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
Topics of discussion:
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
. The other important thing to consider
here is that Stick Enterprises
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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
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.