Chapman Stick

The Chapman Stick (the Stick) is an electric musical instrument devised by Emmett Chapman in the early 1970s. A member of the guitar family, the Chapman Stick usually has ten or twelve individually tuned strings and has been used on music recordings to play bass lines, melody lines, chords or textures. Designed as a fully polyphonic chordal instrument, it can also cover several of these musical parts simultaneously.

A 10 string Chapman Stick

Description and playing position

Imagine creating music on a stringed instrument that is simultaneously a guitar, a bass, a piano, and percussion. Add unlimited electronic capabilities and forward-thinking playing techniques for ultimate expression. Now, design a tuning to make navigation of the instrument amazingly simple, and streamline the look and feel for optimal accessibility. This instrument already exists as the Chapman Stick.

Steve Adelson describing the Chapman Stick in Guitar Player magazine

A Stick looks like a wide version of the fretboard of an electric guitar, but with 8, 10 or 12 strings. It is, however, considerably longer and wider than a guitar fretboard. Unlike the electric guitar, it is usually played by tapping or frettingthe 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 some 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 player hooks the instrument onto their belt and places their head and right (or the converse in the case of left-handed players) arm through the shoulder strap. The instrument then settles into a position approximately 30 to 40 degrees from vertical, which allows both of the player’s hands to naturally and comfortably address the fretboard. (In comparison, a typically held guitar’s fretboard is more or less horizontal.) The player then hammers onto the strings with their fingertips in the same way that one would strike a piano key. The technique is very similar to that of piano in as much as the player covers both bass andmelody notes together with both hands and each note is struck with one finger of one hand. Typically, one hand plays the melody on the treble strings and the other plays rhythm on the bass strings.

Origins, history and popular profile

In 1969, jazz guitarist Emmett Chapman developed the “Free Hands” tapping method (in which both hands play parallel to the frets) and applied it to his playing. At the time, Chapman was playing a 9-string long-scale guitar, but decided to design and develop a brand new instrument for use with Free Hands in order to use the method’s full potential. The Chapman Stick took five years to design and develop, during which Chapman also opted to set up a business to launch it as a commercially produced instrument. The first production model of the Stick was shipped in 1974 – on October 10 of the same year, Chapman brought his instrument to public attention by demonstrating it on the game showWhat’s My Line?

Former Weather Report bassist Alphonso Johnson was among the first musicians to introduce the Chapman Stick to the public. Top session player Tony Levin was also an early user, and was playing the instrument from the mid-1970s: he would bring it to a high profile on sessions and tours with Peter Gabriel and featured it in his work as a member of King Crimson from 1981 onwards. He would also use it with Liquid Tension Experiment, and in sessions for bands including Pink Floyd and Yes. Recently, Levin formed the band Stick Men, consisting solely of one drummer and two Stick players.

Tony Levin playing a Chapman stick during a performance in Misinto Italy, 15 July 2010

Recordings which have been influential on Stick players (because of the prominent role the Stick plays) include the 1981 King Crimson album Discipline (played by Tony Levin) and Emmett Chapman’s own 1985 album Parallel Galaxy. Amy Grant’s hit single “Angels” also featured a Stick solo (played by Andy Widders-Ellis).

The Stick made a 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 extended versions. The piece being played in the scene is from Emmett Chapman’s recording of his original song “Back Yard” from a cassette recording.

Wayne Lytle, creator of Animusic, commented that on his piece “Stick Figures”, he had the inspiration for the semi-anthropomorphicbass guitar from the Chapman Stick.

Technical details


Chapman Sticks have been made out of many materials. The first were made from hardwoods, most from ironwood, but some from ebony and other exotic woods, through the early 1980s. The next group was made from an injection-molded polycarbonate resin through 1989. These were followed by one-piece hardwood structures with an adjustable truss rod. Today, they are made from laminated hardwoods (including padauk, Indian rosewood, tarara, maple, wenge and mahogany), and laminated bamboo, as well as graphite.

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, stainless steel pyramidal Fret Rails(TM), very low string action, and very sensitive pickups, this setup is advantageous to the tapping style of play. The rear surface of the instrument is not curved like a guitar neck, but has deep-beveled edges (also a design trademark of The Stick).


The original (now called “Classic”) tuning consists of 5 bass strings (6 on the Grand Sticks), tuned upwards in all-fifths tuning, with the low string in the middle of the fretboard, and 5 melody strings (6 on Grand Stick), tuned upwards in all-fourths tuning, again with the low string in the middle of the fretboard. The hardware is fully adjustable to accommodate any gauge string at any position. On the 36″-scale instrument notes can range from low Bb (below B on a 5-string bass) to high D (a whole step below the high E string on guitar). On the two guitar-scale models (Alto Stick and Stick Guitar) the notes range from F below Guitar low E to F# above guitar high E.

