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 Horizontal Versus Vertical Stick Technique 
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Post Horizontal Versus Vertical Stick Technique
I’d like to talk about playing the Chapman Stick horizontally, versus the “traditional” vertical style.

First off, I mean absolutely no disrespect. Many of you have been playing Stick for decades and have taught and made videos and have spent years researching and perfecting your technique. I’ve only been playing Stick for a couple of weeks now. I’m fully aware of how it looks when a noobie comes in and starts wanting to change everything before they even know what’s going on. Steve’s Law #6 is “You gotta learn the rules before you can be all cool and be breaking them. Don’t mistake ignorance for deliberate ground breaking.” I am firmly in danger of being more ignorant than ground breaking. But I have absolutely no pre-conceived notions of what works, or what is best. I have only the habits I take from decades of piano and from my traditional guitar playing (of which I do poorly but enthusiastically).

The chief reason I’m investigating horizontal versus vertical is that I’m almost 46 and I’m getting farsighted. I’ve always worn contacts and glasses, but now I probably need bifocals. I’ve put off getting bifocals, but I simply can’t see what the heck I’m doing on the Stick at times. With the fretboard so close to my face, I can’t see the damn frets! If I focus hard on the bass strings, I can’t see the melody and vice versus. Having the fretboard all laid horizontally out in front of me, at the same focus depth from my eyes, means a lot less strain to me than focusing “near” at the top of the board and then having to re-focus “far” to look at the further away frets. The Stick is a fairly long instrument and if you’re looking at it from the top, running all the way down, it’s a significant back and forth strain on my eyes to refocus where I’m at. I don’t have the muscle memory yet to play without looking where I’m at.

Good Stick technique seems to be elbows out like batwings, palms flat towards your chest, and tapping towards your chest, instead of arms down and out (like a keyboard player would). I call it the Batwing. Left hand up high, right hand lower, both hands reaching across the fretboard, from opposite sides, and elbows out, so that the hand naturally is palm down towards the fretboard.

Image

Traditional Stick playing feels more like pulling than pushing, in that my force is directed towards my body rather than away from it, without the weight of my body behind it as I would in playing piano. I get that it’s supposed to be a light touch and all, but my pinky is sooooo weak the way you all play. I don’t have a problem with the Batwing necessarily, other than my vision focus problems. But this position
Image
is my natural keyboard position. I can play the Stick with exactly the same stance in my hands. Why wouldn’t I?


Here was the accidental switch to horizontal (no offense to Emmett’s epiphany back in the late 60s to put the guitar in front of him vertically and tap on it, but it is a similar story from the opposite direction):

So I was tuning the Stick in my basement studio, with it laid down in front of me across the only flat surface at waist level in the basement: the washing machine (not your traditional studio appliance, I admit). My new-to-me 10-string was conveniently laid out in front of me just like a keyboard, but with 10 banks (strings) of frets stacked on top of each other, rather than just the two or three I’m used to from organ and from Keith Emerson imitations, with several banks of keys that you’re playing all at once.

Image
(And foot pedals, and if you’re the Doors Ray Manzerek, you are the bass player as well, playing bass keyboard with your feet.)

I’m tapping and tuning away, but I feel a bit guilty, because I remember someone saying that you shouldn’t tune a Stick laying down on a table because…reasons. I actually don’t remember why. I said “Fuck it!” and it seemed to tune just fine laying down rather than me wearing the darn thing and tuning it.

Two hours went by as I just noodled with this thing in its new position. I could finally see the whole fretboard without refocusing near and far. I could use my thumbs and do octave stretches between two strings by stretching out my left hand palm down and using pinky and thumb. My left hand keyboard style is strongly pinky and thumb, with pointer finger often rocking the fifth between the octaves. Traditional guitar, with Left Hand Palm Up and Squeezing (PUS), makes my thumb completely unusable, and my pinky is sooooo weak. I get that it’ll strengthen up, but it’s already pretty damn strong on the keyboard! Why is it so weak on the fretboard? To me, it’s the difference between pulling and pushing, and the hands down and away, rather than close to the chest.

