An unusual instrument in terms of not often seeing it in your typical jazz club, the Chapman Stick has almost a cult following. Pittsburgh-based Dave Brosky is not only versed in its harmonic nuances but also its genesis.
The instrument has a bright, calliope-like sound, and Dave very clearly delights in sharing it with his audiences. Fingers fly; he can’t sit still. He makes the Stick ring and sing.
Brief history of the Chapman Stick?
The Stick ™ was invented by Emmett Chapman and first introduced in 1974. Emmett loved John Coltrane and Miles Davis, but also loved the freedom Jimi Hendrix and Cream were introducing into rock. He wanted to do more with the guitar and started moving the strings around. Specifically he wanted to be able to play bass lines more fluently and add more harmonic chords all while playing leads.
This lead to the largest bass string being placed in the center of the fretboard with higher gauges ascending on both sides of this bass string. The lowest string is normally on the left-hand side of the instrument, facing the player upward. With electric pickups, even the subtlest sounds could be played at any volume.
When Emmett reached over and placed his right hand on the guitar producing chords, while his left hand hammered on notes and played the bass line and additional chords, he leapt with joy all over his house. Realizing you don’t need a large body with an electric instrument, he had designed a minimalistic instrument with just the touchboard, tuning machines, the pickups and volume controls.
There is a slight angle when played to see the touchboard and bevels on the opposite side to rest your thumbs. He also redesigned it over the years with many improvements – different woods, polyresins and even anodized aluminum, FretRails ™, a better bridge and nut, increased length, increased width and multiple pickup variations.
Although not sold at guitar stores, it has been used on countless recordings like “Shock the Monkey” and other Peter Gabriel hits in the 80’s/90’s, Dream Theatre, and the Blue Man Group. Josef Zawinul of Weather Report owned the first one, as did Alphonso Johnson.
There are 10- and 12-string versions, an alto version, a “guitar” range version, and an instrument co-designed by Ned Steinberger and Emmett called the NS Stick ™ which is a wide-range bass that can be fingered, plucked, thumbed and popped as well as tapped.
Did you start off with traditional guitar?
Actually, I started with classical piano which was beneficial in having right- and left-hand independence to play the Stick. Then banjo and guitar by one of the greatest players and teachers of the Big Band era, Joseph Colosimo, who taught at Volkweins and then at South Hills Village.
Later I picked up bass and mandolin. The Stick came in 1989 when in San Francisco, on Fisherman’s Wharf near Alioto’s, I saw an incredible player, Daniel Kane, playing melody, chords and bass in the most soothing and amazing music I had ever heard.
When I asked him which cassette (it was 1989) best represented his music, he like Zoltar at Kennywood Park, placed his index finger out and began a semi circle over his albums. It stopped on one and he pushed it towards me. I offered to pay him, he refused and said in a very positive and somber tone, “This will change your life.”
I couldn’t stop listening to it on my Sony Walkman. Soon after I called Stick Enterprises and ordered my first one. Emmett and I have talked about Daniel Kane, about how he is a spiritual, ethereal muse to many Stickists and then just vanishes and can’t be found.
What appeals to you about it?
I love how it has the range of a piano but I can put it in the back seat of my car! Actually, the harmonic expression is limitless, you can place notes harmonically close together like on a piano effortlessly, which would be difficult on guitar (or you need a “prepared” or alternately tuned guitar).
There are all the advantages of a piano with the bonus features of a guitar or bass to bend notes. Also, it is an electric stereo instrument so you can run all the stomp boxes and effects on it like you would a full-blown rock and roll guitar, or space out like Pink Floyd!
How long to tune it?
About five minutes with an electric tuner. It also has two truss rods which, unlike guitars or basses, are easily adjusted by the player for optimum tapping. It’s NOT straight – if it were none of the strings would sound and hit the touchboard.
How many strings?
There are 10 or 12 depending on the model. The strings are custom-made by D’Addario and have different alloys and core windings to add a suppleness to enhance tapping.
How is it tuned?
There are two “sides” – the bass side and the melody side. The bass side is tuned in reverse fifths with the lowest string, the sixth string, being in the center of the Stick. This allows one hand to play a bass note and a chord at the same time that on a piano would require a large stretch. The melody side is tuned in ascending fourths like a guitar but no changeover between the G and B strings on a guitar. This allows chord shapes to be played across and up and down the strings with no change, like on a guitar.
Is it tuned in a particular key or mode?
