Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Kittyhawk and the Chapman Stick®

Today’s post is rather serendipitous in nature as I had planned something else, but got sidetracked by a question at work. The other day, a coworker was telling me about a review he read on Tony Levin and the Stickmen. My friend commented on their unusual band name and I said it must be because Tony Levin plays the Stick®. "Stick®," he replied, "what’s that? Is it a different kind of bass (knowing that Levin was formerly the bassist with King Crimson)?" I replied, “not exactly” and proceeded to show him some YouTube examples of videos of the Stick® in action.

I had planned on doing a Wednesday feature on the Chapman Stick® at some point in time, but there is no time like the present to discuss this unique instrument. In 1970, Californian Emmett Champman, who was playing guitar in Barney Kessel’s ensemble, began experimenting with his guitar with a two handed tapping technique. By 1974, he had developed a new instrument that combined the voicings of a bass and guitar and a two-handed playing technique much like a keyboardist.

Stick® inventor and musician Emmett Chapman from a 1982 promotional piece.  
Notice the slimming effects of the Stick® - as Chapman was 300 pounds 
and five' eight" (not really - he is actually very tall and very thin). 

In October 1974, the first commercially available Stick® was delivered to a customer and the rest is history. Like with any manufacturing process, once the original patent expired, others were free to copy some of the design for similar touch-style playing guitar like instruments. Currently, there are at least three other manufacturers that make similar instruments; however, since this is a feature on the Chapman Stick®, it will be the only one I’ll be discussing.

The layout of the  Chapman Stick® is as follows. The basic and original instrument has 10 strings (although other configurations are available) and is divided with five bass and five melody strings. The bass strings are in reverse order and are tuned in fifths. The recommended classic tuning of the 10 string stick is (low to high in reverse order) is C-G-D-A-E for the bass string configuration. While a normal bass is tuned in fourths (E-A-D-G), chords in the bass range often sound better based on fifths. Other instruments using fifths include ‘cello, viola, violin, and mandolin.

The melody strings (comparable to a guitar) are tuned in fourths. The recommended classic tuning in ascending order is F#-B-E-A-D. I can see myself getting really confused over the set – first the fifths on the bass strings and fourths on the melody. The starting point on C for the bass and F# on the melody strings would be enough to drive me crazy. Talk about playing from both hemispheres of the brain. With these seeming limitations, thousands of musicians now play the Stick® with little difficulty and Chapman suggests that anyone can get it out of the box and start playing it.

Well, I have been successful in similar endeavors, but not with every instrument I’ve ever attempted. The current price for a new Stick® runs in the neighborhood of $2000 - $2500, which is much too pricey for an instrument that I may or may not be able to play. Although, I would love to have one, it would have to go to the bottom of my wish list of instruments I don’t own but know I could play out of the box.

This list, in no particular order, includes an octave mandolin, mandocello, baritone guitar, electric sitar, a real clavinet, and an acoustic bass guitar – none of which I own – but would like to have. I would also like to have a palatial estate, a Maserati, and my children to give me the unlimited respect that I really deserve – but don’t see any these happening in my lifetime – well, maybe the respect issue once my kids graduate from the teenage years.

My first experience with the Stick® was seeing an article and/or an ad in Guitar Player. The first recording I remember owning that featured not one, not two, but three Stickers, Stickies, Stickists, er, Stick® players was the band Kittyhawk. I read about them, I believe, in Guitar Player; but it could have been in any number of music trade publications I was receiving in the early 80s.

I was so intrigued by what I read and their incorporation of unusual instruments such as fretless guitar, Lyricon (a woodwind synth), and the Stick® - I had to own their first two LPs – to which my EMI/Liberty rep, Dave Blanford, saw that I received both “Kittyhawk” and “Race to the Oasis.” Although I was working in top-forty at the time (WCIR in Beckley, WV), I still had an attachment to fusion that I discovered in the late seventies. If I remember correctly, one of the members had a familial connection to the Wright Brothers and hence the band utilized the brothers Wright's famous launch site for their name.


The opening cut to the self-titled “Kittyhawk” album was the song “Islands” and features both Paul Edwards and Daniel Bortz playing Stick® on this recording from the PBS special “First Flight.” Randy Strom is missing from the lineup on this tune and I am a little confused on whether he was a regular member of the band, an occasional recording and performing sideman, or he joined the band for the second LP. The recording also includes Michael Jochum on drums and percussion and Richard Elliot on alto sax. Part of my attraction with the sound of Kittyhawk was Paul Edwards’ vocal treatments. Often he sang in unison or in harmony at a fifth and sometimes an octave above Richard Elliot’s saxophone.

Bells of Taliesin

This cut from the second LP, “Race for the Oasis,” features Randy Strom and Paul Edwards on Stick®. Daniel Bortz is playing the fretless guitar – which by far is one of the more interesting instruments on this cut. Strom and Edwards Stick® playing takes on the role traditionally relegated to keyboards. Richard Elliot plays the tenor sax.

Big City

We return to the four piece version of Kittyhawk with “Big City” from the debut LP. This song showcases Richard Elliot on Lyricon (the woodwind synthesizer). Bortz is on a classic gold-top Gibson Les Paul (fretted of course).

Race for the Oasis

The piece that ended the PBS special “First Flight” is “Race for the Oasis.” The saxophone that Richard Elliot plays is a curved soprano model. Most people are familiar with the straight version of the instrument like Kenny G plays. I have a 1925 Buescher and is a straight model that I dealt with earlier on this blog. The first curved model I had ever seen was played by Jan Garbarek on his ECM recordings from the 1970s.

The Final Word

Intrigued by Kittyhawk's sound, I sent away for information on the Stick® . I did this often in those days as I loved getting mail and reading about different instruments. The list price in 1982 was $945 with case. Needless to say, since I just took out two loans to pay for a Prophet 5 synthesizer, I was not able to purchase one during the height of my interest and when I was single and able to buy frivolities on a whim. I was already overextended as it was.

It appears that there is resurgent interest in Kittyhawk. New, high quality videos appeared on YouTube two weeks ago and a new web site appears to have debuted last month and is being updated frequently. Perhaps they have returned for a second flight. We can only hope.

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