I feel like I have a lot more finger strength and control in pushing down on the frets from above, Jeff Healey style, rather than “pulling” towards my chest. I’m sure you don’t consider it a “pulling” or “pushing,” just a “tapping,” but it seems to make a big difference to me.

If you’re going to truly use two-handed tapping technique, then ergonomically the most efficient playing style seems to be Stick horizontal, both palms down, all fours fingers and thumb available on each hand for tapping. With a slight angle to the horizontal Stick, it has the benefit of putting the bass strings kind of to the left and the melody kind of to the right like a piano.
Image

I have a lot more body strength in pushing down on my fingers, particularly my pinky finger from on top, with the weight of my body and arm behind me, rather than “squeezing” my hand, as in traditional string. My thumbs are largely wasted being used to support the back of the fretboard, or as an anchor for my fingers to do their tapping.

There’s really no difference in the right hand. You all are already playing palm down in the right hand and many get that thumb out from behind the fretboard and get all over it. But you (I really mean me) have no strength or power without anchoring that thumb behind the fretboard, especially in the left hand that is probably using the thumb behind the neck to anchor things.

My only change was to put the left hand palm down as well, and play from on top, pushing down, rather than tapping towards my chest. You can push down with much more force and control than you can “squeeze” (traditional guitar) or “pull” (Stick), but that may be more because of my 30 years of piano playing and the way that my finger muscles are comfortable, than anything intrinsic about the human body. Your mileage surely varies. Playing the Stick like a fretted piano, with 10 banks of keys (frets) in front of you, makes a lot more sense to my fingers. All four fingers and thumb are readily usable.

I’m used to scanning left and right across a keyboard, and a horizontal fretboard feels very natural to my fingers and my eyes.

Here’s two of the chief downsides I see to using horizontal technique:

Lessons: This will make taking lessons difficult. Maybe impossible?
Feedback, please? Especially from those of you who teach (hello probable likely future sensei!)

Coolness: I would give up the coolness factor of playing standing up with my guitar in front of me. But I never succumbed to the lure of the key-tar, even in the 80s, so my ego will get over it. And no one says I can’t still strap it on and tap from the back when I want to say “Hey, Ma, look at me, I’m cool!”

I don’t need a stand for it, the way I’ve seen some play sitting down. It fits nicely horizontally across my lap with my legs crossed. Maybe my legs will fall asleep that way? But so far, so good. It also fits nicely across a chair, and I’ve contemplated taking off the belt hook off the back to make it sit better on a table-like surface. A chair works just fine, with the hook next to the edge of the chair. Once the belt hook comes off, there’s no going back (well, not without putting that one screw that holds it back in).

There’s probably some other downsides to horizontal versus vertical, that I’m too ignorant of, to even know yet.

I’m aware that I’m off here doing something different. I swear I’m not just trying to be different; playing the Chapman Stick is different enough that I don’t need to be in any kind of a niche-y subgroup. I just can’t see the darn thing right next to my face! And I have a strong left hand pinky and thumb that feel completely wasted in traditional vertical position.

Questions:
1. Thoughts? Am I re-inventing a wheel here, or has this been addressed and dismissed for good reasons (please share!)
2. Does this make lessons difficult or impossible?

I appreciate your input, help, and support!

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Steve Sink, Paigan Productions
Rosewood 10-string, #5989, M4s
Sapphire Railboard, #6763, MR
Wenge-on-Wenge NS/Stick, #170130, Bass 4ths
http://soundcloud.com/stephen-sink-1
https://www.youtube.com/user/paigan0


Thu Sep 10, 2015 7:48 pm
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Post Re: Horizontal Versus Vertical Stick Technique
Hey Steve.