The lowest note is a C below the E on a bass guitar. There are no “open strings” since a baffle is used for tapping. There is no tuning except for the relative tuning among the melody and bass side. It is said to be tuning-neutral, allowing play in any key transposed easily across and up and down the touchboard.
Are the strings picked/plucked or just pressed on the fretboard?
They are primarily “tapped.” Energy is put into the string from a finger tapping or like typing behind the fret. No pick is used, allowing all the fingers and thumbs to play notes or chords. Just hands and fingers- although an entire arm motion is involved.
How many octaves are represented?
Five octaves and a minor third.
Surprisingly no, even with guitar. I have “conditioned” hands and always follow the rule “no playing an hour after you shower.” I learned that back in high school where I saw three layers down!
Yellow Mellow- why do you like that song for the Stick?
It’s only three chords! It is a classic 60’s song from the great songwriter Donovan that is well recognized, has almost a blues-repeat pattern to the lyrics, uses a cool major third to minor third in the melody plus a sixth in the chorus, with distinct sections and some great hooks. I played it at The Coffee Den and it became a most-requested and signature song of mine. Plus, how many songs use the phrase “electrical banana”!
Have you been involved in all the Stickfests?
I performed in the First Annual Stickfest which was held in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2006. Emmett, myself, and a host of great Stickists from across the United States, as well as Mexico and Canada, performed for 10 ½ hours when the Mayor proclaimed Stick Day and the center of town was made into a massive festival grounds.
The most amazing thing was that each act played a different form, ranging from classical to progressive rock to death metal!
I have also been asked to perform as a guest artist and teacher at Stick Seminars. The most recent one was in Charlottesville, VA by Greg Howard, an incredible Stickist in his own right who discovered Dave Matthews, did his original demos and performed on DMB songs like “The Dreaming Tree,” who asked me and I accepted. I have also taught and hosted two Stick Seminars here drawing from the Northeast and as far as the Midwest and Mississippi.
What do most people ask you about it?
They sneak up and peek at my music book, and are amazed I read regular piano music. They expect triangles or Venn Diagrams or something. Yes, I read real music! Notes are notes and chords are chords.
What are some of the most noteworthy reactions?
Ninety-nine percent say “What is that thing?” They always ask if it’s a sitar! I got piano a couple of times when people couldn’t see it initially which I took as a compliment to my method of voicing chords. Some called it a “Rocket Ship” and another person called my original White Polycarb an “ice cream Stick.”
The second question is, “How can you do all that on one instrument, play lead, chords and bass all at once?” Then I give them a quick demo.
Similarities to upright bass? Cello? Zither?
It is like a bass guitar in that the patterns could be used but the outer strings of a three-string pattern would be in different octaves. The melody side is tuned in fourths exactly like a cello. An Oscar zither uses mechanical stops to create automatic chords – however the traditional zither is tuned in fourths like the melody strings from what I can glean.
Why do you feel jazz is suited to the Stick?
Jazz is based around the Circle of Fifths and very hip modern jazz around stacked fourths. Both are easily performed.
The bass side is set up in fifths so it is easy to play, for example, the bridge in “Jordu” just by going down every other fret.
Harmonically complex jazz chords can be made with one finger on the melody side due to the fourths being stacked. When both hands are played together very beautiful, wide-ranging jazz chords are easily accomplished and tension notes added since the two sides overlap in range.
Do you play other instruments?
Yes, I aside from the Stick, my main call around town is guitar and bass. I play gypsy guitar with Postcards from Paris, Pittsburgh’s only true bistro gypsy jazz trio. I play Dixieland traditional banjo with the DixieCupps. My mandolin has ended up on several CD’s, Natalie Wallace’s “A Little Closer” which received airplay on WDVE, The X and WYEP, and soundtracks Channel 4 ABC affiliate “Through the Years” documentary.
Who are your musical inspirations?
First and foremost, Charles Mingus. I first heard him on a Smithsonian Jazz Compilation album that my wonderful late father bought for me in high school, “Hora Debacutis.” The same song came up in listening assignments in Jazz 64 at the University of Pittsburgh.
When I went to Jazz Fest in New Orleans in 1991, I was going through the grandstand and they were playing old films, I looked through the curtains and there was a clip of Mingus and his quartet playing. I was stopped in my tracks and said “this is what I have been looking for!”
I went to Tower Records the next day, and found a CD “The Jazz Experiments of Charles Mingus” with a cool abstract 50’s art cover. Fell in love at first listen and it’s still one of my favorites. Read “Beneath the Underdog” which I recommend to every musician as well as “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac; and to visit New Orleans, New York and San Francisco and throw in Sedona, AZ as places good for a musician’s soul.
