Stick To This
Tech Talk | Emmett Chapman
The inventor of the curious Electric Stick recently left his native America to promote the latest MIDI-equipped version of his brainchild. Tim Goodyer caught him Stick-in-hand for a talk about his invention and his vision of its future.
As the number of new, unlikely looking musical instruments increases, we look at the development of one such device that's been around for a while - the Chapman Stick - and talk to the man who invented it.
ITS A RARE event, the birth of a new instrument. And it's an odd one, too; historically, developments intended to broaden music's horizons have been repeatedly met with apathy or, worse, outright hostility. Doubtful? Check out the reception that awaited Adolphe Sax's saxophone, Les Paul's electric guitar, and Robert Moog's synthesiser when they were first announced to a sceptical world.
Yet all those instruments have since done more than just make their initial critics eat their words: they've become three of the most commonly played musical instruments in the world, and none of them shows any sign of losing popularity. And in achieving that, they've brought great rewards to those musicians who've had the imagination, the foresight, and the adaptability to risk everything and take them up.
Sadly, the same can't be said of a slightly more recent - though no less intriguing - innovation, the Chapman Stick. Not so long ago, I was listening to one Jim Lampi talk about his experiences trying to get gigs and session work playing the Stick. Lampi is the European representative for Stick Enterprises, manufacturers of the Stick. He's a salesman and a demonstrator but, first and foremost, he's a Stick player.
We're awaiting the arrival of Emmett Chapman, the American inventor of the Stick, who's visiting England to give a talk and demonstration of his latest development - a MIDI-equipped Stick - at Argent's in London. But Chapman is late, so the stories continue in the afternoon sun.
"It's difficult to explain exactly what the Stick is over the phone", says Lampi ruefully. "They want to call it a bass or they want to call it a guitar, but it's a Stick. Most people think you're trying to sell them something, rather than play them a concert."
Chapman finally appears, having survived his first encounter with the chaos of the afternoon London traffic. My chat with Lampi comes to a close. Now it's time to find out more about the Stick from the designer himself.
Emmett Chapman began his musical career as a guitarist, so even if the Stick isn't a guitar now, it was once.
"I played guitar for ten years from 1959 to 1969", he recalls, "and in 1969 I built myself a guitar. It was a solid-body electric guitar, and the body was shaped like a spoon. It had a longer, wider neck than the guitar, and it had nine strings on it.
"One evening, inspired by the playing of Jimi Hendrix, I started tapping on it. Tapping with my right hand, I found I could immediately do things that were faster and more fluent than I could after ten years of practice with my left hand. Then I played along with some chords from my left hand, but I squeezed them instead of picking them. Of course, they were already familiar from my guitar playing so that was quite-easy. And from that point, I never looked back - from one split-second to the next I'd made the decision to play this technique, and the technique is what this instrument is.
"For the first year-and-a-half I played the technique on my guitar. I played with Barney Kessel and Tim Buckley, and around Hollywood generally. After that year-and-a-half I built an abbreviated version of the guitar out of ebony, and called it the Electric Stick.
"By 1974 it had gone through some phases of development. It had ten strings instead of nine, I'd reversed the fourths tuning to a fifths tuning, and had the extra string tuned way down to the C below bass E. Oh, and somewhere along the line it became stereo, too."
Before going any further, it might be useful to take a closer look at the Stick. Its sound can be heard on Peter Gabriel 4 (notably 'I Have the Touch'), and King Crimson's Discipline. It's the latter that more ably demonstrates the flexibility of the instrument, with 'Elephant Talk' built around the Stick's stunningly sharp, percussive attack, while in contrast, 'Frame by Frame' showcases the innovation's subtlety in a melodic role. In both cases, the virtuoso player is one Tony Levin.
Physically, some of you will recognise the Stick as the strange headless, bodyless "guitar" nursed in something not altogether dissimilar to a baby harness that Levin can frequently be seen strutting the stage with (the rest of you will have to settle for the picture at the top of this page).
The Stick has ten strings divided into two groups of five: five melody strings and five bass strings. The bass strings are tuned from C below bass E up in fifths to the E two octaves above it. The melody strings run in fourths from the D above middle C down through A, E, and B to F#. To quote from the brochure, "the uniform intervals of fourths and reciprocal fifths make this fretboard a neutral grid of strings and frets ideal for creating music by shapes, distances and patterns. All chords and lines have permanent shapes which transpose across the strings, along the frets, diagonally and from one string to another."
As already mentioned, the playing technique developed by Chapman is utterly different from any conventional guitar style. It bears some similarity to the hammer-on style of playing used by rock guitarists like Eddie Van Halen, and has also been compared with Stanley Jordan's two-handed bass technique - to the point where Jordan has been accused of stealing the idea. Chapman isn't about to go along with any such suggestion, though he does feel Jordan's success has given him problems. Apparently, the two first met a little over ten years ago.
