The Chapman Stick,
By Greg Howard
at home in the world of progressive rock
©2000 by Progression
Magazine, reprinted with permission
Musical instruments can take on cultural identities through the music they convey. For the trumpet, it was jazz, for the electric guitar, rock and roll. Some are so heavily featured that they almost come to symbolize the genre itself, like the clarinet in swing or the banjo in bluegrass. Progressive rock is dominated by a recognizable array of typically "rock" instruments: electric guitar, bass, drums, keyboards. Frequently violins, trumpets and saxophones are featured in the mix. But it's The Chapman Stick®, in the hands of an ever-increasing number of players, that seems to show up on more prog recordings than anywhere else. The reasons for this are as diverse as the players who pursue making music on The Stick®, as it is also called. In the early 1980's, if you mentioned The Stick to a prog fan, you'd likely hear one particular name in response. Ask most Stick players today who was the first person they saw playing the instrument, and you'll likely hear the same name - Tony Levin. Levin's work as the bass/Stick player with Peter Gabriel in the mid 70's gave many their first glimpse at a new musical phenomenon, but it wasn't until a few years later that the new sound of The Stick would become synonymous with a new sound for a progressive rock band.
King Crimson's landmark 1981 album, Discipline, gave the band's audience a new array of sounds and a new musical style. Five years had passed since the band's last studio release, and their fans eagerly awaited the new record. Listeners had no idea what to expect from the new lineup. The instrumentation was a severe departure from the 1970's version of Robert Fripp (guitar), Bill Bruford (drums), John Whetton (bass and vocals) and David Cross (violin), which had formed the core of three heavily-improvisational releases, and a live concert album. Only Fripp and Bruford remained from the previous band. Joining now were another guitarist/vocalist, Adrian Belew, and Stickist/bassist Tony Levin. The orchestral possibilities of having two guitars and the new sounds of guitar synthsizers would find the perfect compliment in a new instrument that could not only hold down the bottom end, but simultaneously add an additional "guitar" part.
"Elephant Talk," the first track on the album, opens with an unaccompanied Stick riff, which turns into a driving groove. Six of the seven tracks on the album are anchored and fleshed-out by Levin's Stick work, not by a bass, defining a role for the instrument that would inspire thousands of musicians to explore this new tool. The Chapman Stick had found a genre to call home.
Emmett Chapman studied jazz guitar. He built himself a guitar from scratch in 1965, then started adding devices (including springs and a gear shift, which operated a "wild string") and more strings. He was already using the additional strings to add plucked bass lines, a technique he picked up in part from guitarist George van Eps.
The leap from conventional plucking and picking to tapping came suddenly, as Chapman recalls:
"I was inspired by Hendrix's use of loose strings and low action, he played like his guitar was a toy. He used a lot of one-handed hammer-ons/pull-offs. He was playing with one hand tapping, which in Hendrix's case, since he played 'left-handed' was the right hand. But the message to me was to play with both hands tapping. And I discovered a way to make them equal partners on the fretboard, with the right hand coming from the opposite side of the neck, but at the same angle relative to the fretboard as the left."
This happened in an instant in 1969. Chapman threw away all his years of study and developed a whole new method, in which each hand was an equal partner, like on piano. Previous guitarists had tapped on the strings, but never before with the former picking hand held as Chapman now did. This new position allowed for powerful scaler and chordal possibilities not available to tappers using the traditional guitar orientation.
In Chapman's new method the fretting (or tapping) right hand, as a melodic force, was a separate element from the bass and chords played by the left. His two hands, working independently, could create complex orchestrations, and expansive improvisations, allowing him as one player to explore the avenues of progressive jazz laid down by Coltrane and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and whispered by his own muse. As he traveled around the world playing concerts and giving demonstrations, it seemed that this new instrument would take root in the jazz fusion camp, and indeed it did. But the most striking growth in attention came through Levin's work as a member of Peter Gabriel's band, and later with a newly redesigned King Crimson, stylistically miles away from Mahavishnu, but no less intricate or extemporaneous.
To introduce a new instrument requires a lot of patience, on the part of the inventor, but also on the part of the players. Even in a genre called "progressive" rock, record producers and band leaders can have very clear ideas about what they want to hear. Fortunately, Levin wasn't afraid of experimenting. Before taking up The Stick he had been tapping on the bass, when he was introduced to a new instrument designed specifically for tapping. Excited by his new-found instrumental voice, he began using it on Peter Gabriel's first solo tour, on the song "Moribund the Burgermeister." By Gabriel's next record The Stick was a featured color in Levin's sonic palette.
How was this new instrument different than the bass? "Its subtle tonal differences and clear, distinct lows," answers Levin. "This was before five-string basses were popular (The Stick's lowest bass note is "C" below "E" on a four-string bass). I used a lot of compression and an MXR phaser," describing his signature Stick sound, which would carry him for the next several years, right into the new King Crimson lineup.