You don’t hear Mingus on the radio because he was uncompromising in terms of emotion and writing, and this “shocks” the public who thinks “Take Five” is the extent of jazz because it’s safe. So you ending up hearing homogeneous jazz like the garbage out of the LA studios that neither moves nor offends.
Which Chapman Stick musicians do you like?
-Dave Tipton “Residue” – very organic player and a really nice guy.
-Japhlet Bires Attias – superb jazz musician and writer.
-Darrell Havard – although playing more bass these days, one of the best “feel” players; in fact his song “R and Bee” is great!
-Tom Greisgraber – Tom is a cinematic player whose music just makes you want to fall down. He is an honor graduate of Berklee and was up for five Grammy Awards. He can cut a 12/8 monster groove and then play Chopin. I am honored to call him a close friend.
-Steve Adelson – Long Island Jazz Fest player and organizer
-Last but not in the very least, I have to mention Emmett, Greg Howard (“Blue Ridge”), Bob Culbertson, the pioneers of the Stick and former teachers of mine.
Favorite overall jazz musicians?
Mingus, Coltrane, Miles, Dizzy, Monk, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown, Joe Sample, Ahmad Jamal, don’t forget true vocalists like Billie Holiday.
Original or cover music, or both?
Every cover was once an original.
The only difference between an original, a cover and a standard is the proliferation of airplay, the song being played by artists other than the writer, and secondary sources; and music schools and critics, DJ’s and “important people” (those the public has elevated) giving particular attention to a particular piece.
A cult classic is determined by the number of people who pass a CD around and their “hip” quotient!
One of the truest and funniest lines about this subject came from my friend Tom Reilly when a concert attendee said to him, “What do you play?” He said, “Originals.” She said, “Then how do I know you are any good?”
The playing situation will determine the choice of true originals, your own works or collaborative works, or covers. A concert featuring yourself should be your own original music. A restaurant or small venue where you are not the central focus will be mainly covers so the public recognizes the song and will have a comfort with you and the music.
As long as a song is well written, has a moving melody line, interesting underlying harmonic structure and can stand alone without the lyrics, that is a good song worthy to be played and introduced to a new audience.
Many of the famous bop tunes were new melodies written over Broadway standards with the tempo sped up. Aside from idiomatic phrases, certain voicings and line-up of instruments, which speak “jazz” as the general public knows it, there really is no line between jazz, pop, rock, and Broadway songs. Otherwise the term “jazz” becomes nothing more than a proprietary phrase by information mongers and purists.
Do you play other genres of music on it (classical, blues, etc.)?
I love playing pop and rock if they are well-written and have the criteria listed above. I delightfully surprise crowds by playing “All Apologies” by Nirvana and improvising over the changes.
I have been in recent jazz groups that have called pop songs like Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” Bill Withers’ “Just the Two of Us,” Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love” and Sade’s “Diamond Life,” treating and empowering them like standards. I have played classical songs at weddings: J.S. Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and Pachelbel’s ubiquitous “Canon in D.”
Talk about your CDs, and if you have anything you are working on right now?
Greg Howard (Dave Matthews Band) always jokes when are we going to get a Dave Brosky CD? This is because I produced so many albums for other artists and also played on them. I was on five major radio stations here in Pittsburgh with different genres; Natalie Wallace’s “A Little Closer,” acoustic rock WDVE, the X and WYEP, Chuck Falletta’s “A Jazzy Christmas” on WJAS and a great seller at Borders, and did beats and produced Extreme Venom’s “Epicurious” EP on WAMO.
What is your favorite CD that you produced, or, track?
“A Jazzy Christmas” –it captured a great feeling like you had nowhere to go on Christmas Eve, and you walked into a small bar and this is what you heard and it touched your heart. More importantly, and I knew this was foreshadowing, I was memorializing performances by great musicians shortly after it was recorded by Jarius “Jerry” Elliott, who played piano on the CD, who passed.
He played trombone and arranged for Count Basie. Lloyd Cooke, my wonderful friend and mentor, played trumpet for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra where Miles came from. Chuck Falletta, a local celebrity and performer for 22 years, an incredible singer and really funny, passed too. There are some great performances and the one track with just Chuck and Jerry was the one which received airplay.
You seem very engaged with the audience and happy to perform. True?
