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Superficially, a Stick looks like a wider and longer version of an electric guitar’s fretboard and is home to eight, ten or twelve strings. Unlike the guitar, the Stick is played by tapping or fretting the strings rather than plucking them – both hands sound notes by striking the strings against the fingerboard just behind the appropriate frets. If you were inclined to play the Chapman Stick like a guitar, you would find insufficient string space for standard techniques like plucking. Additionally, because the strings lie so close to the fretboard, normal picking techniques – if possible – would be disproportionately loud.
Instead, the intended playing position is with the left hand on the bass side and the right hand controlling the melody, similar to a piano or keyboard. However, either hand can play either side or both hands can play the same side. The instrument’s distinctive arrangement lends itself to playing multiple lines at once, and many Stick players have mastered performing bass lines, chords and melodies simultaneously to amazing effect.
The first production model of the Stick was shipped in 1974. The original sticks were handmade by Emmett himself and featured serial numbers between 0 and 2000. However, it is nearly impossible to tell how many were actually made. After the first 2000 the numbers started again at 0, making for duplicated numbers. To further complicate things, when a piece of wood wasn’t good enough, it was discarded with the serial number still on it, generating many “missing” serial numbers. Sticks are now cut electronically and serial numbers have been continuous for nearly a decade, currently numbering just over 5000.
Over the years, Emmett Chapman has experimented with a variety of materials for his unique instruments to attain the same quality with faster manufacturing and lower costs. The first models were made from “super hardwoods” – mostly ironwood – but Sticks made from ebony and other exotic woods emerged in the early eighties. The early nineties saw the introduction of injection-molded polycarbonate resin models, and today Sticks are made from a litany of materials, including various hardwoods, such as padauk, Indian rosewood, tarara, maple and mahogany; organic materials like bamboo, which is easily dyed for a wide choice of colors; and graphite epoxies and other high-tech composites.
The Chapman Stick finds itself in a constant state of evolution, both in the components of the Stick itself and the accessories. Recent developments include linear fret markers to help the player feel the frets and stainless steel Fret Rails, which impart a cleaner, faster attack. Stick players are also benefiting from improved pickups and amps, such as the GK3A MIDI pickup; the new StepAbout stompbox preamp, produced by BassLab; and the StickAmp, a dedicated amp with onboard mixer.
This uniquely-conceived contraption has always attracted guitarists, whether through genuine interest or out of sheer curiosity. We had the chance to talk to one of the best “stickistas” in the world, Italian player Virginia “Virna” Splendore.
Virna began playing the Chapman Stick more than two decades ago – only ten years after the Stick’s introduction to the music scene. She spent years playing the instrument as her passion and hobby while working for an Italian TV station. During this time, she became a premier Stick player in Italy and throughout the world, doing workshops and demonstrations in addition to performing and recording with her band, SplendoRe. In 2006 she dedicated herself full-time to the instrument and has since been actively touring and recording with multiple bands, as well as playing a significant role in developing products on the forefront of Stick technology.
When did you begin playing music? Did your musical career begin with other instruments before you found the Chapman Stick?
Well, when I was very young – like eight years old – I was a “lost wanderer” in the instrument world, looking for one that fit my approach to music. I took classical guitar, piano lessons and even clarinet lessons for a year. I also took lyrical singing, where I was a light soprano with a four octave range. Each of these instruments gave me something, but my real problem was studying – I don’t learn by reading an exercise and then playing it. I have a strong memory and musical ear, so I’m guided more by instinct than rules. If I get trapped into studying rules, I become like a tabula rasa, which means getting stuck on something. So, from age eight to 16, I understood that I wanted to play music but not in the way that I was being taught.
The one instrument that I really wanted to play was the bass. My mother said it was too masculine and encouraged me to pursue more feminine instruments, but when I was 19 I bought my first bass. When I discovered the Chapman Stick, I had to sell all of my other instruments to buy it – my clarinet, classical guitar and bass. Eight years later, I got another fretless bass – my first love – and realized that the techniques I had learned as a Stick player helped me learn more on bass.