Getting a Stick
Glenn Poorman, July 2001

So you think you'd like to learn to play the Stick? But now that you've made this decision, you have absolutely no idea on how to proceed? The obvious first step is to actually get an instrument. The first thing you discover as you start to research, however, is that there are way more options than you probably imagined. First of all, there is the decision as to buying used or new. After that (and especially if you buy new), the possibilities can become a bit overwhelming. Let's break some of these options down.

Topics of discussion:

Used Sticks

Yes, although the instrument may be new to you, the Stick has been around since 1974 meaning several thousand instruments have been made and sold. This means that used ones do creep up locally and at places like EBay. The other important thing to consider here is that Stick Enterprises will frequently buy used Sticks back from people, recondition the instruments, and then sell them as used. Personally, if you're going to try for a used instrument, I recommend buying a reconditioned one from Stick Enterprises. By the time Emmett gets done with his reconditioning job, they generally leave the shop like new. You may pay a little bit more but you're guaranteed of getting a Stick that's perfectly setup.

If you do find one from another source that you're interested in, try and get the serial number from the seller. Also find out what model it is and what kind of wood was used. With that information, you can call Stick Enterprises and get a history.

One issue with used Sticks is that the olders models did not have all of the adjustable components that the newer ones do (mainly the adjustable truss rod and bridge). This isn't necessarily a problem except that with the variety of tunings and string gauges commonplace these days (more on that later), you may find you want to make some semi-dramatic changes in your setup which could easily result in the need for a neck and/or bridge adjustment. I don't want to over-dramatize because I know for a fact that the older instruments are excellent. If you can afford it though, I would recommend going for a newer model with these adjustable components.

New Sticks

The advantage of a new Stick is obvious. It'll be new. Unlike some guitars or other instruments where "older is better", the Stick is still the same high quality instrument that has been handmade in Emmett's garage since the creation of Stick Enterprises and Emmett continues to improve the design each year with new features and innovations. Today, there are more options available than ever before. Compared to getting a used Stick, I can only see two possible disadvantages. The first is the cost. I've occasionally seen a persons heart skip a beat when they learn the cost of a new Stick but I think that shock is unfounded. For starters, depending on what you get, you'll be paying anywhere from about $1500 up to $3000. When you stop to consider that, after you order your options and specify the kind of wood to use, your instrument is handmade and setup by Emmett himself, that cost seems very reasonable. When was the last time you went to an established luthier and priced a high quality handmade acoustic guitar. I guarantee you it's going to be more than a new Stick.

The only other possible disadvantage I can see is the wait. It's not uncommon at all to order a new Stick and wait 3-6 months before you see it. Again though, you have to consider the process. Your order is followed by somebody going out and chopping down the tree for the wood (I'm obviously exaggerating a bit here but you get the idea). Sticks are built in production runs filling several orders all at once so, depending on where in the cycle you ordered, you could end up waiting a lot or a little. Considering that you don't see Sticks floating around every day, there really isn't much of an alternative to this aside from checking out the used market.

Serial Numbers

Talk of serial numbers comes up all the time. People who own instruments are always saying things like "I own 10-string #1234". Additionally, when shopping for a used instrument, people always say "get the serial number and call Stick Enterprises". The question inevitably comes up ... what do the numbers mean and why does there seem to be a lot of overlap? Aside from the NS models, Stick instruments (8, 10, and 12 string) are numbered sequencially as they are built with no differentiation between the models. At one point, however, numbering started over again so that is why there is overlap in the timeline. The story here (as it was told to me) is thus. In 1974, Emmett built his first production Stick made of Brazilian Ironwood and numbered it #101 (which I believe he still has). I think he built two or three thousand Ironwood Sticks until switching over to hard woods. At that point, a whole selection of woods became available (maple, rosewood, padauk, etc) and Emmett started the numbering sequence over again at #1. So as you can see, quite a bit of overlap exists. Consequently, a simple serial number is not enough to identify a Stick. That number must be matched with the wood or, more specifically, you have to specify whether the instrument is Ironwood or something other than Ironwood.

Models

Currently, Stick Enterprises offers five Stick models. First, there is the original 10-string Stick. Next, there is the 12-string Grand Stick. There is also a Ten String Grand Stick, an 8-string Stick bass, and the new NS/Stick which is an 8-string bass/Stick hybrid co-created by Emmett Chapman and Ned Steinberger.

I am going to focus primarily on the first three models since these are the style of instrument I play myself. I will briefly touch on the SB8 and the NS but these are somewhat different instruments and I've had very minimal experience with them.

10-string Chapman Stick

The 10-string Stick is the original Stick. The strings are separated into two groups. The melody strings (string #1-5) are tuned (from the your left to the middle of the fretboard) in descending 4ths like a guitar or bass. The bass strings (string #6-10) are tuned (from the middle of the fretboard toward your right) in ascending 5ths. The bass side is the part that usually throws somebody coming in with experience on guitar or bass. First of all, on both the melody and bass side of the instrument, the lowest strings are in the middle of the fretboard so the bass side of the Stick is like an upside down electric bass. Secondly, the bass side is tuned in ascending 5ths as opposed to 4ths so a bass player will generally feel lost for a while until they get used to it (a cello player is going to feel right at home). At first, the 5ths tuning seems odd but, as you learn, you begin to realize that the 5ths tuning provides chordal possibilities in the bass that are not available on a bass tuned in 4ths.

