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Exploring the World of Touch Style Playing

Though I am left handed, I play bass right. Don’t know why, I just do. In fact, holding a left handed bass feels so odd, I just can’t identify how other ‘lefties’ do it. They have my respect. The irony in this is that the most speed and dexterity seems to lie in my right hand. I am left therefore with a nagging sense of potential unrealized.  Right?

Aside from the occasional hammer-ons and harmonic work, the right hand seems dedicated solely to the task of pushing the strings into action. Honorable work certainly, but I am still left with the feeling that I could be doing much more.

Touch style instruments can unlock the right hand simply through the physics of the instrument. Suddenly, both hands can move into the musical arena as chord shapers and ‘tone generators’.

For the few that are not aware of those physics, we must first look at conventional guitar and bass. For argument sake, we will be referring to this as if we were all right handed players playing right-handed. The left hand depresses the string to the fretboard and the right hand plucks the appropriate string(s). The tone produced is of course sensed by the pick up and reproduced.

The difference with the touch style method of playing is that the note is produced simply by depressing the string to the fretboard. No other action is necessary. With multiple strings covering the musical range of a bass and guitar, using 8, 10, 12 or more strings, the right hand, usually relegated to plucking the string, is now free to depress even more strings, covering even more chordal work or producing counter melodies and matching the parts played by the left. What you have in effect is the ability and a freedom usually reserved for piano players.

In interviewing Tony Levin for this issue and the previous one, I had to do a bit of homework on his work as a Stick player as well as his other roles on electric and acoustic bass. Profile wise, Mr. Levin has the highest level of recognition in the world of Stick players. No one seems to have made quite the dent in the world of music playing Stick as he has, so far.

That is not to say that there aren’t artists out there of comparable ability playing The Stick and other touch style instruments, but Tony was one of the first. In interviewing him, it was interesting to note that Tony repeatedly refers to his playing as being somewhat minimalistic, deliberately kept simple.

When you listen to the various bands he has been in, most notably King Crimson and his own most recent solo project, Waters of Eden, he sounds anything but simplistic. He does say that he tends to try to keep things down to basics, staying away from chordal work and in fact mostly favoring the bottom register, the bass strings themselves, tending to leave the upper register alone. In his other new double CD with Bill Bruford, entitled Blue Nights, he does venture however into that upper register, reinforcing the guitarist David Torn’s playing area.

There are many other touch style instrument players out there who have approached the instrument from an entirely different angle. You must realize that for all intents and purposes, this is a new instrument with a history of only 2 decades. You will find there is no absolute school for the ‘correct way’ to play touch style. There are certainly instructional books out there, and it is even possible to enroll in a 5 to 6 year course at a college in Spain that will cover the playing of the instrument like it would the playing of classical guitar, but there is still a lot of latitude available.

This latitude produces two results immediately: a free environment expressing great creativity, and a field of complete indiscipline producing volumes of dismal mundane music. The natural tendency in uncharted areas is to take the path beaten out by previous travelers, subsequently a lot of these players and the groups they are members of, tend to write tunes that come across very much like King Crimson. In time, as the instrument matures in the artist’s minds, there will less of a tendency to do that.

In this first of 3 parts examining this method of playing called `touch style’, we will be looking at some of the up and coming bands using both The Chapman Stick and Warr Guitars. Bands like `99 names of god’ take the Warr path while the Ozone Quartet and Smokstick opt for the Stick. All produce interesting music and all must be commended for being willing to ‘think outside of the box’ when it comes to musical instruments.


In this issue we talk to Mark Cook, Warr Guitarist for `99 names of god’, examining their new album and talking with him about his experiences with both the Warr Guitar and the Chapman Stick. He has great things to say about both of the instruments and explains his perspective on the differences between them.

Global Bass: At first glance it appears as if this new instrument you have from Warr has two necks placed side by side. Is that an accurate evaluation?

Mark Cook: No, actually the neck is a nine piece, laminated like a traditional guitar or bass neck. This new instrument is a lot different than the standard playing technique that most Stick players or Warr players have in that this entails more of a separate approach. Your left hand plays strictly bass and your right hand the melody. The other ones are more integrated. It’s not impossible but it is more difficult with this to play two handed on the melody now.

Global: The woods used for the instrument are very beautiful.

Mark: The picture itself is a bit out of focus, it’s actually more intense than that, and the colors are very rich.

Global: Are there a lot of truss rods in the neck, with it’s massive width, to keep it straight?

Mark: Just the two.

Global: And these would be custom length soap bar pickups on it as well?

Mark: Bartolini custom winds.

Global: Many acoustic 12 string players comment about how difficult it is to keep their instrument in tune, that anything and everything can affect that tuning. In a 14 stringed instrument, how is this handled? Can heat or humidity change the tuning?

Mark: Not at all. I think that with the much lower tension of the strings on all the instruments, they tend to remain stable, once tuned.

Global: Also, your not attacking the string, pulling and snapping it as is the case on a conventional bass.

