The Struggle Begins

When I ordered my 10-String Bamboo Chapman Stick back on May 5th in these Days of Wine and Covid, I wasn’t thinking in terms of a Christmas present. But in a minor Christmas miracle, my much delayed shipment left California on December 18th, and arrived on my doorstep (did I hear reindeer?) on Christmas Eve.

That may seem like a long delivery time – because it is – but you have to remember that these instruments are handmade to order by Emmett Chapman and his team (many of whom are family) in the same shop in the same house since the mid-70s. Normal delivery time is 5-6 months, but like most everyone his production was short-handed due to coronavirus restrictions and precautions.

I first posted an article about the challenges I would face learning to play this instrument back in June of 2016. To summarize, although I currently have the 8-string Stick Bass, it is tuned in what are called “fourths”, just like a regular bass guitar. Although you play a Stick by tapping strings with both hands rather than using one hand to hold down the appropriate string(s) and the other to pluck/slap/strum/ pick, since I’ve been playing bass since I first bought one from the Montgomery Ward catalog 46 years ago, I at least knew the fretboard.

What makes the Classic Stick I just received even more unusual is the way the strings are arranged and tuned. As you hold the Stick, upright and at a slight angle, there are 5 “melody strings” tuned in fourths. The lowest string is in the middle of the fretboard, and they move up in intervals away from you, or towards your left hand. However, you play them by tapping with your right hand.

That is not as bad as it sounds. If you’ve played any stringed instrument, you are used to the strings moving up in pitch in that direction. Since all five are tuned in fourths. This means scales are in consistent patterns, and chords can be played in the same “shapes” up and down the fretboard.

Here’s a brief video showing what I mean by that.

Please remember I’ve only had this for 4 days

The bitch-kitty is the way the “bass strings” are arranged. They also have the lowest string in the middle, but move towards the right-hand side (towards you). This is called “inverted” and is like trying to play a left-handed 5-string bass while holding it right-handed.

But wait, it gets worse. They are not tuned like a standard bass, instead they are tuned in fifths. So all of the patterns I’ve learned over those 46 years are completely useless. It is not simply a mirror image of what I’ve learned, the relative positions of the notes on adjacent strings have all been shifted two frets.

Here’s a short video on inverted fifths tuning.

This tuning is called “inverted” because the strings are tuned with the lowest notes in the center of the fretboard and moving up in the opposite direction from standard stringed instruments.

Finally, the open notes (pluck a sting without holding down on any fret) of 9 out of 10 strings are tuned completely differently from the open notes on a guitar or bass (the lowest open note is a “B” like on 5-string basses). So all of the notes everywhere on the fretboard, bass and melody, are in new and exciting places. No more playing a standard blues or walking bass line without paying a lot of attention to what my left hand is doing.

As you look straight on, 5 melody strings move from center to right side, 5 bass strings from center to left.

I mean, for goodness sake, even the fret markers are different! On a bass, guitar, ukulele, the Stick Bass, even a friggin’ charango, there are markers on the fret board to identify the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, and 12th frets (usually a double mark for the 12th). On longer necked instruments (of which the Stick qualifies at 36″) you would see the pattern repeat with markers starting 3 frets down from the 12th, then 5 down, and so on.

Not so on the Stick. With this particular “10 String Classic” tuning (oh yeah did I mention there are at least 8 different tunings in use by Stick players?), the fret markers are at the 2nd, 7th, 12th, and 17th frets. Some of those alternative tunings have fret markers in different places on the melody side than on the bass side. If that’s not enough to make a guitar player mutter to himself, this is assuming you don’t count the very first “x fret”, which is playable but also has a damper so open strings don’t ring

Arrgh!

To try and prep for this, back in June I tuned the 4 melody strings of my Stick Bass (8 strings, remember) to match four of the five melody strings on the Stick. At least this way I could start practicing some of those shapes on the melody side.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to change the 4 bass strings to match the inverted fifths tunings, so they stayed in standard fourths.

This turned out to be of limited help. Another short video, this one first shows the beginning of “Down on the Corner” played on the Stick Bass. Note the movement of my left hand, near the top of the Stick Bass. The second clip shows the same song as I struggle to play it on the new Stick. Note the left hand is now completely different.

Bass lines for “Down on the Corner”

So the upshot of all of this is that I am almost starting from scratch on a new instrument. Although it looks and sounds like a guitar, playing it is more similar to a piano, where each hand works independently to merge the lower and higher registers into one melodic whole.

Or not.

For most of the accomplished Stick Men (yes, that is what we call ourselves – and before you ask, there are Stick Women too) you are not really playing a standard bass line of individual notes with the left while playing chords or a lead with the right. Like I said, the left hand does duty like the left hand on a keyboard, typically playing little chords, triads, or arpeggios to add a bottom and rhythm to the melody strings.

Here’s a good example of playing “Amazing Grace” using that keyboard-like method. This is Greg Howard, one of the early adaptors who performs, composes, and teaches.

Although of course there are those who will sometimes shake it up a little by playing part of the melody in the upper bass string registers, or use the bass strings more as a rhythm element.

Needless to say, I have a long road ahead of me. So yes, the struggle begins. It is said that you need to practice a new skill for 10,000 hours to become proficient. In that case, if I can practice an average of two hours a day, check back with me Labor Day weekend in 2034.

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