Keep in mind I am a relative newcomer as you read further, and my opinions dont mean shit. You are indeed trying to re-invent the wheel. Dont do it. Everyone else here will say the same.You've been at for only a few weeks. The method of playing becomes very comfy after a while, and by that I mean 6-12 months, for me anyways. You wouldn't turn your piano 90 degrees because it felt weird when you started (prolly a bad analogy but you get my point). And your piano teachers would scoff.

Ergonomically, the hand and arm positions lend themselves to a super suitable comfort zone, like holding an upright bass, or a fat cat...(sheesh).

You WILL get used to this playing method after some time. That being said, Steve Adeleson among others have adapted somewhat of a guitar position approach to the Stick, but still maintain the upright modality. You'll be doing yourself a disservice if you try anything else, particularly the Jeff Healey concept.

As for glasses....my vision sucks too, but that you will overcome. I moved to prog lenses, and that has helped, but I started with shit vision.

What pinky is giving you a prob? Your left hand or right? If its the right, don't sweat it, Greg can chime in on this one....but there's always the 3.....4 finger argument here that will go on forever.
Take time and have patience......don't turn it into a piano.

cheers,
kev

ps.
reason not to tune with the Stick flat,....gravity. Saggy boobs, saggy Sticks...

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Thu Sep 10, 2015 9:46 pm
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Post Re: Horizontal Versus Vertical Stick Technique
Once I played around for a couple weeks and picked out a few tunes I never felt like I was "pulling" and the near vertical stance/tapping technique was quite ergonomic and totally natural - but that's me. The Stick could certainly be played horizontally. I've seen it done. But as you surmised you'd pretty much be on your own in sorting out your technique and overhand way of navigating the geography of the fret board. On the other hand if you can play the piano well and already have a head full of music to be played with two hands, you shouldn't have any trouble finding scales and chord forms all by yourself. In other words just figure out where your piano repertoire lays on the Stick. BTW overhand technique on a stringed instrument has been done quite a bit already by Jeff Healy,a few others and decades earlier by the late great Thumbs Carllile who took it to a fine art. Thumbs BTW told me in a couple years before his death in the late 80s he was fascinated by the Chapman Stick and had played around on a borrowed one briefly. He was sure he could master it overhand but a late start,personal issues and an early demise at age 56 prevented him from getting around to owning one and giving it a shot. The way he played guitar was fascinating to behold and I'm sure he would have brought something special to the Stick. One of the few videos of him:


And then there's the Kelstone which sounds like a zither to me and the Harpejji which has a very plastic tone to me - but both are designed to be tapped horizontally. You can check them out on YouTube. The tunings and number of strings however make them quite different and pedestrian compared to Stick in my opinion and nowhere near as portable,musical or unique - and nowhere near the bold Stick tone. Chapman Grand Stick for me. I like it's ergonomics just fine.

My advice is give it a fair shot in standard vertical stance and put a Lap Dawg on it so you can play it in seated cello position. And don't change the tuning. The tuning is sheer genius once you get it. That way you can learn the chord forms and scales from a teacher like Gregg or Steve. If after a few months you're still not feeling it - try it in your lap and at least you'll know where some basic things lay on the neck.


Thu Sep 10, 2015 10:48 pm
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Post Re: Horizontal Versus Vertical Stick Technique
Thanks to Kev and Michael for suggesting I have something to offer here. Having been a keyboardist, I know the similarities between them, and also the advantages of the conventional Stick orientation.

I know that Trey Gunn has been playing this way for a while, though I don't know whether it's weight issues with his instrument or what the reasons are. The Kelstone started life as a horizontal Stick, and I've seen other players use this method as well.

I do know that when your thumb is behind the instrument and you are providing a base of support for the note it sounds better.

