by Emmett Chapman

Originally published in Electronic Musician Magazine, May 1987

In 1969 in a Laurel Canyon Studio, a new playing method was born that bridged the guitar and keyboard.

Emmett Chapman
In addition to running Stick Enterprises, Inc. with his wife Yuta, and regularly performing in concerts and lectures (especially in the Los Angeles area where he lives), Emmett Chapman is an active tennis player, a seasoned astrologer and enjoys reading scientific and humanistic literature. His second album will feature The Stick in an all solo Latin-jazz format, with MIDI interface to his TX-7 synth.

Contrary to what seems to be prevailing popular opinion, two-handed tapping of the guitar didn't begin with Stanley Jordan or Eddie Van Halen. In fact, when you see a guitarist using this technique, you're seeing the influence of Emmett Chapman, who started popularizing this method of guitar playing in the late '60s. But he didn't stop with the guitar, choosing instead to optimize an instrument with the two-handed playing technique in mind. The result was The Stick(TM) which is being used by an increasing number of musicians.

What makes a person design a new instrument? What design problems are involved? What are the economic considerations? How long does it take to turn an idea into reality, and at what point is the evolution complete? Since The Stick is almost exclusively the product of one person, we thought we would go directly to the inventor to find out exactly what is involved in the evolution of a musical art.

--Craig Anderton


As a musician, my goal has been to create a new musical language. Improvisation has always been a key element, drawing upon all mainstreams of music, past and present, with the intention to be to communicate in a new way with the audience and the musicians on stage. I began playing guitar in 1959 to back my vocals while I sang in a trio to work my way through college. After listening to Barney Kessel's guitar trio albums I began the long road as an instrumentalist.

From 1959 to 1969 my instrument, the guitar, evolved with my music. To make the kind of instrument I wanted, it was necessary to become an instrument builder and customizer. I made the neck wider, then longer--I added strings, springs, levers, and other novel mechanisms. The purpose of these changes was to allow greater expressiveness; they all worked rather well and I enjoyed using them for about four years, up until I discovered the two-handed playing technique.

I then built a rectangular fingerboard with no arch and no taper (a precursor to the fingerboard design on The Stick). I even reversed the three lowest bass strings from fourths going down in pitch to fifths going up in pitch, without changing the letter-named notes.

By the late '60s I had taken my guitars, techniques, and music through some 40 major changes. The final guitar had nine strings, including a gear shift for a "wild string." This was a companion to the high E; by pushing on the gear shift lever, it was possible to obtain various intervals, from an octave lower than high E (the string's normal pitch) up to unison high E. Also, instead of using a regular pick. I used a baby comb shaped like a pick. The fine comb teeth, when held at a slight angle, sounded more bow-like than the regular old "slap against the string." (I think this idea might still be worth pursuing for guitarists.)

Then, one evening in August, 1969, while practicing guitar in my Laurel Canyon Hills studio, a sudden impulse struck from "out of the blue," and I started to play the full two-handed technique. Realizing the implications this would have for my music sent me leaping around the house in sheer delight.


Tony Levin playing The Stick
(photo by Armando Gallo)
At that time I was under the spell of Jimi Hendrix and the new language of melodic expression he created for guitarists. I was always trying to play expressive free melody lines like what I was hearing from Hendrix and John Coltrane, and at the same time play harmonically and orchestrally (like pianists Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner). Trying to combine both elements on a guitar was not easy, yet I didn't want to give up all the chordal techniques and contrapuntal guitar techniques that I'd assimilated from jazz pianists in exchange for the melodic freedom of Hendrix.

However, with only one hand (the left one at that) doing all the fingering, the choice had always been "either-or," never the full musical statement for which I was searching. But when I placed my right hand over the fingerboard, tapped the strings, and turned my amplifiers up, I could immediately play some fast and fluid lead lines. Then with my left hand in its normal position, but tapping the strings independently, it was possible to play the chords and bass lines familiar to that hand, thus giving harmonic and rhythmic depth to my new-found right-hand voice. Not only that, the right-hand fingerings exactly matched those for the left hand with the index finger on each hand closer to the tuning pegs than their respective pinky (these hand positions are illustrated in the photo of Tony Levin). I knew immediately that in spite of my previous ten years of research it was going to be like starting from scratch. From one minute to the next I had resolved the melodic versus harmonic limitations in the one-handed guitar fingering techniques, which completely changed my character as a musician.

