Give it some Stick
Clive Grace gets pretty damned excited over the revolutionary Chapman Stick
There are three love affairs in Clive Grace's life - the first is reserved for Wednesdays and weekends, the second is a rather nice Victorian violin from an inauspicious part of Germany, and the third is a radical new(ish) instrument called the Stick.
I first met Emmett Chapman at the 1989 Frankfurt Music fair (see last ish) and I managed to have an all too brief chat with him before sitting and listen to the man himself play the instument - I was enthralled to say the least - here was a new way of playing an instrument - designed for comfort and speed, sounding like a dream and making me almost exactly a £1000 poorer as well, so impressed was I that I hunted down Jim Lampi, the Stick Enterprises UK rep and Saturday teacher at Argents and incurable jazzer for a long chat and a pizza before deciding the Stick was the instrument for me.
Now there are a lot of people that have heard or seen of the Stick - also known as the Chapman stick, Tony Levin - bassist to Peter Gabriel (and musicologist deluxe - King Crimson) is an ardent supporter of the instrument, Nick Beggs - formally of Kajagoogoo (remember them) now of Ellis, Beggs and Howard had some good lines using the stick, and there are some totally f***ing brilliant stick lines opening up the beginning of Nik Kershaw's Radio Musicola album (title track if you wanna hear it!).
The Stick is a ten stringed instrument that is played by hitting the strings in a way that is favoured by Guitarists like Stanley Jordan and Eddie Van Halen. Contrary to popular rock myth, these guys didn't invent the system, what you are seeing is a natural progression of what has been happening to amplified guitar music over the last decade - hammer ons and Hammer offs are now popular rock and Jazz guitar practice today but the Guitar is not specifically designed to have this done to it.
The Stick is..
Well, basically the sound of the instrument is unmistakable, it has all the richness and warmth of the Bass being plucked, has all the attack of an electic bass being slapped (or pulled) with the tonality and harmonic richness of the Guitar and - more accurately - the piano.
It is also laid out in a totally logical manner - although the guitar is a free format tempering system so if you do not like the preferred intervals of fourths per string, then you can happily change it and no one - least of all Emmet Chapman - the creator of this wonderful product, will bat an eyelid, as that is that way the stick is supposed to be played - openly, allowing freedom of creative spirit.
The sound is generated by a string hitting a fret and the sound travelling up the length of the stick over the pickups where it is converted into audio and MIDI signals and send to the Amp or the synth in question.
In fact, so comfortable is the stick that in three hours, I was able to play most of the bass licks I knew to a reasonable level of accuracy and speed, with no fingers bleeding, no hang ups over getting the Chords wrong, and with no aching neck as weird basses and guitars are wont to do.
Also, if you already play a piano or, as in my case, another stringed instrument such as a Violin or a Guitar (or Bass) you will notice that the arrangement and layout of the notes on the Stick does not impede your ability to move back to your instrument to play other music - as I am prone to do with the guitar and the violin, if I have to play fast pieces.
The thing about the stick is that it is a stringed instrument that needs no musical focal point - for example, the guitar is a bad instrument to notate properly, it has a lot of inelegent features that make standard notation systems a little redundant the same goes with the traditional tabulature systems that have cropped up since the lute became a popular instrument - but with the Stick, you can use either their own form of Tabulature or, as I prefer, Piani/Organ notation referring to Manual up/down keys acting as two treble clefs or one bass and one extended Bass-Treble clef.
The instrument hooks into the pants at the front (either on the belt or on the trousers itself) and a small loop goes over the left hand shoulder and head, this then balances the stick in such a way as to make the whole area of the stick comfortable to use and easy to access to the complete five and a half octave spread - like a Bass guitar, the spread is from the bridge to the nut is 34 inches.
You know how crappy a guitar sounds going through a hi fi system? I have tried it myself and it sounds bad - I have a good hi fi system and it sounds really awful — but the stick thrives on such clean environments - it can be DI'd straight into a Mixing desk with relative ease, and it can also be plugged straight into a PA system for really good live sounds.
The secret is the stereo pickup system that is, again, designed by Emmett Chapman is that they are designed not to be overdriven (or any of that other electronic trickery), but to take a sound and make it loud enough for us to hear using the vibrating of the string and the stick case itself to produce the warmth and mellowed sounds that it is famous for.
Moulded out of Polycarbon components - more like a resin than anything else, the frets are locked into the stick body and are guaranteed for a lifetime - they will never wear out, so I am told, and I reckon it must be true.
The stick, like any other conventional musical intrument, continues to evolve - I believe Emmett's natural aim is to negate the whole purpose of the strings by having a pressure pad between the frets so the only feedback there is is from the fretboard itself (a fretless one perhaps) - this is way into the future, and in the near future (in fact now) we are seeing the MIDI Stick, also known as the Grid.
The earlier versions (made by Emmett for himself) were based on the IVL pitchrider guitar to MIDI pickups, this is now a different system but still it works on the same principle - you can have two types - half MIDI or all MIDI.
The All MIDI models replace the pickups with the pitch converter and the socket with just the MIDI interface and the socket to connect it, and it will happily send on all channels in MIDI Mode, this loses the lovely bass/harmonic sound of the stick, so you may want to opt for the five string model which gives you the lower five strings for Stick sounds and the upper five for MIDI information - a nice idea, and making the Stick my favourite MIDI triggering instrument at the moment.
Playing the stick in MIDI mode is a revelation, I was able to get the test model working with all types of synths available in Argents ranging from Yamahas to the Roland U-110, using the piano samples alone makes for an eminently logical approach to triggering the sounds in the small rack mounted modules making their way onto the streets, and, personally, I found the stick a very good way of controlling sounds from remote distances - it beats using those godawful remote keyboards any day - and you look a good deal cooler!
The Stick as an instrument is easy to play - certainly easier than the guitar and the piano, more logical than the system employed on the Violin family of instruments, and more versatile than the Piano - with MIDI it is an expensive (and more flexible) alternative to MIDI guitars, and offers control of their ideas and freedom to express those ideas without the limitations of an instrument to get in the way - two things a musician wants more than anything else from their music.
Yes I know I have all the fervour of a new found convert, but I reckon the Stick is the instrument of the future - unlike certain instruments, it is not stagnating, it is a continual development, slowly building on from the successes of the last model. There are few instruments capable of ten note polyphony! - other than a piano - any more and you will need more fingers! Or double stop as one does with the fiddle...
Now there's an idea...