So while I'll occasionally use my thumbs to play harmonics or add notes on the bass strings with the right thumb, I tend to avoid pulling it from behind the instrument too often, and I really want the notes to sounds great all the time. I don't play the Stick exclusively because of the possible number of notes I can play, I play it because of the way it sounds and because of the expression it gives me; both of which are, I believe, naturally enhanced by having our opposable thumb in support of our fingers.

The other big advantage to having the instrument the usual Stick position is that both hands move in the same direction to change pitch on a string. This congruence is really helpful. Piano players deal with this disconnect all the time, as the hands are flipped in relation to the direction of pitch. I try to develop techniques that makes the hands as similar as possible in their common movements. The more similar they are, the more free.

As far as strength goes, that's easily enhanced with hand movement. When the hand moves in support of the pinky (as it does when you play keys), it give it much more strength. For melodic play, though, my contention is you don't even really need to use it ;) as three fingers is super fast and fluid.

To each his own, but there's a sensation to Stick playing I don't think you've felt yet. I'm happy to help in the context of an online lesson, or you can find out more about this on my DVD, Basic Free Hands Technique

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Fri Sep 11, 2015 2:29 am
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Post Re: Horizontal Versus Vertical Stick Technique
Wow, Kev, Captain, Greg, you guys all had great points to consider.

I appreciate the encouragement on blazing my own trail, and also, the knocks on the head to say hey, dude, give it a shot the right way before you start off on a tangent.

Kev: I need to get prog lenses and some new glasses. Steve's Law #3: "Know Thy Limitations, and Plan Ye Around Them" should have kicked in long ago. I'm making an appointment this afternoon with the eye doctor and get that sorted. I was surprised no one suggested "Have you tried not holding it so close to your face!" which in hindsight, pun intended, is also an option. But really, new glasses first. And you're right on all your other points as well. Thanks for reminding me about the saggy part: that makes perfect sense. I must say that I've not seen that yet, but the easy counter to that is that when my truss adjuster broke, my truss was not yet properly adjusted and I don't have the optimal action set up now anyway, to notice it shifting. Tool's on order and hopefully be here soon.

Captain Strings: First, thanks for the encouragement and the video. That was cool. But to this:
Quote:
My advice is give it a fair shot in standard vertical stance and put a Lap Dawg on it so you can play it in seated cello position.


Excellent advice. I think so far most seem to agree.

And to Greg: Thanks so much for chiming in! I really appreciate your perspective, and I love your videos! I had a bit about just using 3 fingers that I knew you'd respond to, but I also know it's a hot button topic in the community, so I left it out. But you rebutted that point that I didn't make for me very eloquently:

Quote:
I do know that when your thumb is behind the instrument and you are providing a base of support for the note it sounds better.

So while I'll occasionally use my thumbs to play harmonics or add notes on the bass strings with the right thumb, I tend to avoid pulling it from behind the instrument too often, and I really want the notes to sounds great all the time. I don't play the Stick exclusively because of the possible number of notes I can play, I play it because of the way it sounds and because of the expression it gives me; both of which are, I believe, naturally enhanced by having our opposable thumb in support of our fingers.

It sounds better playing it vertically, and the thumb is not "wasted" at all: it's integral to the sound, is what I took away the most. That makes perfect sense. And if my Stick was properly set up, I might have had different opinions right from the start about the thumb.

And without my truss rod adjusted (tool's on the way), I definitely have not yet felt the Stick at its best. I don't have any real problems with the traditional style other than focusing up close, and a new prescription will take care of that.

I do occasionally play my traditional electric guitar on my lap Jeff Healey style, but palm muting and palm effects are all weird, and I started out playing "correctly," so I never really switched over permanently. I fear that if I go too far down the horizontal path, I'll be stuck there. But the reverse is true too.

I think I'll just suck it up and gut it out with Matched Reciprocal the normal vertical way. I've got a bunch of your videos, Greg, on the way from Japan from the former owner who was a student of yours briefly in Virginia, and I really appreciate your theories on your technique. Your Internet videos certainly show that you're an awesome player.

