Artist Interview: Chapman Stick Virtuoso, Steve Adelson
by Stephen Rekas
Who or what events inspired you to play the guitar? Was music a part of your household when growing up?
I loved the mid-late 60's musical output. I was at the Fillmore East just about every weekend listening to bands like The Allman Brothers, Jethro Tull, Frank Zappa, Procol Harum and many others. There was so much good energy in this music. I was at home. Well in the summer of '69, just before Woodstock, a friend showed me a couple of chords on his guitar and I was hooked. A year or so later I started taking real lessons from a local jazz guitarist named Charlie Didier. I studied with Charlie for about three years.
How were you initially exposed to the Stick? When did your conversion to the Stick occur? How long did it take before you felt comfortable in performing on it?
After playing guitar for 14 years, I started doing the two-handed tapping thing on the guitar after seeing Stanley Jordan perform on the streets of NY. A year later, I saw [Stick inventor] Emmett Chapman do a demo at a guitar convention at Madison Square Garden and knew I needed a Chapman Stick if I was truly going to pursue this new technique. Paul Ash of Sam Ash Music helped me obtain my first Stick and the rest is history.
As far as feeling comfortable, there have been many stages. I brought my first Stick out and performed in public just three months after purchasing it. Possibly ill advised but it was so exciting to share my newfound ax. The comfort zone changes depending on musical situations even to this day.
Do you still play jazz guitar?
No, I don't play the guitar at all anymore. I still teach guitar full-time, but all my practice and performance is done on the Stick.
What styles interested you when you first began to play? How do those preferences influence your current music?
I was a musical child of the very fertile 60's. The Allmans, the Beatles, and all the creative bands of this time period were in my DNA. My initial guitar noodlings went that way until I started studying jazz and was introduced to a different universe of music. I still try to combine sophisticated jazz harmony with the energy of the rock repertoire. It's fun to play swing versions of Led Zeppelin tunes.
Who were your teachers, mentors, and guitar heroes? Who did you listen to early on, and who do you enjoy listening to now?
As I mentioned, my main guitar guru was Charlie Didier in Brooklyn. I haven't seen him in 30 years and would love to find him. His teachings lead me to repeated listening of Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhardt, Kenny Burrell, Barney Kessel, Joe Pass and Chuck Wayne. Of course I also found Jimmy Raney, Tal Farlow and a slew of swinging jazz players along the way. I also loved Canned Heat and Frank Zappa.
My listening pleasures now include: first Pat Metheny, then Wes plus all the other cats. Add Ralph Towner, Joe Satriani, Jeff Beck, John Fahey, Michael Hedges and Ben Lacy and you have a small sampling of what I listen to. Playing the Stick, I'm also influenced by many pianists like Lyle Mays and McCoy Tyner. I take it all in. You can learn from almost any musical situation.
What elements are particularly challenging about playing the Stick? Could you give us a brief historical resume of the instrument? Does Emmett Chapman still oversee production of each instrument?
Whew! Okay, Emmett pretty much is in charge of most of the production of each instrument. Each is his baby and he ensures that they're all healthy. His first official Chapman Stick was made available to the public in 1974 after about five years of research and development. The models have changed and been refined over the course of these 31 years. Emmett's a master inventor and luthier and is always seeking to make his instrument better. The Stick has added more strings, frets and electronics. More variables are available to the interested player concerning pickups, fret styles and design. The stick comes in 8, 10 or 12-string models, the latter being known as the Grand Stick. Materials have also changed and Emmett has made Sticks out of various woods, a sophisticated polycarbonate material and now also offers graphite.
As far as the Stick being challenging to play, it's like any other instrument. It takes time. I actually think it's easier to play than the guitar. And it is so inspiring! The two-handed tapping technique takes some patience to master but the results are worth every minute of exploration. The joy of discovery is priceless
In your role as a teacher, what areas do you emphasize with your students?
Understanding the musical vocabulary is number one. What's a C Major chord? If you're educated in music theory the rest will fall into place. It's much more important than technique.
Can the Stick sustain a note as long as an archtop guitar?
Easily. The Stick is electric and depending on the processing it can do as much if not more than any kind of guitar. I use a Roland VG88 [processing/modeling system] and the variety of sound possibilities is mind boggling.
Can the tone or volume be altered by the way it is played rather than by turning a knob?
Yes. The Stick is sensitive to finger control and interpretation. It's up to the player to be expressive.
Have you ever had to weather a creative dry spell in your playing or composition? If so, how did you overcome it?
I'm sure every player of every instrument has gone through these periods. I'm usually confident that with time it will change. I'm patient and fortunately the Stick is so motivating, these lulls are very brief.
How has your family affected your music?
Support. And of course that's pretty major. It's very important if you wish to pursue your passion. My family has always been there in support of my musical adventures. A big thank you to them!
Apart from music, what are your interests?
For a while I was a member of The Society of American Magicians. I love good sleight of hand. And I also love to toy with the English language. I love puns. I also write for a few music publications and that has its own creative edge.
Please describe your practice routine.
I try to be disciplined and play a few hours every day, aside from my teaching. Sometimes I can still get in an eight-hour practice day, but not often. I run through repertoire, vocabulary and technique. The coolest part about learning the Stick is still its newness. It doesn't have a 200- year-old history with millions of players. Each Stickist is a pioneer. I love trying to find new Stick turf. It's amazingly inspirational