But it wasn't just a new tone that made this instrument fit well into the genre. The bass strings, tuned as they are in ascending 5ths, provide a new relationship of hands to strings, allowing two hands to tap on the same five strings, but spread apart. Levin also developed a whole vocabulary of musical devices for the Stick player employing double-stops and trills, rapid interwoven parts and deep long tones, swelling under songs like Discipline's "The Sheltering Sky." With all the guitar strings on stage, most listeners thought Levin was confining himself to the bass role, but in keeping with the group's concept of multiple overlapping lines, Levin frequently added parts on the five melody strings with his right hand. But because of Levin's role as the bass player with Gabriel The Stick had become known primarily as a "bass" instrument.
"With King Crimson Tony was playing the complete instrument, but his orientation was in the bass player's role, so that confused listeners as to who was doing what," says Chapman.
Levin's work with Crimson and on subsequent projects have shown his versatility as a Stick player, but he still pursues the power of his signature two-handed Stick bass approach in Liquid Tension Experiment. The technique allows him to tap rapid parts that would be more difficult on a bass.
"The style of the music is for the guitar, bass and keyboard to play the same line," says Levin about the "metal" aspects of the band's music, which features low, fast guitar, doubled with the bass. "The Stick is a much faster instrument than the bass and it speaks in a different way....clean, clear and fast down low."
The Stick's greater range also inspire's Levin as an improviser and composer, as shown in his performances and recordings in BLUE (Bruford Levin Upper Extremities), and his solo CD release, World Diary.
Confusion about his expanding role notwithstanding, Levin's notoriety as a bass player drew a great deal of attention from bass players to The Stick. He has influenced hundreds of musicians to reach for more than the bass alone can give them. One of these is Sean Malone.
"My first recollection of the instrument was seeing Tony Levin playing it on the King Crimson Live in Japan video in the 80's," recalls Malone. "As with most of us, it was love at first sight. 'What was that thing?' 'Is that a guitar or a bass?' You know, all the usual questions that come up upon first seeing the instrument. Very soon afterwards, and quite by coincidence, I saw one used at a local music store. There was no question about it, I had to buy it, even though I had no idea what I'd be able to do with it. However, what I did know was that the instrument embodied an utter and total sense of 'possibility' and the 'future.'"
"The Stick represented a complete removal of any boundary, and perhaps harnessed by that sense of freedom and creativity, it fostered a creative component to my writing that I would not have otherwise tapped into. That's not to say that a guitar or bass doesn't have have the same degree of freedom, though one inherits a tremendous legacy when you decide to play either one. With The Stick, most of the book has yet to be written. I've always believed that one of the most important qualities of progressive rock is the constant push towards the future, and the willingness of its audience to be challenged."
Some would-be Stick players find making the leap from instruments that have strong traditions to one so new to be daunting. But the principle road-blocks are conceptual ones. The Stick's low action and relatively loose strings make it physically "easy" to play, and extremely dynamic. The principle challenge is developing independence skills between the two hands, not unlike learning piano. True to Malone's own vision is the incredible variety of music made by the players, without conventions to tie them down, their own voices can develop unfettered. While The Stick's appearance reflects its roots in the guitar, its long strings and low range incorporate the bass. Its counterpoint capabilities resemble keyboards, and there are even some similarities with percussion - a complex rhythmic "drumming" of fingers on strings.
Another Levin-inspired player, who seems to be exploring all these aspects simultaneously is Nick Beggs, who, "saw Tony playing it with Peter Gabriel at Knebworth Festival in 1978, from that moment on I wanted to be a professional Stick player." Beggs's Stick career has taken him through a wide variety of pop contexts, including KajaGooGoo and backing up Howard Jones. Most recently he's been touring as a member of the John Paul Jones Trio, and he's currently working on a solo CD for release in the near future.
Beggs's playing in the JPJ trio impressed Chapman, who saw them perform in Los Angeles, "he would play intricate bass, then really heavy strong bass, as powerful and deep as any r&r bassist, then he'd play a soaring lead distortion solo as well as any guitarist, then he'd become involved in the two-handed pattern-mode of playing. He just did it all."
Levin echoes Chapman's sentiments, "he was covering so much ground as 'bass player' and 'lead guitar player,' or bass and rhythm guitar all at once."
This dual nature of the instrument is inherent in Chapman's design. "The first Stick was mono, then in 1970 I made it stereo, with five "bass" strings and five "melody" strings. This allowed me to use distortion and wahs on half of the instrument, and for contrast play the clean sounds on the bass side."