The sole reason you are there with your gift of music is to elevate the audience from their work, stress, and problems, and make them feel great for the next three hours, and hopefully make some memories that they take home with them, and for them to reflect on when they feel the need.
They, in turn, applaud or come up later, and reinforce that you touched them, and that’s the best. Sometimes I’ll have an “aha” moment or something that surprises me, a line that goes a certain way or a rhythm that really hits, and makes me smile. You really are there for the music to entertain and hopefully introduce some new songs to the listeners that gives the songs a new ear and a new lease on life.
Do you regularly work with the same musicians, and if so, please talk about the personnel?
Mike Clancy, saxophone, flute, percussion (Groove Merchants/RML Jazz) – Mike and I have a duo called “Stick 2 It”. Mike is a consummate player and an incredible reader. More importantly he has an open mind to songs and to the Stick which led to our successful collaboration.
Lee Robinson, soprano sax (ISKA, international performer) – Lee always challenges me to push beyond my comfort zones and this is great. We have taught jazz workshops to young players, exposing them to the great world of jazz (see the YouTube of us playing at Waynesburg University – Wayne Shorter “Footprints”).
Bill Ferchak, saxes, keyboards, melodica (Sponges StarSearch finalists/Rex Theatre) – Bill always brings the right attitude for honesty to the songs and a great sense of humor. Bill is my Yin or is it my Yang. We have been playing together since our college days and he was one of the founding members of the DixieCupps and was in the seminal rock band of the 80’s Exhibit A. We are currently in Postcards from Paris with Nolan Ardolino, violinist extraordinaire, performing gypsy jazz and timeless classics.
Perry Pinto, bass guitar and trombone – Perry is one of my best friends and we met and have played together at the University of Pittsburgh. He has always been a major influence and a great sounding board for ideas. Perry is one of the founding members of the DixieCupps. He was a core member and key reason Exhibit A was as successful as it was and named one of the top rock bands in the city.
Lou Schreiber, piano, saxophone, clarinet – a mainstay at the William Penn Hotel for many years and with 5 Guys Named Moe, I truly believe Lou could play anything. He has an ear to pick up chords and the intricate voicings, bar none. We have played together privately and live on Dixie jobs first introduced by my mentor Mr. Nicholas Lomakin, whose guidance I still follow to this day and who gave me my first start teaching at his legendary store. Mr. L taught me about life beyond music, and I am eternally grateful. Mr. L was a legend of Dixieland and Society music here for many decades.
Abby Gross, saxophone/flute – Abby just plays from her heart and always is in the pocket with her solos. Her phrasing just makes you want to listen more. Abby was also very Stick-friendly and filled in on Stick 2 It! She is currently on tour with the Commonheart.
Favorite venue so far?
Café IO – Jeff and Carol, the crew, and all my followers were wonderful. I played three hours straight of any music I wanted in a quiet atmosphere where people loved and listened. The Summit Inn is also an honor to play on a historic veranda porch overlooking seven counties.
Where would you like to perform, or for what type of event, that you have not yet?
Roger Barbour, a magnificent player, leader and vocalist, whom I am truly honored to call friend, introduced me to a new project called “The Bridge” where performers will have a beautiful venue and be properly compensated. It is in the Kickstarter campaign currently and with venues disappearing, this is a breath of fresh air long overdue.
Talk about your recent performance with soul singer Kea Michaels.
Lee Robinson introduced me to Kea at one of our gigs. Next thing I know I was asked to be on the program honoring the late and legendary Ralph Young, a true humanitarian who ran the jazz workshops for children in East Liberty.
Kea and I did “The Boy from Ipanema” and I believe “Stormy Weather” on that TV program. We have remained in touch, and I encourage her in the face of naysayers. She has true talent, a kind heart and all the right facilities plus is a consummate performer. She has grown by leaps and bounds. Hopefully with her new CD, “I Love You,” which is fantastic, she will finally get the attention and kudos which are long overdue for this rising star.
Please add anything else you’d like about the instrument because very little is known about it!
People will come up to me when I am playing and peek over the music stand. They are surprised to see real music and not triangles, squares or some odd nomenclature. It can be strummed on occasion, thumbed/popped and a slide used on it. With the stereo output, you can run the melody side through a blazing Marshall Stack and the bass side through an Ampeg SVT, put a drummer in the middle and you have Hendrix!
Finally, the Stick can play any style or genre of music. It was a very soothing meditative quality. If you go on YouTube and type in Chapman Stick you will hear excellent players from around the world playing classical, jazz, rock, pop, prog rock and metal.
