering does not change at all! Try doing that on a piano! You can learn a song in one key, then easily “find” a new key to accommodate another musician. There is no need to learn scales and arpeggios in every key. They are all the same! I have often worried whether or not maladies such as arthritis might curtail my musical fun, but The Stick® has such a light touch that I’m confident that I can still enjoy it well into wherever the future leads.

In this allotted space, I can only touch on the high points. The Stick® web site is rich in detail and has possibly hundreds of links to materials and artists. Many artists go solo. After all, you can play bass, rhythm, and lead all by yourself! Others pair with a percussionist or assorted other artists. You will be astounded by the variety! Every musical style is represented from Renaissance to the hit songs of today, to all manner of free-form improvisation. In addition, a perusal of You Tube® will lead you to performances by everyone from beginners to seasoned professionals.

If you can only have one instrument, why not The Stick®? It’s portable and doesn’t take up much space. You need guitar/bass amplifiers for public performance, but I usually practice using only a headphone amplifier. In a pinch, you can plug a set of high sensitivity MP3 player ‘buds or ‘phones’ directly into the instrument (with an adapter plug) and can actually hear it!

Stephen Wise has been designing electronic musical instruments since 1975. Steve specializes in realistic recreations of traditional instruments. He became interested in the field after hearing Walter/Wendy Carlos’ “Switched On Bach” and upon being introduced to the Allen Digital Computer Organ, the world’s first all digital musical instrument. Steve is currently designing instruments for Schulmerich Bells, maker of handbells, electronic carillons, and the breakout MelodyWave® instrument.

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