Chapman Stick

Chapman Stick

The Chapman Stick is an electric musical instrument devised by Emmett Chapman in the early 1970s. He set out to create an instrument designed for the "Free Hands" tapping method of both hands parallel to the frets that he invented in 1969. The first production model of the Stick was shipped in 1974.


Superficially, a Stick looks like a wide version of the fretboard of an electric guitar, with 8, 10 or 12 strings. It is considerably longer and wider than a guitar fretboard, however. Unlike the electric guitar, it is usually played by tapping or fretting the strings, rather than plucking them. Instead of one hand fretting and the other hand plucking, both hands sound notes by striking the strings against the fingerboard just behind the appropriate frets for the desired notes. For this reason, it can sound many more notes at once than most other stringed instruments, making it more comparable to a keyboard instrument than to other stringed instruments. This arrangement lends itself to playing multiple lines at once and many Stick players have mastered performing bass, chords and melody lines simultaneously.

Typically, the Chapman Stick is held via a belt-hook and a shoulder strap. The instrument settles into a position approximately 30 to 40 degrees from vertical, which allows both hands to naturally and comfortably address the fretboard. (In comparison, a typically held guitar's fretboard is more or less horizontal.)


Over the years, Chapman Sticks have been made out of many materials. The first ones were made from super hardwoods, most from ironwood, but some from ebony and other exotic woods, through the early 1980s. The next group, chronologically, were made from an injection-molded polycarbonate resin through the early 1990s. Today, they are made from many hardwoods (including padauk, Indian rosewood, tarara, maple and mahogany), other organic materials like bamboo, as well as graphite epoxy and other even more high-tech composites.

In contrast to the guitar or bass, the Stick is set up with very little relief in the fretboard, i.e. it is very flat, compared to a guitar, which has a slight bow. Combined with a long scale length, somewhat elevated frets, very low string action, and very sensitive pickups, this setup is particularly advantageous to the tapping style of play.


The tuning options on the Stick are as wide as the player's whim, however the 'standard tuning' consists of 5 bass strings (6 on the Grand Stick models), tuned upwards in 5ths, with the low string in the middle of the fretboard, and 5 melody strings (6 on Grand Stick), tuned upwards in 4ths, again with the low string in the middle of the fretboard. Tuning configurations may change depending on the player's style; a player playing as a lead instrument will choose an overall higher pitch tuning, with more separation between the melody and bass courses; a player who is playing chordally across the whole instrument will choose a closer relationship between the bass and melody sides, tuned to lower pitch (called "Matched Reciprocal" tuning).

The stringing/tuning configuration of the Chapman Stick is advantageous to the player who wishes to play large, fully-voiced chords with close inner note relationships. In contrast to a standard guitar, where one tends to "run out of options" within a particular fingering, the Stick tuning results in up to 4 or even 5 octaves of note choices, under a single fretting position.

The standard tuning shows another advantage as well: The harmonic scale structures typical to western music form very stable, geometric, and "finger-able" patterns, which remain consistent across the whole instrument, facilitating transposition, and also making the instrument easier to learn than is immediately apparent. Also, the bass/melody division allows for microtonal tunings, which makes unusually exotic sounds possible.


The Stick is available stock with passive or active pickups. At one time, piezo bridge pickups were also available. Customized Roland GK-3 pickups are available for the treble or bass side of the instrument, allowing the instrument to drive one or two guitar synthesizers such as the Roland GR-20 or Axon AX-100, and also to drive other MIDI instruments or sequencers chained to the guitar synthesizer. The hammer-on style of playing produces a rising waveform transient that is easily tracked by this type of device.

Standard output is 2 channel, through a TRS 1/4" connector, with bass and melody courses output separately. There are separate volume controls for bass and melody.

The Stick can be plugged into any standard guitar or bass amplifier, to good effect. However, because of the very high impedance of the pickups, an instrument preamp is often employed by advanced players.


Currently there are six different models of the Chapman Stick. Some string configurations are mentioned below, but current production models offer any tuning within physical limitations of stringing:

  • The Stick (10 strings, 5 melody + 5 bass)
  • Grand Stick (12 strings, 6 melody + 6 bass)
  • Stick Bass (SB8) (8 strings, 4 melody + 4 bass or an undivided bass guitar-like tuning)
  • NS/Stick (8 strings set up for plucking, strumming, or tapping; co-invented by Chapman & Ned Steinberger) 34" scale
  • Stick XG (a variation on traditional Stick construction, made from structural graphite, continuous strand carbon fiber )
  • Alto Stick (10 strings, 5 melody + 5 bass, with shorter scale length for a more guitar-like range)

Currently The Stick, Grand Stick and Stick Bass are 36"-scale, but the older production models were 34" scale.

Stick Enterprises has also manufactured some custom and limited-run instruments:

  • The Acoustick – an acoustic version of the Chapman Stick made for Bob Culbertson
  • A 10-string Grand Stick – the wider fretboard of the Grand with only 10 strings.
  • StickXBL – A prototype Stick with body construction by BassLab using a hollow "tunable composite" material. Only a small number of these prototypes exist.

Famous users of the Chapman Stick

Chapman Sticks have been used on many popular music recordings to play various parts, bass, lead and chords and textures. Popular artists who have used the Chapman Stick on their recordings and live performances include:

Ex-Weather Report bassist Alphonso Johnson was among the first musicians to introduce the Chapman Stick to the public.

Recordings that have been influential on many Stick players, because the Stick plays such a prominent role, include the 1981 King Crimson album Discipline (played by Tony Levin) and Emmett Chapman's 1985 album Parallel Galaxy.

The Chapman Stick also made a (slightly disguised) appearance in David Lynch's film, Dune as Gurney Halleck's baliset, though the scene where Halleck (played by Patrick Stewart), actually plays the instrument was removed from the theatrical version and can only be seen in the various extended versions of the film. The piece being played in the scene is a quote from Emmett Chapman's album Parallel Galaxy.

Wayne Lytle, creator of Animusic, commented that on his piece "Stick Figures", he had the inspiration for the semi-anthropomorphic bass guitar from the Chapman Stick.

Mike Oldfield plays Chapman Stick on The Songs of Distant Earth album and some video clips in multimedia content of extended CD. He plays the Stick with a pick instead of tapping, and uses it mainly for its futuristic look.

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