FAQ / Links

"So, izzat somekinda Sitar or what?" and other frequently asked questions

Very often, people come up to me after I have finished playing as ask just what it is that I am playing. Sometimes, they don't wait till I am done. They do a double take, then come up to the stage and gawk for a while before asking tentatively "What the heck is that thing?"

While the question does get a little old, I am always happy to answer. "It is called a Chapman Stick", I say. Anticipating their next question, I will generally add "It comes from California where it was invented 30+ years ago by Emmett Chapman, hence the name. And, no. It ain't a Sitar."

I am writing this article to answer some of the questions that I hear all the time. A sort of "All you ever wanted to know about the Stick, but were too afraid to ask".

Do you not strum this thing?

In a word, no. Their are guys out there who incorporate some guitar techniques to add color to their sound. They may occasionally pluck or strum the strings for effect. But generally, the technique used by and large is tapping the string. Guitarists will watch and go "Oh,  hammer-on". Well, sort of. The action (the height of the string above the fret) is set very low to where the string almost touches the fret. This makes it possible to play with tapped technique, which was largely invented and codified by Emmett. Yes, there were people who tapped on guitars before Emmett invented the Stick. Yet all the elements that make the Stick (and the technique used to play it) the most playable and popular tapped string instrument available anywhere were pioneered by Chapman.

Gosh, it must be hard to play.

Not really. Well, perhaps when starting out without guidance. Once you "get" the hang of how it's done, then the fact that is so logically laid out makes it pretty easy to play. In my own case, I was a pretty accomplished pianist and guitarist when I first got my Stick. Yet for the first 14 years I had it, I learnt practically nothing. It mostly just sat there in the spare bedroom closet, taken out occasionally. The problem was that I never understood the thing, so it did not make sense to me. All it took was a weekend seminar with Stick master teacher and player Greg Howard  for the "lights" to suddenly come on. From then on my progress was quite rapid. Perhaps that's just me. I'm a visual learner. I needed to be shown, then from then on I was able to pick up on my own. Attending these weekend seminars - I've been to 3 thus far have been extraordinarily useful in picking up a huge amount of information in a short time. It doesn't hurt that Greg is an all around nice guy and a great teacher.

Once you have gotten the idea, coordination is no more difficult than, say a piano. Nobody ever marvels that on a piano your left and right hands are doing different things. It's the same thing on a Stick. Personally I think it is easier to get good at a Stick than a guitar. I played guitar for years, yet never developed the facility that I have developed on Stick in a relatively short time.

How many strings does this thing have?

There are various models which have 8, 10 and 12 strings. The instrument that I currently gig with is a 12 string model and I also own a 10 string Stick. They're not any different to play. I pick the instrument depending on the kind of sound that I want to achieve.

What are those strings tuned to?

Gosh I don't know. I never remember what the open tunings are on Stick, since there is no concept of an open note. No tap, no sound. Plus there is a damper at the nut to prevent open strings from ringing (or tapped notes would sound muddy). I tune from the 7th fret. On the 1st string, that equates to "G". It goes down in 4ths for the 1st 5 strings (on a 10 string instrument). This is sort of like a guitar. A guitar is mostly tuned in 4ths except between the 2nd and 3rd string which has a 3rd between them.

The bass strings 6-10 (on a 10 string) are tuned in reverse 5ths, almost like a Cello strung backward. The thickest string is in the middle and the strings get thinner as they go up, if that makes any sense. This is the part that freaks guitarists and bassists out the most.

I can assure you from personal experience that once you get used to it, it is incredibly logical to work with. Certain intervals like 4th, 5th and octave are a snap. Because the 5ths tuning "spreads" out the notes, chords in the bass are a snap. And they don't sound muddy like they do on a bass.

Is there anyone else in town who actually plays this thing?

Oh yes! Here in Houston, the are 3 other Stickists who play in clubs regularly, and the standard of playing is really quite good. The others - Jeff Norem, Giancarlo and Brett Needham are all fine musicians. We get together on occasion.

Elsewhere, Stickists are all over the place. The are more than 5000 instruments out there, and there must be several hundred gigging musicians.

Chances are even if you've never seen one, you've probably heard one. Tony Levin is largely responsible for that. He was an early adopter, and has been the inspiration for many a prog rock fan to take up the Stick. He has played on more records than I can count. He is mainly a bassist, but has played Stick with many well known acts including Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Anderson-Bruford-Wakeman &Howe.

The are all kinds of musicians playing different kinds of music out there on Stick. There are jazz guys, prog rock guys, classical players, even a bluesman. Whatever. The instrument is open ended. It lends itself to whatever sound you can conceive of.

Have you ever met any other Stick players other than the ones here in town?

Heck yeah! I have met and hung out with some of the best Stick players in the world, even shared a stage. With an instrument like the Stick, there aren't that many serious players so we tend to meet and correspond with each other. A few years ago, I went to California to attend a seminar and decided to make a pilgrimage to Stick Central, a.k.a. the Chapman's home. I ended up spending the night there and hung out with Greg Howard and the Chapmans. They are some of the nicest, most gracious and intelligent people I have ever met. You guitarists out there, when was the last time you visited Les Paul and went and out and had sushi with John McLaughlin? I repeat this story not as a boast, because in grand scheme of things, I am just Jimmy Nobody. I am just illustrating that the Stick community is closely knit. Those we haven't met in person, we have corresponded with via Stickwire, the Stick mailing list.  In that way, we already sort of know each other long before we meet in person.

What kind of sound reinforcement equipment is required for the Stick?

The Stick is an electric instrument, and as such needs to be plugged in. There are various philosophies concerning Stick amplification. The pickups are wired in stereo, with a separate output for the treble and bass stings. There are those who like to process the sides separately treating the instrument as a conjoined guitar and bass.

I prefer the approach that treats the instrument as a single integrated instrument. I plug both sides into a small combo amp or into a preamp that provides a feed to the PA system.

Currently the setup I have is an Acoustic Image CodaR amp which is great for coffeehouses, art galleries, house parties etc. I love it for it's clean sound and compact size (20 lbs). For larger venues, I use a Bose PAS.

I tend not to use much in the way of effects pedals. The CodaR has built in reverb which I use in moderation. I tend not to use anything else.

Copyright © 2006 Jim M Kam, All rights reserved. Chapman Stick is a registered Trademark of Stick Enterprises