Zero to 180 – Three Minute Magic

Discoveries of a Pop Music Archaeologist

Alphonso Johnson + The Emmett Chapman Stick

I was having a rare meal out alone and needed something to read, so I purchased a Rolling Stone back issue (September 6, 1979 edition – mostly likely at Joe’s Record Paradise) that included Michael Barackman‘s article about a new and somewhat radical 10-stringed electric instrument invented by Emmett Chapman called “The Stick“:

When Emmett Chapman talks about switching to “The Stick,” he’s not referring to a deodorant.  The Stick that Chapman plays, produces and promotes is a musical instrument.  Something of a cross between electric guitar and piano, the Stick Musical Instrument as ten strings housed by a Brazilian ironwood fretboard, and is played in a manner Chapman calls “the two-handed tapping technique.”

Emmett Chapman in 1970 with prototype

Emmitt Chapman's Stick #1

Emmett Chapman today
Emmitt Chapman's Stick #2

How jarring to be engrossed in David Browne‘s fraught father-and-son biography, Dream Brother:  The Lives and Music of Jeff & Tim Buckley when out of nowhere Emmett Chapman suddenly enters the picture:

Ironically, it was through [guitarist Lee] Underwood that Tim met a musician who would replace him.  Emmett Chapman, a young jazz guitarist, had created a new way of playing his instrument:  Instead of using the body of the guitar, he would tap the fingers of both hands on the fretboard, which allowed Chapman to play guitar and bass parts and orchestral-style sounds at the same time.  By the time he had joined Tim’s band, Chapman had dispensed with the body of the guitar altogether and simply played an amplified fretboard, which he called the Electric Stick.  Tim lived the sound it; it was a perfect fit with the direction in wich he saw himself heading. 

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).

“A unique case where the inventor of a remarkable instrument is a remarkable musician as well”  — Joe Zawinul

Michael Barackman 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-, and 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, “Face Blaster:

“Face Blaster”     Alphonso Johnson     1977

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.).”

 

Prices listed might not be up-to-date

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” by King Crimson (live – 1982)

Coda:

Tim Buckley & The Starsailor Band

Excerpt from David Browne’s book —

The Tim who phoned Emmett Chapman early in 1972 didn’t sound like the same person who had hired Chapman a few months earlier. The calls came late at night, and Tim usually sounded anguished — in Chapman’s words, “at wit’s end about how to fight the system.” He would tell Chapman about the opposition to his music he was receiving from management and record company alike, about the executives at confererence tables laying down the laws. Tim sounded panicky, desperate, and, each time, very drunk. He would ramble on, seemingly unable to solve, or even cope with, his problems. For whatever reason — contractual, perhaps, although Cohen maintains there was never a signed contract — Time never seemed to entertain the thought of leaving Herb Cohen Management.

Finally, the calls stopped coming. The Starsailor band gigs had already begun to peter out thanks to reluctant club bookers, but eventually band regulars like Chapman and bass player John Balkin simply stopped hearing from Tim altogether. “The period opened him up, and it’s what ruined him,” says Balkin. “He could get on stage and do whatever he wanted. He had this immense amount of freedom. And then he had someone clip his wings.” Balkin, like others, held out hope that Tim would one day return to his experimental mode, but most of the musicians never heard from him again. The studio recordings made with the Starsailor band vanished.

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