Emmett Chapman, pioneering musician and inventor of the Chapman Stick, dies aged 85

Emmett Chapman
(Image credit: Stick Enterprises)

Emmett Chapman, the inventor the Chapman Stick, has passed away aged 85, according to a statement on his company website.

A post on the homepage of the Stick Enterprises site (opens in new tab) reads: “The musician, inventor of the Free Hands two-handed tapping method and The Chapman Stick, and founder of Stick Enterprises, died at his home on Monday, November 1, after a long battle with cancer. The funeral will be held on Friday, November 12.”

Chapman invented the 10-string instrument, which he dubbed The Stick, in the late ’60s. A keen jazz guitarist with an eye for innovation, Chapman already played a custom long-scale 9-string guitar, which included a gear shift lever for a “wild string”, allowing him to access various different intervals on demand. 

He had begun to practice (opens in new tab) playing while standing, and one night hit upon the method of playing the instrument in an upright position, using both hands at right angles to the neck in order to play tapped passages. 

The new position allowed far greater access to (and speed of movement along) the full width and length of the neck. He dubbed the technique "free hands”.

Chapman soon began developing a new instrument, before finally unveiling the 10-string Chapman Stick five years later, in 1974. 

‘The Stick’ had the appearance of a large fretboard and was designed to be played upright, via a belt-hook and shoulder strap. It featured five bass strings and five melody strings, with the lowest strings in the middle of the fretboard.

Chapman began promoting The Stick and his free-hands technique with demonstrations on shows like What's My Line?, before it caught the attention of some of the era’s finest progressive players, including ex-Weather Report man Alphonso Johnson and Pino Paladino. 

Session legend Tony Levin became particularly associated with the instrument. An early adopter, he was soon using it in performances with Peter Gabriel and later in with the likes of Al DiMeola, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Yes. Nick Beggs, meanwhile, used it in his work with Gary Numan and Belinda Carlisle.

The instrument, alongside a passage from Chapman’s 1985 song Backyard, even appeared in David Lynch’s Dune, ‘played’ in the scene by Patrick Stewart.

Its inventor continued to play music and tour, alongside managing his burgeoning business and teaching his “free-hands” technique. The Stick went through many iterations and tweaks in Chapman’s lifetime. By his own estimate, Chapman had produced more than 6,000 of the instruments, all from his own workshop. 

“I picked two roles for myself, as a manufacturer and a musician,” he once said (opens in new tab). “Sometimes they're at odds with each other.” 

Broadly, though, it seems Chapman found satisfaction in his multifaceted role, as he told Electronic Musician Magazine (opens in new tab) in 1987: “Somehow it all seems to fit together for me, with each endeavor giving depth to the other.”

Stick Enterprises (opens in new tab) will be closed for business until Monday, November 15. 

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Matt is a freelance journalist who has spent the last decade interviewing musicians for the likes of Total Guitar, Guitarist, Guitar World, MusicRadar, NME.com, DJ Mag and Electronic Sound. In 2020, he launched CreativeMoney.co.uk (opens in new tab), which aims to share the ideas that make creative lifestyles more sustainable. He plays guitar, but should not be allowed near your delay pedals.