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Avant Guitar 101: Alternate Attacks

Avant Guitar 101: Alternate Attacks

Roger Kleier’s kit of implements includes alligator clips (lower left), slides, springs, mini gongs,
paintbrushes, a chopstick, a pencil, a reed, a screwdriver, and an EBow. Photo by Annie Gosfield

German guitarist Hans Tammen also plays the instrument on a table, like Rowe. His progression from the worlds of British rock to classical guitar, jazz, and then into the world of extended techniques was a result of being more interested in creating lengthy, improvised introductions to tunes than in the tunes themselves. “I started using other areas of the electric-guitar body besides the fretboard to elicit sounds,” he explains. “The more subtle and varied that became, the more I started working with materials and gadgets on the strings. This is quite natural for a guitarist—we are using picks and bottlenecks already, and as soon as you get beyond that, the options become endless.”

For Norway’s Stian Westerhus, it’s not necessarily about “guitar,” but about feeling the urge for a broader palette for his instrument. “I wasn’t that into playing guitar, but more into creating the music I was hearing in my head,” he says. “In my early teens, I would record stuff from the radio onto cassettes, cutting and splicing the tape to create weird collages of sound and music.” Westerhus revels in the randomness that alternate modes can introduce. “The stuff I hear back when I take risks pushes me in directions I can’t calculate, but can only try to control—extended techniques came out of that.”

’Gator Aid
You might think the experimental nature of these artists’ music would lead them toward complex custom instruments. However, they mostly use the same guitars you would see in your local club band. Kleier plays a Les Paul, a Telecaster, and a Stratocaster. Frith often wields a 1959 Gibson ES-345. Westerhus likes a baritone Danelectro or a Gibson ES-335 with a Bigsby. And Tammen, having been through various custom contraptions now says, “I’m just happy with my $300 Steinberger Spirit.”

When it comes to effects though, you are as likely to find these guys at Home Depot as Guitar Center. Picks, slides, and pedals aside, many of the implements for extended techniques come from hardware and kitchen supply stores, flea markets, and garage sales.

One tool employed almost universally is the aforementioned alligator or electrician’s clip, which can be placed anywhere along the length of a guitar string to great effect. In school, Kleier found he liked ring modulators and metallic-sounding synth sounds, but because he was a destitute student, he had no access to those electronic luxuries— and he was better off for it. “I found that an electrician’s clip placed on the strings gave me very unusual overtones. And when you add distortion, you can really get the ring-modulator sound. [Placing the clips] closer to the bridge, you get more of the fundamental notes—Gamelan-like . . . further back toward the nut, you get more upper [harmonic] partials.”

Tammen prefers to clip them between the bridge and neck pickups to draw out very low, gong-like sounds. “These are great for creating rhythms by banging the strings with different kinds of mallets,” he says. “I have a collection of five mallets, going from a hard wooden one to one with a fluffy top. Having the correct mallet at hand makes a big difference.”

In his own experimentation, this author found that though there is no “right” place along the neck to put the clips, they tend to fall onto the neighboring strings when placed on unwound strings—but this, too, can create interesting sounds. Attaching clips on the low E, A, and D strings, and between the pickups of a two-pickup instrument also changed the prevailing overtones when switching between pickups. “It takes some experimentation with them,” says Westerhus, “but there is a huge palette of uneven harmonics that vary, depending on where the clips are placed, and where and how you pluck the string.”