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

“1967”: Adrian Belew, Confirmed Believer

I’ve always known there to be something particularly special about the Adrian Belew composition, “1967” – the closing track from his classic 1989 album, Mr. Music Head:

In recent years, with my growing awareness around the legend of 1967 as a peak year for pop music, I began to suspect 1967’s magical aura to be the reason behind the song’s title – “1967” – a year that is otherwise not named or even hinted at in the lyrics whatsoever.  Belew was kind enough to respond to my query about the the writing of this composition and revealed that the title “comes from my belief that particular year was the golden year of creativity in rock music.”  It’s true!

Furthermore:

“The song was written on a metal-bodied dobro in an odd tuning D A D D A D.  I call it the ‘dad’ tuning.  I was working on five different songs using that tuning.  So each time I worked on one song, I would work on the other four.  Eventually, it occurred to me to run all five together into one piece.”

This five-songs-in-one concept reminds me, in a way, of The Beatles’ legendary multi-part composition, “A Day in the LIfe”  from their 1967 modern pop masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Atlantic would release one single from Mr. Music Head, “Oh Daddy” — a father-daughter duet and #5 hit on the Modern Rock chart — with “Peaceable Kingdom” as the B-side.

Adrian Belew singleBesides being a great songwriter, Belew also enjoys renown for being able to conjure a vast array of inspired and otherworldly sounds on his various guitars, with a particular genius for emulating members of the animal kingdom.

The Adrian Belew Power trio is on tour – likely coming to a town near you

Stickmen vs Adrian Belew Power TrioAdrian Belew, it bears noting, produced the debut album by pioneering Cincinnati band of the 1970s & 80s – The Raisins – three years after their classic live performance on local PBS television series, Rock Around the Block, a showcase for local talent.

Belew has also supplied guitar for/with an interesting array of musical artists in rock, pop and beyond — Frank Zappa, Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, David Bowie, King Crimson, Mike Oldfield, Joan Armatrading, Paul Simon, Crash Test Dummies, Nine Inch Nails — but one of my all-time favorite guest turns is a live performance captured on film, Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave, where he dons a rubber guitar at one point, I kid you not.