"It seemed to us like he always wanted to get a Stick, but then we didn't hear from him, and it turned out he'd decided to do it on his guitar. You can't criticise a musician for doing what he's doing; I do what I do and the Stick is how I do it. As far back as I've been teaching and lecturing, I've always said I developed my idea on the guitar, and it's a technique anyone can use on their guitar. I told people about the fourths tuning and I let people know that it's applicable to all stringed instruments - the Stick just optimises certain things.
"Eventually we'll go to a stringless, fret less grid, a Stick that's a total synthesiser - but everything a fingerboard player loves."
"What I would criticise is that the media were ready to give the technique over to the guitar and not admit that I was the one carrying the ball. I was the one that pioneered the technique and got it going, then all the guitar magazines hand the credit to Stanley Jordan. That is unfortunate because it means that my work, which is already difficult, is going to get a lot harder in the future."
Chapman has been marketing his Stick commercially since 1974. Now, over a decade on, the developments are still coming thick and fast. Yet although he has one eye fixed resolutely on the future, Chapman can still accommodate individual musicians' present needs, as he is eager to explain.
"I make custom tunings for people if they don't like the fifths in the bass or the fourths in the melody, and if they want a single sequencer string or if they want two bass groupings, I can provide those, too. I've made some fretless instruments, a lot of lefties... he pauses for breath. "Allan Holdsworth even has a guitar and violin grouping because he didn't want to play any bass strings at all."
On the production side, one of the latest moves is away from Brazilian iron wood as a basic material, in favour of a hi-tech, polycarbonate construction.
"I'm about to make a polycarbonate fretless model for Tony Levin", Chapman confirms. "I'm thinking of putting a stainless steel layer on the fretless half of the fingerboard because the frets on the polycarbonate instrument are stainless steel rods, and they stand up quite high. The idea is they'll stick up as high as the stainless steel layer on the other side. I think it should play very well, and give some unusual sonic techniques that I have yet to experience myself. Previously I've made all the fretless instruments out of iron wood, so I think this will sound rather different."
The other main advance in Stick technology is the one that has brought me here: the arrival of the MIDI Stick. At the moment MIDI information is only derived from half the strings and, as yet, there is just one prototype, the one that Chapman is shortly to play for the swiftly swelling audience of Stick enthusiasts. Typically, Chapman has endless enthusiasm for the project.
"There's a whole new future in MIDI for me that I will be recommending to all Stick players. In two weeks I'm going to start installing 'Melody MIDI' - that involves fitting a pickup on the five melody strings of the Stick. I've already got 30 people waiting to have their instruments upgraded, and they'll go under the trade name of The Grid, which will apply to all Stick touchboard synthesisers in the future."
The system Chapman is presently using is a modified IVL Pitchrider 7000 pitch-to-voltage converter, designed by IVL in Canada and manufactured by DOD/Digitech in the US.
"The software has already been adapted for my own needs, and the sensitivity settings have been increased. Eventually the front panel will have one switch for each of the five melody strings instead of the six it has now. It works quite well, but pitch-to-voltage conversion is a frustration; it works well in some ways for accompaniment but it doesn't really respond fast enough for melody playing. In the future we'll go beyond five strings, and eventually we'll go to a stringless, fretless grid, a Stick that is a total synthesiser - no frets, but everything that a fingerboard player loves."
But there's an intermediate step already in the pipeline. This involves an IVL Steelrider pitch-to-voltage converter, a system originally designed for the steel guitar, and consequently capable of handling ten, as opposed to just six, channels.
Beyond that, we'll have to settle for Chapman's vision of how the Stick will evolve, and what the future might have in store for musicians brave enough to accept the challenge of a genuinely new instrument.
"The fingerboard instrument will be a wonderful controller for synthesisers. The guitar section alone is like five monophonic synthesisers, but it could very easily become five polyphonic synthesisers - then you could play several notes off each string. That does depend on getting away from pitch-to-voltage conversion, but I'm sure we'll get around it sooner or later."
And the wait may only be a short one, since as the latest NAMM show proved (see report elsewhere this issue), there are already guitar-to-MIDI systems under development that involve infra-red light and sonar as alternatives to pitch-to-voltage conversion.
"The future is wonderful for fingerboard players", says Chapman, his enthusiasm undiminished. "I just want to be in on it. It'll be the ultimate synthesiser controller - as ultimate as I can think of, anyway. I'm already playing the synthesiser in my head every time I play my Stick, even though it still has conventional strings."
Like I said, all it takes is imagination, foresight, and adaptability. Qualities Emmett Chapman has in abundance - and will continue to use as time goes on.
Gear in this article:
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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