12-string Grand Stick

The 12-string Grand Stick adds two additional strings. The instrument can be configured so that you can add an extra melody side string and an extra bass side string (6+6) or so that you get two extra melody strings (7+5). Additionally, the fretboard of a Grand Stick is slightly wider but, even with that, the spacing between the strings is slightly smaller than on a 10-string. The important thing to note here is that getting an instrument with 12 strings as opposed to 10 isn't going to make it any harder to learn since, tuning wise, the 10 string is simply a subset of a 12. In other words, if you think you will want a 12-string once you become a bit more accomplished and you can afford it now, start with the 12-string. As far as the extra strings and smaller spacing, this is more of an issue with existing players trying to switch over as they've already gotten used to playing a certain kind of Stick.

Ten String Grand Stick

The Ten String Grand Stick is new. What Emmett has done with this model is to take the fretboard of a 12-string Grand and put 10-strings on it. You could almost look at it like a luxury car. A 10-string with a wider fretboard and wider string spacing. I haven't played or even seen one of these yet but I would imagine, with the extra spacing, that this instrument allows you to play with somewhat less precision (which could be helpful for a beginner, or a performer who likes to move around a lot).

NS/Stick

As I mentioned earlier, the NS/Stick is an 8 string bass/Stick hybrid created by Emmett Chapman and Ned Steinberger. The tuning is just like that of an electric bass with the lowest string on the outside closest to you and the rest of the strings ascending in 4ths. The output of the NS/Stick is easily switcheable between mono (8-strings out) or stereo (strings split 4+4). Also, the NS/Stick uses a regular strap and is setup so that you can either play by tapping or by using any of the tried and true bass techniques (picking, fingers, etc). This makes the NS/Stick a very desirable option for those who already play guitar or bass as they can pull the instrument from it's case and start making music on it right away. You do lose a couple of things though. The position of the NS/Stick is not as vertical as a 10/12-string Stick which can make tapping certain areas of the fretboard awkward (although that is what makes the other techniques doable). Additionally, with the strings tuned in straight 4ths, there is no overlap in range between the bass strings and melody strings. This makes it more difficult to play some of the more piano-like music you can play on a 10-string or 12-string (which has the greatest overlap of them all). What this model gives you that the others don't is an instrument to provide the bassist with more range and the ability to tap without forcing that player to learn a whole new instrument and new technique.

SB8

The SB8 has the same dimensions as a 10-string Stick. This model, however, has only 8 strings resulting in a slightly wider spacing between the strings. The SB8 is generally tuned with the lowest string on the outside closest to you and the rest of the strings ascending in 4ths (like the NS). As an option, you can order an SB8 with the strings tuned and grouped like a 10 or 12 string (lowest strings in the middle, melody in descending 4ths, bass in ascending 5ths). My own opinion here is that, with the strings grouped like a 10 or 12 string, it wouldn't be too long before you run out of range and want more strings. With that, I would suggest going for a 10 or 12 string model. If you like the wider string spacing, get the Ten String Grand. With the strings tuned in straight 4ths, this makes the SB8 more like the NS/Stick in it's string configuration. What the SB8 provides over the NS, however, is the ability to still learn and use Emmett's original fully upright tapping technique. My own experience with the SB8 is admittedly very small so if you came here interested in this model, please do more research before making a decision based on these writings.

Graphite

As I mentioned earlier, Stick Enterprises has offered a fairly extensive selection of wood choices for new instruments. Recently, however, they have also started offering instruments made of graphite. Being a lover of both the sound and the aesthetic of exotic hardwoods, I didn't really give the graphite models much thought. The feedback I've been hearing from people who have played on them though has been overwhelmingly positive. I still haven't even set eyes on one of these models yet but, if you're in the market for a new instrument, I would strongly advise talking to people and checking around before dismissing the idea of getting a graphite Stick. For more information on these new models, check out the Stick Enterprises page on graphite Sticks at www.stick.com/instruments/graphite.

Resale Value

In spite of the number of Stick instruments that have been made, you still don't see them everyday. This means that many people interested in trying the Stick need to justify a decision to put out a substantial amount of money on something they haven't tried and don't even know if they'll like. Admittedly, this is a difficult decision to make. There is an upside though. The resale value on Stick instruments continues to be pretty high. For starters, Stick Enterprises will buy back any Stick instrument. You probably won't get your full expense back but, depending on what you paid and the condition of the instrument, they will pay you a fair price. If you want to try unloading an instrument on your own, there are a few options. I've seen Stick instruments sell on EBay on several occasions and they always seem to fetch a good price. Also, the StickWire and StickNews mailing lists are usually a hotbed of instrument sales activity. Those lists are not only a good place to try and sell an instrument, but also a good place to try and buy if you're in the market for a new one.

The bottom line here is that you're not going to have to eat a large sum of money. Either you're going to take to the instrument (at which point I guarantee your life will change beyond anything you could put a dollar amount on) or you'll end up easily selling and only losing a little money.

Considering the reward potential, I'd call that a risk worth taking.