|Editor's Note: There are many videos of artists mentioned in this piece that show how these unique instruments are played and sound. We've embedded links to these in the text, so whenever you see this symbol: » with a linked word, it will take you to the related video.
Trey Gunn calls it “The Beast,” and with a name like the Warr Guitar, you expect it might just have some seriously savage qualities. That impression is reinforced by the look of the instrument. Although it certainly shares some of the layout of a traditional electric guitar – a headpiece with tuners, a fretboard, pickups between the fretboard and the bridge, control knobs and a resonating body – its hefty scale also suggests a heavy-artillery field piece.
The Warr Guitar is the world’s most advanced “touch” guitar, an instrument that combines bass and melodic strings on a single broad fretboard to provide the sonic range of a keyboard, and an expressive range from ethereal to bombastic. Slung over the shoulder somewhat in the manner a traditional guitar, the Warr can be adjusted to a vertical position for two-handed tapping like a Chapman Stick
, or held more horizontally for the strumming, plucking, picking and slapping techniques that are familiar to all guitarists and bass players. The instrument is available in both mono and stereo configurations, with magnetic and piezoelectric pickups, MIDI-triggering options, and from seven to 14 strings.
In various string configurations and tunings, the Warr Guitar has been Trey’s beast of burden for nearly 15 years. He has become the instrument’s most prominent artist and advocate, performing and recording internationally with King Crimson»
and his Trey Gunn Band»
. He’s now working with Warr-percussion duo TU»
with fellow Crimson alumnus Pat Mastelotto; the trio KTU»
, which adds Kimmo Pohjonen on accordian and vocals; the UKZ quintet featuring legendary violinist/keyboardist Eddie Jobson; and the new multimedia musical storytelling project Quodia»
with long-time collaborator Joe Mendelson. Along the way he has backed up an array of artists including David Sylvian, Toni Childs, Vernon Reid, John Paul Jones and Eric Johnson. His new solo album, Music for Pictures
, is a compilation of new recordings of scores he’s done for film, and will be available online at the end of May.
Looking for More
Growing up in Texas, Gunn started his musical training at the age of seven on the classical piano before taking up the guitar and bass. Although he became an accomplished player, he increasingly felt that his musical vision was fenced in by the guitar.
A young Trey Gunn with Chapman Stick in 1995
“I had a sense of frustration with the guitar, realizing that no matter where you stretch the guitar, there was always this hovering shadow of the blues over it,” he explains. “There were just always little figures and little riffs and little voicings that had that voice of the blues, and it’s not that it didn’t appeal to me so much as that I had heard it over and over – it had been done.
“And I had this epiphany that it had to do more with the tuning than with the instrument. That’s when the Chapman Stick came to my mind. I thought, that thing’s tuned in fifths, and a cello is tuned in fifths. I wonder if there is a whole other way of playing the guitar. I had a feeling that If I was playing in fifths, it would open up a whole new vocabulary without this blues specter hanging over it.”
Trey might have quickly moved in the direction of the Stick if he had not met Robert Fripp, the founder of King Crimson and the League of Crafty Guitarists, in the mid-eighties. The “Crafty” in Crafty Guitarists refers to the fifth-based tuning that Fripp was pioneering, and which his disciples confidently refer to as New Standard Tuning
. Specifically, the Crafty tuning separates the open strings by fifths, except for the highest string, which is raised only a minor third.
“Fripp was just starting to use a fifth-based tuning on his guitar,” Trey recalls. “And I put it on my guitar and I it was like, there you go, I was right! Let’s leave the past behind and go forward. So that pretty much revitalized my interest in the guitar and kept my interest in the Chapman Stick away for two or three years.”
But Trey did eventually try the Stick, where he found a new musical home and a new direction. “I finally did pick up the Stick, and as soon as I put the thing on for about a week (I use the term ‘put it on’ because that is the way you play the Stick – it’s like getting into a jousting outfit or something, bound to your body) I realized that all the other instruments I had been working with for the last 10 years were essentially the wrong instruments for what I trying to do. I really needed this two-handed tapping approach.”
Of course, touch and tapping techniques are not some recent, arcane, virtuoso invention. Touch techniques are part of the traditional approaches used by guitarists in a variety of genres. Hammering on is essentially a touch technique, because the tone is produced not by plucking or strumming, but by downward pressure of the finger causing an impact between the string and a fret. And while the touch and tapping techniques that have become commonplace in shred, metal, rock and jazz were popularized beginning in the seventies by guitarists including Harvey Mandel, Eddie Van Halen and Stanley Jordan, as well as Emmett Chapman’s innovative hands-free Stick, a working touch-guitar prototype»
was invented more than a half century ago.
The realization that two-handed touch technique suited Trey’s musical vision turned out to be the easy part. “After about five or six hours, I realized how difficult it was really going to be to play this instrument with the fluidity that great musicians can do. There are so many strings and so many frets, but I wanted to be fluid across the whole thing, which would take an enormous amount of work, calisthenically, so I decided to limit myself. My left hand would only play the bass in the first seven frets and my right hand would only play between fret 10 and 17. So I reduced the instrument to a third of its range and worked on that for a year or so.”
But he didn’t just sit in his New York room woodshedding. “I figured the best way to learn how to play it was to be playing with other people, so I went on about a hundred auditions as a bass player with no intention of joining the band whatsoever. I was just putting myself in a context that would be a challenge to me, and learning by playing with other people. I auditioned for dozens of rock bands, of course, but also celtic, jazz, country… anything at all. I just showed up with this instrument and faked it as best I could.”
And it must have worked, because Gunn found himself touring and recording with Fripp and David Sylvian»
for several years.
