Boring, Boring Rock Arsenal: The Chapman Stick



1974 was when the first production models were shipped, and it seems that it will be around for tens of thousands of years.


Invented by Emmett Chapman, who looks exactly what you think a 70’s jazz guitarist looks like.  Exactly.

What & How?

The Chapman Stick is similar in looks to a guitar’s neck that has been elongated and flattened.  Unlike the guitar, or Dahmer’s freezer, the Chapman Stick has no body to speak of; it’s just, well, a stick(it is often referred to as a capital-ess “Stick”, the word “Chapman” being a complete waste of time for the modern musician).  There’s not even a place to hold it– it hooks onto your belt or the waist of your relaxed corduroy trousers for stability and straps around your silk-and-paisley clad shoulders in place.

There isn’t a place to hold on to because playing a Stick in its traditional manner

I told you.  Exactly
I told you. Exactly

means both hands are managing the fretboard, “fretting” or “tapping” out each note instead of using a plectrum(or your coke nail).  Chapman had been developing the “Free Hands” method in the year 1969, named “Free Hands” because it was the year 1969.  Free-handed guitar method allowed one hand to work the bass side of the guitar while the other hand worked the treble, facilitating the musician to play both melodic and accompaniment lines on the same instrument(and allowing him to hold the plectrum in his mouth for a bit, a universal signal that something badass is about to happen). Chapman created an instrument to fully realize this technique in a piece of hardware he was familiar with; the ten-string version(there are now 8- and 12-string versions, but ten is the classic lineup) has a 7 1/2 octave range, near that of a grand piano.  Now, pieces or arrangements could be constructed in the same parameters of piano music, which those jazzy motherfuckers did in earnest.


Because The Seventies were a time of music and discovery, that’s why!

To fully understand the Chapman Sticks’ perfect placement in time, look at the Chapman Stick’s modern-day contemporary, the 8-string guitar.  Lots of people make them, but lets focus on the Ibanez Prestige for a couple of reasons.

Reason number one is that, even though the Prestige series began in 1987, the add-a-string-to-keep-up-with-the-Jones’ shred movement really hit terminal velocity with 1990’s Passion and Warfare, Steve Vai’s most publicly invasive moneyshot.  MTV, talk shows, major tour, the works.  Front and center in this rockfest, sometimes as love interest, sometimes as surrogate penis, but most always as musical instrument, was his SEVEN-string Ibanes.  Yes, his went to “seven”, and people noticed.

Reason number two is Tosin Abasi.  Watch this video then let me explain.

Steve Vai’s extra string was on the treble end of his guitar, for melodic ease.  You may think Vai is a noodly jack off, but he is a first-rate musician; he auditioned for Zappa and succeeded   Before that he was transcribing Zappa’s music by ear, a feat in itself.  Vai’s music is tuneful, melodic, and intricate, if a little over-the-top.  Ok, all the way over and back around, like how my eyes roll when I see him play sometimes.

This idea of accomplished technique, melody, and intricacy is at the heart of the Stick.  Even it’s most modern-day usage(my standard being the album Soup by the band Stick Men, a Tony-Levin-led trio consisting of two Stick players and a percussionist) the music made with the Stick in tow sounds tuneful and melodic.  Musical scientists figured out eventually that the purer type of soundwaves made by tapping, not strumming, a string instrument were highly receptive to digital filtering; Roland stopped working on the T-1000 long enough to make pickups and devises that will make your Stick sound like whatever you would want.

Ah, but the Chapman Stick wanted you to hear it, and here’s the ugly turn in our story; the baritone guitar.  The baritone guitar, with its seventh string on the bass end, isn’t evil on its own.  It’s application isn’t even always bad.  Just usually.  Think tuneless and percussive.  Think all aggression and no finesse.  Think Nu-Metal.  Think fucking Korn.

And even if you like (fucking)Korn, there is no doubt that the music typically made with a seven-string baritone guitar is the opposite of music made with the Chapman Stick.  The Seventies were filled with musicians trying to make “progressive” music that was ambitious in its musicianship, with a wide palette and an intricate composition.  The Chapman Stick barely has a place in “rock” music anymore.  But to see Tosin Abasi, the lead guitarist of Animals As Leaders, take an 8-string guitar, give it a rock and roll strum or three but then be musical with it, too, is hopeful.  It sounds modern; love the Stick or hate it, but it does have a dated, fretless-bass-overly-digitized feel to it, even it today’s uses.  The Chapman Stick was perfect for the time it was invented, and even if the instrument isn’t in vogue, the spirit of its purpose might live on.

God bless Emmett Chapman for making things more interesting.  Here’s to more Seventies in your life, Rock and Roll!


Suggested Viewing:

King Crimson: Frame By Frame

Emmett Chapman: Parallel Galaxy

Steve Vai: Erotic Nightmares

Tosin Abasi: Song of Solomon

Korn: One(Metallica cover)

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