Tuning configurations may change depending on the player’s style; a player playing as a lead instrument will choose an overall higher pitch tuning, with more separation or overlap between the melody and bass courses.

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 each hand’s fretting position.

The Classic tuning shows another advantage as well: The regular tunings in fourths and fifths remain consistent in each of the two parts of the instrument; regular tunings facilitate learning by beginners and transposition and improvisation by advanced players. Also, the bass/melody division allows for microtonal tunings.

The manufacturer’s website has more detailed information on tunings.


The Stick is available with passive or active pickup modules. Customized Roland GK-3 pickups are available for the treble or bass side of the instrument, allowing the instrument to drive one or two guitar synthesizers such as the Roland GR-20 or Axon AX-100, and also to drive other MIDI instruments or sequencers chained to the guitar synthesizer. The hammer-on style of playing produces a rising waveform transient that is easily tracked by this type of device.

Standard output is 2 channel, through a TRS 1/4″ phone connector, with bass and melody courses output separately. There are separate volume controls for bass and melody. The ACTV-2 and PASV-4 pickup modules also have mono operation modes.

The Stick can be plugged into any standard guitar or bass amplifier, to good effect. However, because of the very high impedance of the passive pickups, an instrument preamp is often employed, especially for full-range amplification systems (PA, keyboard amps, etc.)

The British musician Nick Beggs uses a Grand Stick, fully MIDI-capable of triggering from both bass and melody strings. He has named this modified instrument the “Virtual Stick”.


Currently there are seven different models of the Chapman Stick. Some string configurations are mentioned below, but current production models offer any tuning within physical limitations of stringing:

  • The Stick (10 strings, 5 melody + 5 bass)
  • Grand Stick (12 strings, 6 melody + 6 bass)
  • Stick Bass (SB8) (8 strings, 4 melody + 4 bass or an undivided bass guitar-like tuning)
  • NS/Stick (8 strings set up for plucking, strumming, or tapping; co-invented by Chapman & Ned Steinberger) 34″ scale
  • Stick XG (a variation on traditional Stick construction, made from structural graphite, continuous strand carbon fiber )
  • Alto Stick (10 strings, 5 melody + 5 accompaniment, with shorter scale length for a more guitar-like range)
  • Stick Guitar (12 strings, 2 groups of 6, with shorter scale length for a more guitar-like range)

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:

  • The Acoustick – an acoustic version of the Chapman Stick made for Bob Culbertson.
  • A 10-string Grand Stick – the wider fretboard of the Grand with only 10 strings.
  • StickXBL – A prototype Stick with body construction by BassLab using a hollow “tunable composite” material. Only a small number of these prototypes exist.

List of notable current and former Stick players and ensembles that include Chapman Stick (alphabetical)

Bruder Frank (of band Saltatio Mortis) playing a Chapman Stick
  • Nick Beggs (Kajagoogoo, Ellis, Beggs & Howard, John Paul Jones, Nik Kershaw, Howard Jones, Iona, Steve Hackett, Steven Wilson)
  • Blue Man Group
  • Zeta Bosio (Soda Stereo)
  • Brian Bourne of Rawlins Cross
  • Paige Haley Orgy (band)
  • Terry Burrows author and musician
  • Emmett Chapman
  • Guillermo Cides solo Stick performer
  • Bob Culbertson solo Stick performer
  • Peter Gifford plays Chapman Stick on the tracks ‘Sleep’ and ‘Who Can Stand in the Way’ on the Midnight Oil albumRed Sails in the Sunset and in concert
  • Trey Gunn played Chapman Stick with Robert Fripp, David Sylvian, Sunday All Over the World and King Crimson.
  • Steve Hahn, solo Stick performer, recipient of a 1995 National Endowment for the Arts grant for Chapman Stick study with Alphonso Johnson (the first grant ever given to a Stick player)
  • Greg Howard solo and on the Dave Matthews Band album Before These Crowded Streets
  • Alphonso Johnson (ex-Weather Report, Santana ) Gregg Rolie Band
  • Tony Levin solo and with Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, Yes, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (notably on live renditions of Close to the Edge song), Pink Floyd and Liquid Tension Experiment
  • Sean Malone of Cynic and Gordian Knot
  • John Myung of Dream Theater
  • Mike Oldfield plays Chapman Stick on his album The Songs of Distant Earth (and in some multimedia video clips on the extended CD) (though Olfield plays with pick as opposed to two-hand technique)
  • Pino Palladino on Paul Young’s No Parlez
  • Jeff Pearce solo and in concert with William Ackerman
  • Markus Reuter uses new standard tuning in solo, session, and with his bands—Europa String Choir, Tuner (along with Pat Mastelotto), and Stick Men (along with Mastelotto and Tony Levin).
  • Don Schiff solo and with Lana Lane and Rocket Scientists