At that time, I had never before heard of anyone playing a two-handed fingering technique on guitar. I later learned that back in the late-'40s when electric guitar was just developing, there were two or three guitarists who recognized a connection between electrical amplification and independent two- handed playing. But they played with the right hand addressing strings in the orthodox guitarist's position with the right arm, hand, and fingers parallel to the strings (see Fig. 1). Among them was Jimmy Webster who wrote an instructional pamphlet and recorded an album featuring this form of the "touch system," as he referred to it.

Figure 1. A two-handed playing technique
for guitar used in the 1940s.
However, this position severely limited the right-hand techniques of these players. They used one or two fingers to poke or punch individual notes, and compensated for the lack of finger alignment with successive frets by moving the entire right arm back and forth to find the notes. Their discoveries remained virtually unknown to guitarists and teachers, and were not passed on.

From the outset of using the full-fingered technique of both hands, even back in 1969, I brought my right hand onto the strings from the side of the fingerboard opposite to that of the left hand. My right arm and fingers were now perpendicular to the strings, so that the fingers were overlying adjacent fret spaces. All fingers of both hands were now locked in and matched the frets anywhere on the board; this step is essential for a true sequential fingering technique on a stringed instrument. The musical result is that you can play two, three, or even four notes on a single string with only finger manipulation and no arm movement. If you hold your fingers parallel to the strings, to play chromatic scales on a single string you have to move your whole arm at the shoulder joint. Although Eddie Van Halen does this very elegantly and plays some highly exciting parts, paradoxically it's difficult to play regular old scales and melody lines. Note that the full two-handed approach offers a pianistic technique to the fretboard player (the keyboard player's hands must also be perpendicular to the row of keys in order to sequentially play a succession of adjacent notes).

Now that the playing technique had been discovered it was time to adjust the instrument to make it more suited to this style of playing. At the moment of first discovery I brought my guitar to a more vertical position. Had I continued to hold the guitar in the traditional horizontal guitar position, my right hand would have accessed the strings from over the board, and the left hand from under. Both wrists would have been somewhat contorted, and the right shoulder hunched upward. The basic playing method is the same, regardless of the fretboard angle, but my new position felt more natural. I could still "wear" The Stick like a guitar, but with both hands hovering over the board and coming down upon the strings, as if I were playing patterns on my chest.

This change felt very natural and simplified everything. As the days went by, my guitar began to shed some of its sophisticated accessories. I found a more straightforward tuning of uniform intervals for two groupings of strings (nine strings in total at that time), and I dropped the whammy bar, the "sliding capo" (a way to do quick and easy transpositions), and the odd-shaped picks.


Figure 2. Emmett in 1970 with
stick prototype number one.
It took several days to set up my solid body electric guitar to accommodate the new playing style. For the first year, I played on a guitar I built myself set up with very low string action, somewhat looser strings than a regular electric guitar, precision fret work, close pickup adjustment, and a string damper by the nut.

In 1970 I built a much abbreviated version of the current Stick out of an ebony board and named it "The Electric Stick." With the two-handed percussive playing method everything became simple in the design--a uniform, logical tuning, and no more gadgets. In the following two years I added extra bass strings, divided the strings into two groups of melody and bass, made the pickups stereo for these two groups, and designed a belt hook and neck strap for the more vertical playing position. I now had an instrument with a greatly extended range more like piano, and with the double tuning concept of uniform fifths reciprocally matching uniform fourths.

By placing two groups of strings on the same fingerboard, I reconciled another dilemma having to do with basic techniques. It was now possible to play with full independence of hands, each on its own group of strings, as if The Stick were a double-necked instrument. But I could also play the ten-fingered "interwoven" patterns possible only on a single neck, with all ten fingers selecting notes from any of the ten strings--something one certainly can't do with a double-neck.

