The Chapman Stick is not a guitar. It is not a bass, and not any other stringed instrument. But it has made a huge impact on music, especially through the efforts of Tony Levin and Michael Bernier and their group, Stickmen.
The Chapman Stick is a stringed instrument that, in actuality, works like a keyboard instrument. Emmett Chapman, an English guitarist, in 1969 developed a technique known as “free hands,” through which both hands are parallel to the fretboard, allowing for different tunings and voicings. He began working on the Stick later that year and didn’t begin marketing the new instrument until 1974. The Stick looks like a wide version of the fretboard of an electric guitar, with 8, 10, or 12 strings. It is considerably longer and wider than a guitar fretboard, however.
A guitarist or bassist plays his or her instrument with one hand on top of the fretboard and one hand, in reverse position, plucking or strumming. On a Stick, 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 most other stringed instruments, making it more comparable to a keyboard than to other stringed instruments. Stick players such as Levin and Bernier can play bass, chords, and melody at the same time. A band with two Sticks doesn’t really need much else as a result.
Although, others such as guitarist Stanley Jordan, who uses a technique on his guitar that employs a technique very close to what is known as “free hands,” his sound, while distinctive, is not the same as that of the Stick.
The Stickmen, featuring Levin on stick and bass, Bernier on stick and guitar, and drummer Pat Mastelotto, will perform on Saturday, June 27, at Pettoranello Gardens’ North Ampitheater in Princeton, closing out the 2009 season of free concerts presented by Blue Curtain at Princeton Community Park.
“The Chapman Stick is an instrument I’ve played for some years. It’s very versatile, with guitar and bass sides, and I often use it in my writing,” writes Levin via E-mail. His band has been touring Europe, primarily, this year. “My last solo CD was titled ‘Stick Man.’ But I was unable to reproduce much of the last CD’s material live, because there were multiple Stick takes on it. Hence the idea of two Stick players in one band. The perfect complement to that unusual lineup is Pat Mastelotto, who plays not only acoustic drum kit, but electronic, with a lot of looping and samples. He’s also my King Crimson band mate, so there’s a nice musical history there for us to take advantage of.”
Yes, any conversation about Stick Men has to include mention of King Crimson, the English-founded progressive-pop collective that fused classical structures with jazz harmonies and rock rhythms and aesthetics. The band has been going strong since the 1970s. Levin met King Crimson founder Robert Fripp in 1980, and soon he was the band’s Stick player. Fripp has said that he was lucky to find Levin; the bandleader had been auditioning a stream of English and American bassists, when Levin simply showed up one day and asked to be in the band. He had “an utterly original style,” Fripp has said.
Stickmen (not to be confused with a Philadelphia group with a similar name) is a fairly new project. Levin says he got the idea to put the band together only a bit more than a year ago, and he contacted Bernier, who was one of his earlier Stick instructors and longtime writing and jamming collaborator, and his bandmate Mastelotto. The group has been performing together since October.
“Surprisingly, it was a tour of Poland [3 concerts in a week],” he says. “We had been writing together in the year before that, and really Michael and I have been sorting out ideas together for years. Last January we had a nice show in New York’s Town Hall, opening for Eddie Jobson’s new UKZ band, and then in the spring we toured Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, Hungary, Germany, Belgium, Holland, and France. So it’s an understatement to say we’ve broken the band in.”
To Levin, there are many greats on the Stick. First and foremost are Bernier and Emmett Chapman. “Michael Bernier of our group plays with some techniques unique among all the Stick players, and I’ve had a great time learning some things from him, in person, as we share ideas and techniques,” says Levin. “Emmett Chapman, the inventor, is an excellent player, and has been an influence on all Stick players. There are quite a few other excellent players around the world: Tom Greisgraber in San Diego, Greg Howard in Maryland, Bob Culbertson in the Bay Area, Steve Adelson in Brooklyn, Nick Beggs in England (who I last saw playing the Stick on tour with John Paul Jones). In the southwest, playing her own style of music, there is Linda Cushma.
“In Italy there is Virna Splendore, and in Israel and Russia, Irene Orleansky is quite influential. Others too. I’m just listing from top of my head some of the players whom I’ve learned from.”
Others connected with the Stick include Blue Man Group, Alphonso Johnson, formerly of Weather Report, and Mike Oldfield. The instrument has also been part of many films and TV shows, often appearing as some sort of futuristic stringed instrument in science fiction.
To Levin, who was born and raised in the Boston suburb of Brookline, music is something he has always had an affinity for. When did he start playing? “Back when the earth was cooling,” he says. “I started as a classical bass player, when in grammar school. Then I went on to music college [Eastman School of Music], playing in the Rochester Philharmonic a bit, and moving on into jazz, then studio work, then hard rock, where I feel the most at home musically.”
Studio work is second nature to Levin. After his time in Rochester, where he played with all-time great jazz and rock drummer Steve Gadd, he moved to New York and began working as a studio bassist. He has, at one time or another, played with Peter Gabriel, Buddy Rich, Todd Rundgren, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, Yes, Paul Simon, Gary Burton, James Taylor, Herbie Mann, Richie Sambora, Carly Simon, Gary Burton and Seal, among others.
Levin, who turned 63 earlier this month, has also been instrumental (sorry) in the creation of something he calls “Funk Fingers.” If you know Peter Gabriel’s music, you have heard them. “Funk Fingers are drum sticks attached to the fingers, to play on the bass with a percussive sound,” he says. “I came up with it for Peter Gabriel’s piece, “Big Time.” I sold them on my website for a time, hoping bass players would start using them, but moved on with things, because manufacturing and selling are not things I want to be involved in much.”
Music in the Park, Blue Curtain, Pettoranello Gardens Amphitheater, Community Park North, junction of Route 206 and Mountain Avenue.. Saturday, June 27, 7 p.m. Stickmen featuring Tony Levin, Pat Mastellotto, and Michael Bernier, and Lily Neill. Rain date is Sunday, June 21. Free. 609-924-7500 or www.bluecurtain.org.