Stick figure

Michael Kollwitz

photo by Larry Dalton

Michael Kollwitz (known about town as “Michael K”) can play the heck out of the Chapman Stick. He’s one of approximately 100 professional stick players worldwide and he lives right here in Sacramento. The Chapman Stick can play bass and melody at the same time and sound like a full band all by itself, meaning that Kollwitz can play all the parts to “Stairway to Heaven” simultaneously with no backup. Could Zeppelin do that? How come you’ve never heard of it? As Kollwitz explains: “New instruments take a while to catch on. They laughed at the inventor of the pianoforte. [In mock Viennese accent] ‘We already have the harpsichord. What do we need that for?’ So I’m in that pioneer stage.” The Chapman Stick may be the wave of the musical future, my friend, so read on, unless you want to get stuck with those skeptics still touting the harpsichord.

What is the Chapman Stick and how does it work?

Emmett Chapman invented it in the mid-'70s in Los Angeles. The most common instruments are 12-string, six-bass and six-melody. You play it by tapping fingers to strings directly on the frets. It’s more of a keyboard technique. Each hand plays independently. The left plays the bass and the right plays the melody. It’s wired in stereo so it can go to two complete amp sets and it sounds like two or three musicians all at once.

How did you discover it?

I saw Emmett Chapman perform at the UC Riverside Bar and Coffeehouse in the late ‘70s. The moment I saw him play that instrument, I was awestruck. He was making music that had never been played before. I decided to get one immediately.

You took lessons directly from the inventor?

When I picked up my first instrument, Chapman gave me a lesson that lasted two and a half hours. After that, I would drive into L.A. every four to six weeks and take a mega-lesson. This was at the beginning of the stick’s invention, so I’m considered one of the first generation stick students.

How long did it take to get proficient?

The first five years I sucked, but I stuck with it. I was very fortunate to have Chapman as my mentor. The odds of meeting a living inventor of a new instrument that’s this awesome are astronomical.

Are you a full-time musician or do you have a daytime alter ego?

I have played full-time at different periods of my life, but right now I do have a day job. I’m an outside sales rep for a communications distributor.


I sell big antennas!

Aha! What is a typical venue for stick music?

Just about anywhere. I’ve opened for The Beach Boys. I’ve performed at art festivals, concerts, weddings and even a wake. Just about everything but your Friday night, bump ‘n’ grind, beer and ZZ Top crowd.

Do you compose your own music or do covers?

Both. I have an ever-expanding repertoire, but I lean mostly to jazz, blues and rock.

Are you going to check out the Jazz Jubilee this weekend?

I may pop in. You know, when I came to Sacramento, that was one of the first places I contacted and they turned out to be the only organization I’ve ever gotten a rejection letter from. The stick was just too weird and different for them. They mostly want old guys with muted trumpets and here I am on the stick. It was like, “We don’t know what planet you come from, but you can stay there. It looks like you’re playing an alien guitar!” I actually had an agent bill me as an alien guitar player once.

The un-guitar?

Well, the stick is in the guitar family of instruments, but it’s not tuned or played like a guitar. Matter of fact, some famous guitar players have copied what they’ve seen on the stick. The most notable is Eddie Van Halen. Back in the old days, he did this wild finger-tapping thing and he told music magazines he got the idea watching stick players.

Where does one get a Chapman Stick?

You can get them from Chapman at Usually, if people are enamored of it, they find a way to get one.

Why has the Chapman Stick held your fascination for 25 years?

I love to play the stick. I love the sound of it. I love the expression on people’s faces. They’ve never seen it before, but then they get into it. I get into it, too, when I’m playing. Someone told me, “I can’t tell if you’re playing the stick or the stick is playing you.”

Well, those were all my questions.

But I haven’t said anything offensive or controversial yet!

OK, what’s the most offensive thing about stick playing?

Uh oh! I can’t really think of anything. [Laughs] Well, people do make all sorts of jokes about my "big stick." I just tell them that I have a permit to carry it.