Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: An Ode To The Chapman Stick

12 October 2007

An Ode To The Chapman Stick

Unlike with previous instruments in this column, I have a long-standing and personal relationship with the invention I'll be discussing this week. It's called the Chapman Stick, and it was one of the most radical developments in music from the second half of the Twentieth Century (the first half goes to the electric guitar). Created by Emmett Chapman in 1969, the Stick is a wild redesign of the guitar that opened a new realm of musical expression - one that has only begun to be explored.

Forty years ago, Chapman was struggling to fill the anemic sound of solo jazz guitar with a richer bass end and started adding lower strings to his instruments. It wasn't long before six strings became nine. Soon after, he realized that his magnetic pickups were sensitive enough to register even the slightest tapping of strings to frets. He had found a way to make sounds in a much more direct and percussive fashion than by plucking and strumming, liberating his right hand from having to sound the efforts of his left.

Thus, the Stick was born. Chapman had discovered a musical space similar to the one occupied by pianists, in which interweaving voices, multiple melodic lines, and free-winging improvisation with chordal accompaniment is standard fare. Each hand can be playing in a different meter, or - thanks to its split pickups and a stereo output - through a different effects chain.

Here's an example - a gorgeous pastoral piece by Rob Martino:

By the 1980s, he was installing MIDI pickups on them, and suddenly each string could trigger a separate synthesizer. The Stick effortlessly spread its wings into the burgeoning fantasia of electronic music. There are now Stickists performing in bands all over the world in the stead of guitar, bass, keyboards, and even drums (thanks, again, to MIDI).

Glenn Poorman has taken fantastic advantage of this, using MIDI and live looping to create a one-man live electronic act:

I first heard the Stick played by Greg Howard on "The Dreaming Tree," the deep sylvan sojourn holding up the back end of Dave Matthews Band's 1998 album Before These Crowded Streets. (So yeah, I got acquainted with the Stick through a song about a tree. How appropriate! The further I go with this instrument, the more cosmically symmetrical everything about it becomes. More on that in a minute.)

Greg Howard is a virtuoso, very much the heir apparent to Emmett Chapman. He covers Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" in this video:

After years of hopeless dreaming, I finally got my own Stick last spring - and laying eyes on it for the first time, I reeled at the incredible potential this thing contains. This bizarre instrument with its five octave range sat sleeping in its open case like the only visible body part of a transparent orchestra. It occupies a terrain somewhere between the guitar, piano, bass, drums, and synthesizer - a giant fretboard, played as a part of the body, with the nuance of acoustic and the teeth of electric. It's operated - if one can even use such a vulgar word - with the amplifier turned up loud, so that the player can use as little force as possible. It's the paradoxical junction of grace and grit - at once the stupidly obvious logical conclusion of stringed instruments, and yet exotic enough to appear as an artifact of the unimaginably distant future, in the David Lynch's adaptation of Dune.

Here's the clip of Patrick Stewart faking it on an embellished Stick:

The Stick is a magical object, glowing with alchemical significance. Literally: Chapman, who invented not just the Stick and its method of parallel tapping, but also a powerful ambidextrous tennis technique and a significant breakthrough in brewing coffee, also happens to be a master astrologist in his few remaining hobby hours. He sees the grand and deeper patterns of the universe. He is a Libra - you know, "The Scales" - and the fact that this beautiful thing found its way into the world through Libra - a sign reknowned for its symmetry, balance, and sense of order - has not been lost on me. It has ten strings - for ten fingers - and is tuned reciprocally, so that the same fingering produces a chord in the treble strings and the inversion of that chord in the bass. Chapman even created a new modal system for it based on his personal birth chart. Seriously.

The geometric perfection of it all is too much for my limited cognition. Several people claim that playing this instrument has actually alleviated their carpal tunnel or other serious chronic hand issues and allowed them to make music again. (It's because of the Stick's ergonomics, how it's held upright and how you reach across the fretboard to play, thus opening your hand - rather than the cramped positions that most instruments require of their players.)

My own Stick is one of the later models, woven from graphite fiber like other futuristic things - including that space elevator we'll be getting any day now. It was never a living wood - no sentient beings were harmed in the making of this musical revolution. I bought it on the 8th of April, a day that is celebrated in Japan as the birthday of Shakyamuni Buddha, with a festival of countless fluttering blossoms. There's something about its crystalline construction, the ludicrous abundance of Japanese festival culture, and the Buddha's "do no harm" injunction that requires me to use this as an instrument of peace.

It arrived in the mail on Good Friday, which is appropriate because I cannot think about it without being swept up in angelic metaphor. I am not alone among Stick players in my conviction that this is a sacred instrument. Even as a die-hard guitarist, one of the minority who have taken up the Stick without abandoning my mother tongue, I cannot imagine the guitar evoking exactly the same intensity of nerd-monk reverence. There's something about it that inspires an otherworldly devotion and wonderment that is rare with other instruments, an elegance that puts it in the same category as relativity theory and the Cartesian plane. I mean this in the strictest sense: Einstein attested relativity theory to a spontaneous peak experience he had while riding a train, and Descartes said that his mathematical revolution was delivered at night by angelic vision.

In this video, Trevor (the only Stickist in Kansas?) peppers footage of his excellent playing with a bit of discourse on his spiritual relationship with his instrument:

The Stick is a rare physical object in the pantheon with these luminous abstractions; it stands unpretentiously as a gift from on high. It's a burning bush, the impossible clue that we give ourselves to wake into a lucid dream: by all reason, it should only be a fantasy, and yet I can feel it underneath my fingers. I don't claim to understand.

Many of my favorite musicians have communicated the importance of favoring the message over the medium. To whatever degree you can, forget the instrument that you play and focus on the music you are trying to express. Victor Wooten - probably the most influential bassist alive - is fond of saying that he is a musician, not a bassist. That paying attention to your instrument while you play can trip you up in the same way that paying attention to your tongue makes it more difficult to speak.

Try as I might, though, it's hard to make the Stick totally transparent to the music (although earlier, literally transparent lucite models do exist as a kind of joke attempt). If there's one thing I've learned from postmodernism, it's that the message is never really separate from its medium. Although the Stick can liberate a solo artist to perform stupendously rich compositions, it simultaneously transforms the same artist into a Swiss Army knife in band contexts. Agency and communion. The drum and the harp. Masculine and feminine. I open the case and suddenly I am voyeur to the spectacular orgy of every archetype as they make love in the space of an overhead compartment.

Nor can I, no matter how poetic I wax, truly describe the weird beauty of the Chapman Stick with words alone. Here are some other good videos of this masterpiece in action.

A cover of the cantina band theme from Star wars:

The Stick with a proper European lightshow:

A truly excellent Stick and african percussion jam:

Additional audio/video, and more information than you could ever fully digest, is available online at www.stick.com. Enjoy!

(Written for iggli.com)