A jazz musician, Chapman started his career as a guitarist, and developed an unusual playing style: he “tapped” the strings, rather than plucking or strumming them. He worked on his own instruments, and got the idea to not just hang the instrument vertically in front of his shoulder, which gave him “free hands” to play, but to make the fretboard much wider — and longer. So much so he did away with the guitar body entirely. The result he called the “Stick” (later renamed the Chapman Stick), first produced in the early 1970s, with 8 to 12 strings tuned differently from a guitar.
With a Chapman Stick, a player can play the melody, the bass line, and chords — simultaneously, using both hands “tapping” the strings, as well as using other techniques (see video, below). When other musicians saw Chapman play it they were intrigued, and some were able to pick it up and play it without any instruction. Chapman founded Stick Enterprises to manufacture the instruments, and he continually innovated. “People who encounter a Stick player usually love the innate sound of the instrument and playing method,” he told an interviewer, “which in itself produces a unique and articulate tone.” His idea behind the instrument was to create something that used “minimum means to achieve maximum performance” — which you can also see in that video. Chapman died in his California home on November 1, from cancer. He was 85.
[Aside: Writing this prompted me to go update a very old blog post …and I found that I had never posted it. I have now, thanks to keeping an archive of nearly everything I write. If you are a long-time reader, you might remember the topic: Animusic: a Pipe Dream.]
Kevin Keith demonstrating the expressiveness of a Chapman Stick, accompanied by some light percussion: