If you had the opportunity to read the excellent article (The Spectrum of Plectrum, December 2008
) and accompanying interview with Jim Dunlop by Chris Burgess, you’re armed with a lifetime of options to shape your tone by way of the pick. Taking a cue from that I’d like to stretch outside the boundaries of the pick and talk about alternative sources of striking those strings. Alternatives as in not with a pick, and not with your fingers…
There are a lot of ways to excite the strings of a guitar. While some of these come in the form of ready-made products that you can purchase, others come from everyday items you’d find around the house or office. Let’s start with the products you can or could buy at one point in time, then move on to the things you can use right now without laying having to spend a dime. Hey, a dime makes a great pick. Wait a minute… wrong article.
The Ebow (electronic bow) was conceived in the late sixties and debuted at the Chicago NAMM show in 1976. This incredible device is a battery-operated electro-magnetic bow that can simulate the sound of horns, strings and woodwind instruments. It’s incredibly sensitive and can infinitely sustain notes while being very expressive. Though it only sustains one string at a time because of the way it was designed, it also can be used to sweep the strings much like a violin bow goes across the strings. You can hear it on records from Smashing Pumpkins to David Bowie to Soundgarden. And for anyone who’s had the pleasure of checking out the live demos at NAMM, you’ve probably heard Ebow virtuoso, Lenny Walker showing off its many sounds. For more information check out ebow.com
The most famous example of violin bow use with a guitar would have to be Jimmy Page. His epic orchestration in "Dazed and Confused" pretty much sums up the sound taken to the extreme. Though not the most agile of alternative picks for creating new sounds it has to be one of the most tonally effective. What it lacks in the ability to individually bow strings across the fingerboard it excels in single-string or double-stop violin-like sounds. For the more adventurous player the Togaman GuitarViol by Jonathan Wilson Designs (reviewed in the November 2008 Premier Guitar issue
) addresses the issue of the fingerboard radius, pickups and many other guitar shortcomings and allows the bow to be used to its fullest potential.
This incredibly ambitious device was invented by Lol Crème and Kevin Godley of 10cc, back in 1975. The device was a small box that attached to the bridge of the guitar and consisted of six small motor-driven wheels, whose continuous bowing action was activated by pressing one or all of keys located on the top of the unit. Pressing a key would bow the corresponding string, while the other hand remained free to fret single notes or full chords. Or so it did in theory. Sadly, the Gizmotron was never able to be produced to its fullest intentions and this great idea for a product was a nightmare to install or use properly. Only a few players really ever made great use of the Gizmo, which of course would be Godley and Crème themselves. I bought a NOS bass Gizmotron at one point that seemed to work OK except the rubber wheels had dried out significantly and they ended up cracking off after just a few uses.
The Hammer Jammer is a discontinued product that I believe was distributed by SKB at one point. It was a plastic device that was either temporarily or permanently attached to the guitar by the neck pickup or sound hole. It had six hammers with interchangeable tips that mimicked the hammers on a piano. By tapping the hammers, notes would be struck on the guitar and produced a similar tone to a harpsichord or piano. Not only could you play one note at a time, you could play whole chords simultaneously or even roll multiple strings. I also still own one of these devices and use it to create interesting textures for game and film soundtracks. It can be haunting or aggressive. Definitely check one out if you can ever find one.
OK, so there are four examples of devices that have been or are still being manufactured, and I’m sure there are many more. Now let’s move on to items that you can use right now to achieve unique sounds out of your guitar...