Live onstage in Reutlingen, Germany, in October 2015, Stick Men effortlessly blend sounds and styles, thanks to their mix of classical training and rock intuition. Photo by Kai R. Joachim

The Chapman Stick is a strange and often misunderstood instrument. It’s not a guitar, bass, or keyboard, but, in a sense, it’s all three. This 10- or 12-stringed beast, invented in the early 1970s by the jazz musician Emmett Chapman, is played using a two-handed tapping technique, and despite how long it’s been around now, it’s still seldom seen onstage or in the studio—or anywhere else.

Relatively few players have fully realized the exciting possibilities inherent to the Stick. That’s what makes Stick Men—a band that includes two of the instrument’s most accomplished practitioners, Tony Levin and Markus Reuter, rounded out with the drummer Pat Mastelotto—such a force to be reckoned with.

Levin, who’s now 70, was an early adopter of the Stick, having taken up the instrument in the mid 1970s. An in-demand bassist, he’s played on some 500 albums by everyone from David Bowie to Judy Collins and Pink Floyd. But his virtuosity has long been most evident when he picks up a Stick, as he’s done extensively in his work with progressive rock artists like Peter Gabriel and King Crimson, as a solo artist, and in Stick Men.

At 44, Reuter might be Levin’s junior by three decades, but he’s no less a touch-guitar master. In the 1990s, Reuter emerged as one of the leading Stick/touch-guitar virtuosos, and since then, in addition to his work as a contemporary classical composer and record producer, he’s expanded his concept of the touch guitar to include extreme signal processing. He’s even designed his own instruments under the brand—you guessed it—Touch Guitars.

When Levin and Reuter get together with Mastelotto, as on Stick Men’s most recent album, Prog Noir, an uncanny music that draws from prog-rock, 20th-century composition, and modern jazz emerges. The touch guitars combine to form dizzying flurries of sound that leave even expert players wondering how they were created.

We chatted with the touch-guitar tandem about how they developed their voices on this unusual instrument and how they worked remotely—on two different continents, no less—to create a coherent album that sounds as if they recorded it together in the studio.

You’re both experts on a very nonstandard instrument. What drew you to the touch guitar—and how did you master it?
Markus Reuter:
The instrument’s directness is what drew me to it.In a way, it’s easier than playing regular guitar because it’s much more immediate—you don’t have to coordinate the left and right hands to make notes. It’s really a wonderful thing, because you’re putting the finger down onto the string, the string hits the fret, and you get the note immediately. It’s like a piano without the keys. Somehow the musical intention—or you could even say the emotional expression—flows directly from the finger into the string. On a regular guitar it never really has that feeling.

When I started on the Stick, I saw that nobody really knew how to play it. So I created this body of exercises, which I called “The Family”because the etudes have names like “The Son,” “The Daughter,” etc. Basically, it’s a group of compositions that really teach you how to play the instrument. The research and development of this took over 20 years. I started in ’93 and am finally to a point where I can teach somebody to play Stick or touch guitar in a few days.

“In a way, [touch guitar] is easier than playing regular guitar because it’s much more immediate—you don’t have to coordinate the left and right hands to make notes … It’s like a piano without the keys.” —Markus Reuter

Tony Levin: I heard about the Chapman Stick and touch playing in about 1976. It sounded like an interesting way to get my bass playing into a new area, so I got one right away. I played only the bass side of it for years—with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson—and gradually grew to include the guitar side and writing material of my own with it, especially on my album Stick Man and the handful of albums with Stick Men.

Tony, how did you go about migrating to the guitar side?
The other strings were there all along—I just started playing them. Probably the first time I ventured to the guitar side was in King Crimson. Some of the pieces from the [1981] Discipline album had room for another guitar voice, as Adrian [Belew] and Robert [Fripp] were doing their interweaving thing.

What’s the range of your instrument compared to a standard guitar, and how many notes can you play at once?
My instrument goes from a low Bb—below a 5-string bass—up to a high D, which would be the 22nd fret of the highest string on an electric guitar. It’s tuned in fifths. You can theoretically play up to eight notes with eight strings, but in actuality you usually play no more than six notes at a time. There’s an arpeggio-study piece of mine that you can find on YouTube called “Prelude” [Editor’s note: The full video title is “Alexander Dowerk & Markus Reuter: Prelude"], and you can see three notes per hand. That’s really what I would consider to be the maximum of what makes sense.

Now seems like as good a time as any to talk about your instrument company, Markus.
I started a brand called Touch Guitars around 2007. My initial idea was to come up with an instrument that was affordable, but it turns out that the quality of a touch guitar needs to be very high in order for the [hammer-on] technique to work properly, so it wasn’t really possible to come up with a budget instrument. We have several different models at the moment: There’s a 10-string version, a couple of 8-string versions, and also a semi-acoustic 8-string, which I use onstage with Stick Men, because it’s just so incredibly responsive.

Speaking of Stick Men, what was it like when you met each other for the first time—and how did the group come together?
I played with [drummer] Pat [Mastelotto] for a number of years before he introduced me to Tony at his place in Texas. I think it was in September 2010. Tony and I immediately had the greatest chemistry—we have shared classical backgrounds and really got along very well on that level. Quite a few of the pieces we play in our live set we actually wrote that very first day we met.

At first I wasn’t really sure if I was going to be strong enough onstage—robust enough to counterbalance the power of Pat and Tony, who are such iconic musicians. But after our first show together, in Argentina, I felt, “Oh, this is going to work.” The first couple years I tried to be a very solid player for them so that they could actually be the great musicians they are—I tried not to interfere with their greatness, let’s say.

Over the years things have developed in such a way that I’ve become an even member of the group and it is just wonderful now … the dynamic of us onstage. It’s a dream come true, really.

Levin: Having recorded the album Stick Man [2007] with multiple Stick parts, I was wanting to take it live and perform the music, but needed another player. So, Michael Bernier, an excellent player who lives nearby [in upstate New York], seemed ideal—and, of course, so did Pat, my King Crimson bandmate who had played on the album. But after a few years of touring, Michael needed to be home more than the band could handle, and we made the change to Markus on his self-designed touch guitar. Since then, we’ve had many tours and albums, and we’re very gratified to be playing our music around the world.

How does the arranging process work with two touch guitars?
Most start with Markus or me writing a piece, laying down some parts, and then passing it on to Pat. Sometimes the original parts stay the same, but often there are changes—melodies added, sections added. There are some pieces where Markus wrote a melody on top of what I had done that I liked so much I wrote lyrics to it and it became a vocal piece.

Do you have to really work to stay out of each other’s way or do things just happen organically?
It’s kind of happening organically, because even though we both play instruments that cover the full range, we still compose pieces with certain roles in mind for the part that each of us is playing. When Tony has a chordal idea with a bass part, then obviously I’m going to write the melody. In the process it’s always pretty obvious what is missing, and then the other player fills in that gap. When we then take stuff on the stage, obviously sometimes we change things around. For example, when Tony has to sing a part, I might take the chords—even if he played them on the recording—then, when I play a lead part, he takes the chords. The roles basically go back and forth all the time, which is sometimes confusing for the audience, but I think it’s fascinating.

What have you learned from all of this back and forth with each other?
The mere fact that we have the opportunity to perform so much has made us evolve together with these instruments. I think both Tony and I have come to a point where the touch instrument has become a real musical instrument and not just a gimmick. Really that’s what makes it so special for me—that we’re actually playing real music with these new instruments.
Levin: I’ve always been impressed with Markus’ innovative way of playing and writing. He also has terrific technique and is very reliable, in concert, to do things right—much more so than I am!