The advantage of tapping, especially using two hands, is the incredible speed and accuracy of playing notes and arpeggios faster, easier and cleaner than say on a regular bass or guitar. Emmett once told me, “If I wanted to make a double neck (instrument), I would have made a double neck!” meaning the entire touchboard is playable. With a little innovativeness with the two sides overlapping in notes, very complex textures and legato lines can be achieved.
Places you will tour for the remainder of 2017 and coming in 2018?
Please check my Facebook page for upcoming events. I have been at Café IO, Cefalo’s, Gaetano’s, Riley’s Pour House and was recently named Artist of the Month and performed in Wexford – so those would be a great place to keep a look out.
Ken Karsh, my longtime friend and guitar genius, has talked about getting together. That would be a lot of fun.
Bob Burns, guitarist from the innovative band Trainwreck, performed with me recently and it was magic. Although you can strum the Stick it really is meant to be tapped. With Bob playing the chords, key figures and soloing, it frees me up to just play the bass lines and to concentrate on the melody. We have tentatively picked out a list of challenging pop songs and hope to have a recording out by the end of the year.
I saw that international artists The California Guitar Trio are touring again. They are close friends of mine and I hope to open for them again if they come to Pittsburgh.
In jazz, it is more than just playing the notes, there is a tradition and a torch that is carried on from generation to generation. I was very blessed and grateful that I was able to be around, and invited to be involved in very special occasions.
Somehow, my name got associated with bass when I was playing for the ACBA players. I met Lloyd Cook there. Judge Warren Watson, Pittsburgh jazz legend whose picture hangs large at the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild, is a close friend and confidant. Warren prefers the EWI or Electronic Wind Instrument, which looks like a stealth clarinet but can generate any type of sound or instrument. Warren had private jam sessions at his house with the most amazing, funny, supportive musicians on the planet. Household names like Jarius Elliot, Cippio, James Worthington III, Lou Brock and Lloyd Cook and myself would get together on Thursday nights and just play through Real Book tunes. I learned so many songs those nights and heard some of the best real playing ever.
It was through Lloyd and Warren that I played the Hill House (and was asked back – the more important part!) and got an invite to the only private premier jazz club of the late Carl Arter (“Stolen Moments”) up in North Side. Literally a small panel slid in the door, and if it was okay, you were let in.
I believe I wore my beret, all black, and a day’s growth of bebop beard and soul patch, and Lloyd and I went up. I brought my electric bass, but immediately saw an acoustic upright and asked, “Could I play that?” They said yes. It was magical with Lloyd on trumpet, Warren on EWI, the Willis Moody of The Ink Spots on drums and some other very top musicians. NO keys were called, NO songs were called – we just played one song into the next for hours. I dug in and used my ears, and just kept that double bass swinging. At the end of the evening, I received the best compliments I have ever received. A perfect evening out of the dream book of gigs. I had blisters on my fingers from the upright but it was all worth it.
Warren was just honored along with many other musicians at the Preservation Jazz Society meeting for Local 741 members. Roger Barbour, a Canonsburg native, was given honorary status as a 741 member.
Others who taught and influenced me were:
My high school stage band director Thomas Keil 40’s Big Band music.
In high school, Joe Negri, legendary jazz guitarist, who taught me jazz idioms, chord voicings and writing for guitar.
At the University of Pittsburgh Jazz Ensemble, Nathan Davis, who taught the joy and coolness of jazz and hard bop, and how to better yourself as a player.
University of Pittsburgh’s Touring Stage Band “Solid Gold” with Don Hower playing modern arrangements and Maynard Ferguson pieces.
In college, Marty Moore, guitarist, my teacher who studied under Joe Pass and Pat Martino and taught me how to advance solo over moving key tonal center changes.
A funny thing happened lately. I was given a compulsory license notice by Spotify that a New Zealand rapper had sampled my original copyrighted work “Winter Solace” and even used the title for his album. Raiza Biza is the artist and I am listed as composer. In music this can happen as long as mechanical rights and royalties are provided per song play or pressing.
Last, please support live music. Body counts talks and you can be all altruistic and be a purist, but club owners will turn on Sirius XM or Spotify if the live music doesn’t meet their bottom line. Then another venue or music outlet is gone forever.
I remember a time in the 80’s when the Post Gazette had a full page of ads of all the venues and bands. Now this is reduced to a handful. There is nothing like live music, especially jazz which is best heard live in the moment!
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
(c) Debbie Burke 2017