I do enjoy playing it horizontally--it's "easier" for me so far, but I've barely just begun. Again, only real problem with Batwing vertical for me is focusing up close on the frets.

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Steve Sink, Paigan Productions
Rosewood 10-string, #5989, M4s
Sapphire Railboard, #6763, MR
Wenge-on-Wenge NS/Stick, #170130, Bass 4ths
http://soundcloud.com/stephen-sink-1
https://www.youtube.com/user/paigan0


Fri Sep 11, 2015 4:17 am
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Post Re: Horizontal Versus Vertical Stick Technique
I'm a noob who doesn't practice much, what I do on occasion is stand in front of a mirror, I also use my ear.

Bill


Fri Sep 11, 2015 7:20 am
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Post Re: Horizontal Versus Vertical Stick Technique
First vision. I am near sighted. When I play I usually use contacts which make both hands a bit blurry. I have been playing long enough where this is not a problem. For a beginner it will be.

So here are a couple of suggestions. First find the best " in focus" solution for each eye/hand in other words when playing is your left eye in clear focus with your left hand with the naked eye? Or contacts? Or contacts with reading glasses? Figure. It out and then do the same for the right eye/right hand. Then create that senario. You might be wearing one contact lens while you play or a pair of glasses missing a lens, but it might work. It may also drive you crazy, and I understand that we process vision as a combo of both eyes so it may not work. Just a thought.

As far as 3 or 4 fingered playing I really have to advise using 3. Now I'm thought of as a 4 fingered guy, but that isn't really true. I play as much with 3 as I do with 4. There are many thing which are just much better with 3. Arpeggios through "giant steps" I use mostly 3 because the pinky is useless. 3 work 4 don't.

Just my 2 cents


Fri Sep 11, 2015 8:23 am
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Post Re: Horizontal Versus Vertical Stick Technique
im near-sighted and now i cant see up-close...so i couldnt see with OR without glasses. got progressives. hallelujah.

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Fri Sep 11, 2015 8:47 am
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Post Re: Horizontal Versus Vertical Stick Technique
Brett,
Quote:
First find the best "in focus" solution for each eye/hand.

I'll be at the eye doctor in a couple of hours and I'll just discuss my issues and what I'm trying to do (which is, play a guitar close to my face and far away) and see what they say. I'm sure they'll have a solution or combination of solutions, as you suggested.

Quote:
As far as 3 or 4 fingered playing I really have to advise using 3.
I'm not gonna touch that one right now. I actually like the idea that you can do all that shredding and arpeggio-ating with just three fingers, and I know it's crucial to many player's style (and identity--just kidding!), but use the pinky if you need to, don't if you don't, seems to be a fair enough assessment of the pinky controversy (and it's just the right hand. Even the 3 fingerers use the pinky in the left hand that I've seen).

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Steve Sink, Paigan Productions
Rosewood 10-string, #5989, M4s
Sapphire Railboard, #6763, MR
Wenge-on-Wenge NS/Stick, #170130, Bass 4ths
http://soundcloud.com/stephen-sink-1
https://www.youtube.com/user/paigan0


Fri Sep 11, 2015 8:57 am
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Post Re: Horizontal Versus Vertical Stick Technique
AnDroiD wrote:
im near-sighted and now i cant see up-close...so i couldnt see with OR without glasses. got progressives. hallelujah.

Yeah, that's me. I used to be able to read up close and not see far away, but now I can't even see up close. Kev also recommended progressives--that'll be question number one for me for the eye doctor. Cheers!

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Steve Sink, Paigan Productions
Rosewood 10-string, #5989, M4s
Sapphire Railboard, #6763, MR
Wenge-on-Wenge NS/Stick, #170130, Bass 4ths
http://soundcloud.com/stephen-sink-1
https://www.youtube.com/user/paigan0


Fri Sep 11, 2015 9:01 am
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