Figure 3. Emmett in 1971 with
stick prototype number two.
Between 1970 and 1974 I made five prototypes, each looking more like the present sculptured design and representing an advance over the previous model (see Figs. 2 and 3). Tuners, fretwork, and the overall shape improved with each model. In 1973 I went from nine strings to ten. In 1974, I built the first production models--six of them, all with hand tools. I built up quite a physique during the production process, and might as well have been building the instruments with my teeth! Although The Stick itself could have been conceived in any shape, I designed a minimal one. Also, I could have chosen from a wide variety of tunings, but settled on the double grouping of ten strings--five melody strings tuned in descending fourths, and five bass and chord strings tuned in ascending fifths, which I found would optimize the two- handed possibilities.

While I refined the instrument to meet my own musical needs and instincts, I also began to emerge as a performer, doing West Coast concerts with guitarist Barney Kessel and singer Tim Buckley. In 1974 I began manufacturing The Stick for other musicians and teaching the two-handed technique at large. Since then I've been about equally active in playing concerts, recording, teaching and touring, as well as manufacturing, marketing, and running the business. Although many artists seem to dislike the business aspects of their art, somehow it all seems to fit together for me, with each endeavor giving depth to the other.


Originally The Stick was manufactured from Brazilian Iron Wood, a dense and stable material of unusual variety in grain color and texture. I embedded two non-adjustable, spring tempered steel rods buried in black epoxy into the rear of the fretted area to prevent warping.

I still make the Iron Wood Stick, and last year I introduced a new model made of injection molded polycarbonate resin reinforced with spring steel bars. The sustain is almost exactly equivalent to the wood version, but the tone is a little brighter. This thermoplastic, a material much like stone and metal combined, is injected in a molten state into the cavities of the mold, producing the 3 1/2-foot long by 3 1/4-inch wide neck and body. The fingerboard is flat, with no arch and no taper; although the fingerboard could have been curved, as stated earlier I prefer a minimal approach, and a curved fingerboard is not necessary for the two-handed playing technique. A flat fingerboard is also easier to make, and provides a uniformity of tactile cues that a curved fingerboard does not provide.

Regarding overall range of the instrument, the 25 frets and ten strings cover 5 1/4 octaves. Like a bass guitar, the overall range from the bridge to the nut is 34 inches. Although custom round wound Stick string sets are available, it is possible to use equivalent guitar and bass stings except for bass strings six and seven (which are O.095 inches and O.065 inches in diameter respectively).

While the wood Stick uses jumbo guitar type frets, the frets on the polycarbonate Stick are even larger, and consist of stainless steel rods anchored firmly into the molded grooves of the fingerboard. My patented Fret- RodTM design is exceptionally smooth to the fingers and these frets won't wear down. While the traditional fret metals, brass and aluminum, would work, there's no advantage to using them. The reason why soft metals are used is that when the frets are hammered in to the neck, you don't want one side to rock out when you bang the other in; soft metal, which has a certain amount of "give," allows for easy fret hammering. Since the polycarbonate Stick frets are glued and locked in rather than hammered, a harder metal can be used.

Considering that The Stick owes its heritage to the guitar, some people wonder why The Stick has a unique tone above and beyond that caused by using ten strings and a two-hand playing technique. The answer is that much of the Stick's distinctive, clav-type sound is due to metal strings tapping against metal frets; this creates a somewhat "dry," precisely articulated sound that is nonetheless rich in harmonics. Most guitarists use a plastic pick, which is of a softer material and therefore gives a softer kind of sound. Of course. I'm not saying that one method is better than the other--just that it's nice to have options. Some guitarists, in fact, use metal picks for a harder sound, or their fingers for an even softer attack.

Photo by Randy Fugate
The stereo pickups (one for each set of five strings) use standard, double- coil humbucking technology. There's no fancy electronics--just a volume pot for each pickup. Considering the need to amplify these relatively small string vibrations, shielding is important. For some reason, it seems that all-metal housings cause a loss of highs, so for the past four years, the pickups have used a metallized plastic housing. Since these housings are injection-molded, during the molding process conductive carbon graphite fibers are injected into the housing. The high level of shielding this provides means that the strings need not be grounded, which makes for a safer instrument. The one problem I have encountered is some minor crosstalk between the bass and treble strings. Possibly in the future some kind of optical pickup could solve that problem.