Mark: There’s less stress on the strings. With the Warr guitar I tend to do a lot more plucking and hammer-ons. When you are using the Stick or the Warr guitar, you have that bass string in the middle of the neck of the instrument…and usually I find that that bass string can feed into the melody pickup. I’ve owned 5 Sticks and I’ve owned 4 Warr guitars. It happens in all of them, it’s inherent n the design. It really affects your phrasing when you’re trying to sustain a melody note and then allowing that note to decay, then this bass string starts to bleed into your distorted signal. This can really wreak havoc on your sound. The idea of the new instrument is to separate the electronics. Then you have a very distinct bass sound.

Global: With such a large number of strings, how do you manage to damp all of them so they don’t start vibrating sympathetically?

Mark: They have the muting at the top of the neck. I usually add a little more muting with the palm of my hand. On the new instrument, I’ve actually added some soft felt and that kinda eliminates some of the ringing.

Global: Was it pretty intimidating when you first started to tangle with such large necks? How do you keep it all sorted in your head?

Mark: I started in late `89 when I bought my first Stick. I was a guitar player before, so it really was kind of a shock at first. The Stick is very different than the traditional bass or guitar. The feel, the play, the sound, everything is different. Usually you almost have to give up your first instrument to really progress. It tends to return to a safe zone, where you are used to what you have always played. The best thing though is to move on (Oh, keep playing your bass if you want to!), but find out what is different and innovative about the instrument.

Global: You said earlier that you have owned quite a few Sticks and Warr guitars. What would you view as being the difference between the two?

Mark: With the Warr, you get a different sound than the Stick. The Stick is very much about ‘the attack’. The coolest thing about the Stick, and it’s something that probably everyone knows, it’s that great bass sound. The guitar sound is very distinctive and if you love it…great. But if you want a little more sustain, a little less attack, a little more ‘guitar-like’ sound then the Warr Guitar has that ‘after the attack’ sound that I like. You hit the note and you’ve got this nice swelling effect. It’s like a Les Paul and a Strat. They’re both guitars, both constructed differently. I still own a Stick and I still play it all the time, but I just like the variety, really.

Global: Does the freedom presented with these instruments affect the way you approach writing?

Mark: Yeah it does. It was the wide range of notes was what got me interested in using the instrument because now I could play bass lines, guitar parts and you could almost fit within any band and fill a role.

Global: How do you sort out what tuning to use?

Mark: On this new instrument, I am using the same melody tuning (as a guitar) but on the lower strings I am starting with a B-Flat.

Global: One of the chief complaints with the 5 string and 6 string bass is that the bottom string tends to ‘flap’, often producing an inarticulate note without a lot of power behind the amplification. Do you find that true with your instrument?

Mark: The tapping technique is a more precise technique than slapping or plucking, so as long a you have a large enough speaker with enough power to handle the low end, you can play pretty low without it losing that clarity. There’s a little more clarity with tapping. I do use bi-amping, with the top end through a guitar amp and the bottom through a bass amp.

Global: About strings, where do you go and do they have to be custom made?

Mark: There’s a few dealers, like Frank Jolliffe, he has a quarterly newsmagazine that lists that kind of thing. Emmett Chapman and Mark Warr also carry them.

Global: One of the chief bones of contention for bassists is that a new set of strings costing anywhere from $15 to $50 a set, last 5 playing hours and then the quality, the sustain, everything that makes them sound new curves off so quickly. You can use them for another month or so but they begin to play like fence wire. Do you have the same problem?

Mark: They actually can last a really long time. With the Stick, you have the fret rods and they really kind of have a lot of brightness to `em, and they are stainless steel. You tend to not have to change strings so often then. Plus you don’t have that tension that ages strings. On the Warrs, as long as you wipe `em down, keep `em pretty clean, I’ve gone 6 months without thinking about changing them. The melody strings are the ones that need changed the quickest. The thinner it is, the quicker it needs to be changed.

Global: Pricing…these are exotic instruments, so the opportunity exists for the manufacturer to really nail you cost-wise. Does this happen here?

Mark: No, No, No. The Stick runs for about $2000 US, the Warr Guitar, the 14 string was about $400 more.

Next issue we will talk to Steve Hahn, Stick Player and author of numerous albums featuring the instrument. As well, by then there is a good chance we’ll have that breaking news about a new and apparently improved innovation from Dave Bunker of Bunker Guitars.


Web Pages for the Instruments Described Above… 

Chapman Stick information can be found at…

A link page for the Stick featuring books, seminars and a multitude of Stick Players…

Warr Guitars can be found at

Frank Jolliffe’s pages on all methods and philosophies, books, lessons, seminars & clinics on Touch Style and tapping can be found at

and he can be contacted directly at


Mark Cook and the CD’s for 99 names of god can be found at

Bunker Guitars are a registered trademark of Dave Bunker Guitars. You can find their web site at

‘Touch Style’ is a registered copyright of Touch Style Productions.

The ‘Chapman Stick’ is a registered trademark of Stick Enterprises

‘Warr Guitars’ are a registered trademark of Warr Guitars.



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