How Emmett Chapman joined the godfathers of progressive music instrumentation
BY JIM REILLY
The first thing one must know about the Chapman Stick, Emmett Chapman’s unique contribution to the global music community, is that his playing technique predates the instrument. Emmett was a jazz guitarist living and working in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, the electric Jimi Hendrix-inspired days of social revolution and rock & roll. And he was searching for some way to harness that elusive “sound in his head.”
Chapman had built his own extended-range, nine-string guitar and dabbled with all kinds of picks, levers and tunings but still wasn’t quite there. In a fit of inspiration on Aug. 26, 1969, without really thinking about it, he shifted his guitar from the traditional horizontal position to near-vertical and started playing hammer-ons with his left hand. His right hand shifted from where one normally picks the strings to align at right angles with the strings like his left hand, approaching the fretboard from the opposite side. He then did hammer-ons, or what became known as “tapping,” with both hands.
Emmett realized he could play chords with one hand and melody with the other, or chords with both, or counterpoint melody like a piano, but all on a guitar-style instrument—with the immediacy, effects and electricity of someone like Hendrix. And that was it. A new technique was born and from that he crafted (and continues to refine) the optimal instrument to apply
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ILLUSTRATION BY MARK VON ULRICH