Emmett Chapman: The Beginning (1936-1969)
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by Jim Reilly
The Emmett Howard Trio, with Emmett on guitar playing barre cords and rudimentary basslines on the low E string plus a jazz pianist and drummer, found lots of work and he was able to leave the drill press behind. It is not surprising that he considered music to be a vacation when compared to his previous occupation and jumped at the opportunity to drop the press when music offered itself. In no time, the group was playing seven nights a week around Los Angeles. With Yuta doing office work and Emmett playing in the evenings, the Chapmans managed to make ends meet.
In 1961 Yuta and Emmett traveled to Germany with daughter Diana to visit Yuta's homeland. Emmett brought his guitar. By now, Emmett had already begun making alterations to his instrument. Modifying, refining his guitar was "as natural as changing hobbies in childhood."
Emmett became known as "the American guitarist in Hamburg with the weird guitar." It was a solid body National with a standard body shape. He added a cut-down children's block, on loan from Diana, behind the nut at the low end of the neck, thereby extending the guitar's scale length. He also added springs behind the bridge and under the suspended tailpiece. This produced a vibrato and pitch bend effect when manipulated with his right palm. The local jazz musicians were impressed. The public at large, however, did not seem to notice the American so much. Emmett played at a club four doors down from a place called Kaiserkeller where, at the time, four young lads from Liverpool were attracting most of the attention from the Hamburg music community.
In 1962, while still in Germany, Emmett and Yuta's second daughter, Grace, was born. The Chapmans then sailed back to the States.
With the family growing, feeling the need to settle down and start a career, Emmett volunteered for the Air Force. By 1963 he was enrolled in officer training at Denver, Colorado, where he trained in photo-intelligence. Emmett completed training as a Second Lieutenant and after two years rose to the rank of Captain. In 1966, Emmett did a four-month tour in Vietnam. He was in charge of a mobile complex of photo reconnaissance trailers in radio communication with Strategic Air Command Headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska. He completed his four-years of service in 1967.
By 1969, Emmett was thirty-two and earning a living working for the California Civil Service. His guitar had eight strings, a longer neck than a regular guitar and an odd-shaped body, “patterned after a spoon with cutaways," according to Emmett. He built this guitar at the Air Force wood shop while stationed in Omaha, Nebraska in 1965. It had evolved into a nine-stringed instrument, the lowest notes in the middle, and the higher notes going out in either direction from an interior point, and he dubbed it the "Freedom Guitar."
What happened next? This is when the moment of insight and inspiration that lead to The Stick occurred. Emmett was practicing in his studio/bedroom at his Laurel Canyon home when he did something no one had done before. He started tapping the strings of his guitar with all eight fingers perpendicular to the guitar's neck, hands approaching the fretboard as equals from opposite sides, but that story is for another day...
Jim Reilly is a musician, writer, journalist and educator living in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Since 2001, he has worked with and written about Emmett Chapman, Stick Enterprises and other Stick players. His work has been published in magazines around the world and online. Check out www.stick.com for some of his interviews and Stick related features. A fulltime Stick player since 1993, Jim has performed and taught Stick all around North America. Understanding, uncovering, and presenting The Stick Story continues to be a driving passion in his life. If you have a Stick Story of your own, feel free to drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org (b.t.w., the 2111g is the serial number of his favourite graphite Stick, he really digs this stuff).