The Stick, like any other instrument, continues to evolve. One recent addition is MIDI. I've done two MIDI Sticks for myself based on IVL's guitar-to-MIDI technology (essentially a Pitchrider 7000, labeled as Touch Board MIDI, with some software changes to best accommodate The Stick's characteristics) with the top five strings going to MIDI. This adds $900 to the cost of The Stick; retrofits are also $900. Interestingly, The Stick seems to provide a signal that's easier to "MIDIfy" than a guitar, possibly because a pick isn't involved, The next step is to try out a modified version of the IVL Steelrider, a ten string device designed for steel guitar, to see if all ten strings can be used with MIDI.


I manufacture The Stick from the raw Brazilian Iron Wood from start to finish at my workshop in production runs of 70 instruments at a time. I have a second ongoing production of injection molded polycarbonate Sticks which began in l986. Customization is also a part of production; I have done customized tunings in my production for musicians who have their own preferences. These have included double guitar tunings, guitar and violin, guitar and standard bass, bass in fourths plus bass in fifths, single sequences of strings, left- handed (reversed) models, fretless ones, and others that are exotic (such as a double-bass model recently completed for an album project I played on for Ryuichi Sakamoto).


I was a guitarist for ten years until 1969 when my guitar became the vehicle for this radically new method. Guitarists have provided the main inspirations for my music, especially John McLaughlin. That I chose to name this instrument "The Stick" does not detract from its guitar-like qualities. It's a stringed instrument in the family of fretted guitar-like instruments. I could have chosen any shape or tuning for my new "guitar" but settled on a minimalist design. What I'm saying is, this method and approach applies to all electric instruments that have strings and frets, not just The Stick.

The Stick was created more by my fingers and my music than by any plan to invent something. The core ingredient of the instrument then is the playing method itself, which is what I've been telling students and audiences since 1974. I could have called my instrument a guitar. "The Stick" is simply my brand name for a musical instrument in the guitar family. The two-handed playing technique that I developed works best on The Stick but is still available to guitarists. In fact, I enjoy a lot of the music produced by the two-handed touch guitarists today, including the novel approach taken by Michael Hedges.

Most of the currently publicized guitarists who are playing the two-handed touch technique remain committed to holding the right arm horizontally and parallel to the strings, so that they can still pick and pluck the strings at will. These guitarists are currently playing double-handed melody lines with the notes interwoven between the hands, or else they play right-hand embellishments to their left-hand fingerings. Some of these musicians, Eddie Van Halen most prominent among them but also musicians like David Torn, are playing some unique, energetic, and expressive lead lines with this "combined hands" technique. However, while certainly valid, this should not be confused with the same method that I've been playing and teaching.


There's no use in inventing a new musical language without making it available to those who might also find it useful. Over the past 12 years, upon requests from individuals and institutions, Stick Enterprises has provided over 250,000 Stick brochures that describe the two-handed tapping method in detail. These brochures, along with many thousands of accompanying recorded and printed materials, have been given to individual musicians, music stores, and have been available at most of the US music trade shows since 1975.

Before 1969, no one I know was using my two-handed technique. Now there are close to 2,000 musicians in the world who play The Stick, mostly in the US, who are using this method on the instruments that I've built for them. Some of them have been on world tours using The Stick to support major recording groups. Many of them I've personally taught. All of them have my lesson book Free Hands, first published in 1974. I've referred many new players to Stick teachers all over the world. Many have learned to play without a teacher, strictly on their own, or after seeing The Stick live or on television (l first played The Stick on national television in 1974). The ease with which one can learn to play the Stick is largely due to the natural finger positions and the instrument's ergonomic design, which complements the two-handed, fingers-perpendicular-to-the-strings technique.

It is good to look back over the past 17 years of work and know that it has proven fruitful and productive for many musicians--not just myself. Considering how many artists don't have the chance to see their work accepted, I consider myself fortunate to have accomplished the goal of creating a new musical language.

(c)1987 by Mix Publications.

Reprinted from Electronic Musician with the permission of the publishers.