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.)
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 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.
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 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:
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.
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.