Music For Music Nerds: The Chapman Stick

Never heard of the Chapman Stick? You’re not alone. You could spend your whole life playing Armenian hammered dulcimer, Swedish twelve-string baritone ukelele and death-klezmer diddley bow, and still scratch your head when you look at the Chapman Stick.

You would, however, see none other than Patrick Stewart himself playing one in David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, though the scene above was cut out of the theatrical release and can be viewed only in the extended version.

The Chapman Stick is a musical instrument, in case you were just reaching for your Nerd Phrasebook. It’s not a guitar, and in fact is played quite differently than a guitar, but it could, properly, be considered a guitar derivative, and all the cats who seem to groove on it are guitarists.

Typically, it’s fitted with magnetic pickups like an electric guitar — in fact, given its typical playing technique, I would have thought  an acoustic Chapman Stick would be impossible, or damn near. This cat Bob Culbertson seems to disagree with me, but as far as I can tell, the device below is actually an acoustic-electric, not just a straight-up acoustic, Chapman Stick. Here he is playing Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” which is sort of a song made for this kind of madness:

Invented in the 1970s by a jazz guitarist named Emmett Chapman, “The Stick,” as it’s often called, developed from Chapman’s guitar-playing technique of “Free Hands,” which involves smacking the strings of a guitar at the frets in a way that looks, to my eyes, like what the metal boys like to call a “hammer-on.” If you compare the two videos above, you’ll note that Captain Picard is fretting the thing in more of a traditional guitar technique — assuming you have the faintest idea what I’m talking about in the first place, or even give a damn.

The short version, for non-guitarists: guitarists hold strings down with their left hand and strum or pluck with their right (or the other way around, if they’re playing left-handed). The pickups of an electric guitar do not respond to sound, but to the magnetic field of the metal strings; therefore, very little vibration is actually needed to produce sound. The Chapman Stick is played with the fingers of both hands going sorta thunka-thunka to make noise.

That’s why an acoustic one seems bizarre to me in engineering terms…but whatever; who the hell do I look like, Django Reinhardt?

Yes, that's Nick Beggs from Kajagoogoo, playing the Chapman Stick. Huh!?!? on many levels. Creative Commons photo by Jackie Kever.

Anyway, this fascinating and improbable device has been played to spacey-dreamy effect by the likes of Tony Levin (who played with King Crimson and Peter Gabriel), Alphonso Johnson of ’70s jazz-fusion band Weather Report, and Nick Begg of Kajagoogoo, who violates every iota of fashion sense in the above photo while playing one in concert. Chapman himself has reportedly played it in a variety of freaky-deakey fusion projects; you’ll hear Levin playing one on  Pink Floyd’s album A Momentary Lapse of Reason.

The Chapman Stick was introduced to the masses by its inventor on a 1974 episode of What’s My Line?, of which, Wikipedia tips me off, you can find video here if you’re into that sort of thing.

You don’t need to go all the way to What’s My Line, though, to be bored-to-tears-if-you’re-not-a-guitarist by Chapman. The inventor explains his instrument on video here at YouTube, including how to do “matched reciprocal tuning,” how the “beauty of the uniform tuning,” and “I have a nice four, I’ll add on a 13th from the melody string, and I realized I couldn’t stretch a melody string this far…because this is a fretboarded instrument, and….pretty soon the Major 3rd…and it keeps getting lower in the sequence…flipped my B strings….” ZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZzzzzz….

Oh, sorry, I dozed off there for a minute. Anyway, one of the most commonly seen online videos of Chapman Stick is the song “One Dream,” played by a guy named Rob Martino. A commenter about this version of Martino’s song says “Where the iTunes version is like a tuxedo, this is like the most comfortable pair of well used shoes,” so you know it’s got to be good, right? That’s what I want my music to sound like: old shoes. Anyway, here’s Martino:

More of Martino’s songs for the Chapman Stick can be found on YouTube, and if you’d like the Non-Used-Shoes version of that composition above, there’s no need to get it with pushy DRM, provided you hate the baby WikiLeaks. Better yet, go straight to Martino’s website.

If that is just plain Not Enough Nerd for you, check out the footage below of the Cantina Song from Star Wars played on Chapman Stick, complete with pseudo-bass solo.

That’ll get you started on the Chapman Stick Related Features Wikihole, where you’ll stumble on such gems as Chapman Stick renditions of the Super Mario Brothers theme song and Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”

By the way, here’s that video of Chapman explaining the thing in case you’re clear on what a 13th is (and care):

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5 comments on “Music For Music Nerds: The Chapman Stick
  1. Another piece of drive-by publicity, but I do like the author’s “take” on The Stick, and there’s no harmful intent, just a healthy dose of irreverence and one-upmanship, a stylistic thing no doubt. It’s refreshing to receive coverage with a new and off-the-wall perspective. Many thanks Tom Roche, for the feature with videos. Best, Emmett.

  2. Great post! It’s making a lot of us Chapman Stick players smile and chuckle. Even Emmett has read it, you can read his reaction to it on the forum where many of us hang out:

    You picked out some good examples for people to see. I know Rob and Bob and they are great musicians. A lot of us are also serious geeks and nerds, too. Rob is a software engineer, for instance, and I teach computer programming.


  3. @Eric, Emmett, thanks and glad you liked it! Emmett, I hope you didn’t mind my poking fun at your video; to someone who plays the Stick (or a dedicated guitarist) I am sure it is very clear. Still blows my mind that people can invent musical instruments (more or less) from scratch, learn to play them, and teach other people to play them.

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