A Path to Warr
Randy Strom playing a Warr "Artist" model
While Gunn was demonstrating mastery of the Chapman Stick on the world’s stages, Mark Warr, a keyboard player and a captain with the Oakland Country Fire Department, was designing and building string touch instruments in his garage for his personal use. He engaged ace pickup maker Bill Bartolini, who custom-wound pick-ups specifically for the unique requirements of Mark’s touch instruments. The original Warr instruments were massive creatures, laid horizontally on a series of drum stands. As he advanced the design, he retired the old instruments or just gave them away.
“I started off building them for myself, but guitarist Randy Strom had been bugging me for a long time to build him an instrument. I eventually did, just because I needed some extra dough to buy a keyboard,” Mark explains. “Randy was just on my case, ‘We’ve got to make this thing hang like a guitar.’ I fought with that design for weeks, staying up all hours of the night trying to get it to balance correctly, to the point where I actually gave up and decided that it can’t be done. And then one night I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, ‘I haven’t tried this.’ I was out in the garage at 3 o’clock in the morning with saws and drills, and I got very close. Within a week I was able to get it to work very well.” That was 1991.
Meanwhile, the band that Gunn was touring with happened to set down in the town where Strom was performing»
on the new, guitar-styled Warr instrument, and the connection was made.
“I was leery about the instrument at first,” Trey admits. “The Stick is such a simple design. There’s just a neck and the way it’s held up against your body is really cool – it’s really light, super futuristic and you don’t have to hold the instrument in place. The Warr Guitar is held by a strap on your should like a traditional guitar, and at first it seemed like going backwards a bit. It looks like a guitar and I had left the guitar behind. But I knew there was something really cool about it, too. It seemed like it was an evolution. The sound of his instrument was fantastic.”
So Trey gave Mark a call. “A drummer I was playing with and I were both big fans of King Crimson,” Mark says. “We had just read an article that Crimson was forming again, and we were all jazzed up about that, when, out of nowhere, I heard this guy named Trey Gunn on my answering machine – the guy that we had just been reading about.
“Once he told me he wanted an instrument, I had to think about it, because I realized what the ramifications would be. I figured that, once I made one for Trey, I’d have a lot of people knocking at my door, and I had to decide if I was committed to that. And so I decided to give him a call back and tell him that I would build him an instrument at a particular price, hoping that it would make him go away – but it didn’t.” With that, Warr Guitars as a full-time commercial enterprise was born.
“When I first started working with Mark, he pretty much built me almost exactly what I asked for,” Trey says. “He did a prototype first, and I made, like, three pages of suggestions – improve this, move this, change the weight – then about four weeks later I had a new instrument with all the changes. And then I was completely sold. That King Crimson tour, right after the 1994 THRAK
recording, is the first time I took the instrument out, and I’ve been playing it ever since.”
And Mark was right about the impact of a musician of Gunn’s stature showcasing his unique-looking and great-sounding instruments in concerts and recordings. Guitarists likely have one of two responses when they see and hear the Warr Guitar: “That’s really interesting, but kinda weird” or “I gotta GET me one of THOSE.” The phone did
start ringing, and over the past two decades, several thousand musicians have become converts to the revolutionary Warr.
Developing Warr Models
At first, Mark heard from mostly Stick players, but as interest mounted, his company evolved new styles and configurations. The earliest commercial Warr Guitars are still represented in his Artist Series, available in eight, ten and 12-string models with “crossed tuning” – the lowest bass string is in the middle, with the bass strings on the top and the melodic strings on the bottom.
Mark later introduced the Phalanx Series»
with an “uncrossed” tuning that offers an easier transition to touch playing for guitarists and bassists accustomed to the traditional string arrangements. The recognizable configurations of bass and melodic strings are side by side, with the bass strings on the bottom. Mark says that the uncrossed tuning now accounts for about half of the company’s sales: “This enables musicians to play what they know, and then incorporate the other aspects of the instruments.”
Trey Gunn Signature Warr
The Rolls Royce of the Warr line is the Trey Gunn Signature Series. “The Trey Gunn model came from realizing that every time I was making an instrument for Trey, it was always with everything in it,” Mark explains. “And people were always asking, ‘What does Trey play? What does he want? I want what Trey has!’”
And what does
Trey want? Increased sustain, for one, so Mark tilted the headstock back 14 degrees and added string trees to create more tension behind the nut. He also raised the nut slightly, so that the distance between the strings and the frets is increased on the lowest frets, making the use of those frets more sonically productive. “The way the physics of the instrument are, the farther you have go to hit the fret, the more sound there is,” Trey explains. “So there’s less energy the closer you get to the nut.”
And Trey likes pudauk, a red African wood that gives the instrument’s lowest bass strings a distinctive timbre he prefers. “They hate working with it, because it’s toxic and when you sand it, it produces a super-fine dust that gets all over your work space,” Trey says. “So they have to cover the whole work space in plastic and they have to wear masks. I hear about that every time they build me something new, and I kinda feel bad for them, but it has this kind of growly sound in the low bass frequency that I really like.”
“It stains all the heavy-duty metal tools red,” Mark adds. “It’s almost like spray-painting or something. We always try to steer people away from pudauk, but every instrument we make for Trey is sure to have some pudauk in it.”
Treys instruments employ a combination of magnetic and piezoelectric pick-ups. “My main instruments use four batteries – two for the Bartolinis – and I also have piezo pickups, which have the MIDI-RMC converters on them. So the electronics are pretty crazy, even though I have a rather simplified version. Some people have a lot of tone controls. I don’t have tone controls. I have volume control and a fade between the piezo and the regular pickups.”
Trey’s fans and imitators might be surprised to learn, given the spectrum of sounds, moods and expressive nuances he is able to coax from the instrument in concert and recordings, that he is something of a technological minimalist.