Alphonso Johnson + His Spellbinding Stick

I was having a rare meal out alone and needed something to read, so I purchased a Rolling Stone back issue from 1979 that included an article about a new and somewhat radical 10-stringed electric instrument invented by Emmett Chapman called “The Stick.”

Emmett Chapman in 1970 with prototype and Emmett Chapman today

Emmitt Chapman's Stick #1Emmitt Chapman's Stick #2

The ten strings of this futuristic “pian-o-tar” are divided into 2 groups of five, with the first group for melody & chords, and the second for bass lines and bottom end sounds.

I still have my quadruple-fold 1980s brochure for The Chapman Stick that includes testimonials from musicians, such as Miroslav Vitous (“the sound of The Stick reminds me of a clavichord”) to Alphonso Johnson (“during my studio recording experiences I’ve noticed that the bass register of The Stick has a precision and deep bottom end that I can’t get from the normal bass”), as well as a separate pricing sheet ($945 for instrument, case, stereo cord, instructional book + $21 per set of 10 strings + $295 for effects pedal).

Michael Barackman’s piece for Rolling Stone points out how the learning curve associated with the The Stick’s challenging tuning scheme, combined with the instrument’s cost and the piano-like technique required to play it proficiently might help explain why only “about 550 Sticks have been sold since they first became available in 1975 [i.e., four years].”   Here it is 40 years later, and Stick Enterprises is still in business, so clearly Chapman has found a way to sell instruments of the 8-, 10- & 12-string variety.

The Rolling Stone piece adds, “Many prominent rock and jazz musicians, including Steve Miller, Joe Zawinul of Weather Report, and John Entwistle of The Who have a Stick.  In addition, Tony Levin of Peter Gabriel’s band played on the latter artist’s latest album and tour.”

Alphonso Johnson, as you can see from the album cover of 1977’s Spellbound, very much embraced The Stick, which you can hear prominently featured in the composition, “Bahama Mama”:

“Bahama Mama”     Alphonso Johnson     1977

Michael Barackman quotes Alphonso Johnson in his piece:  “I use the Stick in three ways,” says Johnson.  “First, I use it as a composing tool.  I wrote two songs on Spellbound with the Stick.  I also use it as a solo instrument and as an accompanying instrument.  I feel the Stick expands the limitations of guitar and keyboards.  It doesn’t sound like anything else.”

Check out this related ad (archived online) from The Stanford Daily – Nov. 28, 1977:

“FOR ALPHONSO JOHNSON, BASS IS THE PLACE.  The place to take off on old forms, in new flights of musical fancy.  The place from which to expand his tonal palette to include new instruments like the electric stick, which he’s cradling here.  But the stick is not the whole story.  Between Alphonso and the four other musicians in his group, there’s something like twenty different instruments with which to make the joy of electric music. And on their new album, Spellbound, they do just that.  Alphonso Johnson’s Spellbound is a little magic from the sorcerer of the bass (and the stick, etc.).”

Tony Levin’s Stick:  A Key Ingredient in 1980s King Crimson Sound

Check out this live performance of King Crimson on weekly live TV comedy show, Fridays, that shows Tony Levin making great use of this futuristic music technology on Adrian Belew’s sly piece of thesaurus pop about dysfunctional communication, “Elephant Talk”:

“Elephant Talk”     King Crimson     1982