"As far as prog rock goes, a fortunate thing about The Stick and the method is that they allow easy movement between two-handed polyrhythms and contrasting riffs, intertwined with interdependent patterns where both hands are locked. Playing the instrument according to the instrument." This might seem like there's a lot of responsibility for one player, but an experienced Stick player can play two things very tightly, with the groove controlled from two hemispheres of one brain.
Tuning the bass strings in ascending 5ths and the melody strings in descending 4ths also reinforces the duality of it. This results in the two sets of strings having a parallel geometric relationship, where chords are the same geometric shape on each set of strings, but are inversions of each other. Chapman had added three strings in inverted 5ths to his guitar, and the tuning fit his new method so well that he extended it to five strings and removed one of the six "guitar" strings. He was even granted a patent for his unique tuning. Having the bass in 5ths allows the Stickist to play intervals in the bass that are spread out over a wide range. Chords a traditional bass player can't achieve. It's also possible to tap double-stops with the highest bass strings, a technique Levin uses frequently, even tuning down the top interval to a tri-tone for his classic "Elephant Talk" groove.
Part of The Stick's sound comes from this unique tuning. According to Don Schiff, who plays with Rocket Scientists and Lana Lane, "even in a busy situation like Rocket Scientists, I'll play what was a guitar riff or a keyboard part. Adapting somebody else's part from the record. I also use MIDI on The Stick to play another keyboardist's sounds, and the bass part at the same time. The string attack blends the sound differently. With the 5ths bass tuning there's more openness. With 4ths I would tend to play more passing tones, and that tends to clutter things up. It's like being able to play the low end of the piano, but with greater clarity."
Schiff picked up The Stick before encountering Tony Levin. Enticed by drummer friend Les DeMerle's account of playing with Emmett Chapman, he drove to Los Angeles right away to meet Chapman and get a Stick. In addition to his band duties described above, Schiff is a busy session bassist/Stickist in Los Angeles, who has been performing on Grand Stick (a twelve-string Stick) and the new NS/Stick(TM) a bass/Stick hybrid designed by Chapman and Ned Steinberger. Having developed enough skill to back himself up, he performs tightly integrated two-hand arrangements, enhancing them with pedal controlled synthesizer and singing all at once. His recent solo release Timeless, highlights The Stick and NS/Stick as bass, rhythm and lead instruments.
Perhaps even more important to the sound than the tuning is the tapping action of the fingers on strings. With an attack that's softer than picking or plucking, more of the fundamental tone of the string can come through.
"The nature of the two-handed tapping technique of The Stick lends itself to a certain tone, which is fluid and articulate," says Chapman. The attack can be very percussive, but followed by a long sustained tone. Today's electronics allow players to treat that tone in myriad ways with distortion, echoes, chorusing, the E-Bow, pitch transposing, etc. Perhaps the most adept at integrating these with the power of The Stick's orchestral capabilities and range is Argentina's Guillermo Cides. By using The Stick as a fluid input device, Cides taps his intricate arrangements, with their constantly shifting timbres, layering sound on sound with loops, but never relying on his effects to "create" the music, only to "present" it. The effect is deceptively simple on record, as if you could simply record one track over another, and keep piling up the parts.
Cides presents the music on record primarily as he performs it live, which seems to be the one common element that unites Stick players: They are performers, not "studio cats." They find their joy in front of an audience. An independent, non-competitive group, they get together around the world to exchange ideas and give Stick Night performances, with a wide variety of genres represented, from jazz to pop to classical, and even a fair amount of progressive rock.
Thanks to Louis Hesselt-van-Dinter for his assistance
Suggested Stick listening:
Discipline, Beat, King Crimson
Security, So, Peter Gabriel (#3), Peter Gabriel
Water on the Moon, Greg Howard
El Mundo Interior de Los Planetas, Primitivo, Guillermo Cides
World Diary, Tony Levin
sh, Steve Hahn
Timeless, Don Schiff
Cloud About Mercury, David Torn
Liquid Tension Experiment, Liquid Tension Experiment 2, Liquid Tension Experiment
Gordian Knot, Sean Malone
Random and Providence, Marco Cerletti
BLUE Nights, Bruford Levin Upper Extremities
Stick Night '99 the CD(Various Artists)
Oblivion Days, Rocket Scientists
Nocturne, Ozone Quartet
1000 Years, Trey Gunn
Tappistry II, Various Artists
Three Of A Perfect Pair: Live In Japan, King Crimson,
Handiwork, Volume One, Greg Howard
Stick Night '99, Various Artists
photo credits, all used with permission:
Emmett Chapman, with first Stick prototype (1970): Gary Nickamen
Tony Levin: Armond Gallo
Greg Howard: Irene Young
The Stick and Chapman Stick are federally registered trademarks of Stick
Enterprises, Inc. NS/Stick is a trademark of Stick Enterprises and Ned
This article was first published in Progression Magazine's issue 35,
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