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Avant Guitar 101: Alternate Attacks

Avant Guitar 101: Alternate Attacks

Keith Rowe uses a battery-powered fan and steel wool to agitate a spring placed on the
pickup of a miniature guitar at the AMPLIFY 2008 Festival in Tokyo. Photo by Yuko Zama

Frontiersmen Of Freakonia
Rowe was one of the earliest practitioners of extended techniques, and his band AMM played alongside the adventurous, Syd Barrett-captained version of Pink Floyd at the height of the psychedelic London scene. (Check out early footage of Barrett and the Floyd playing “Interstellar Overdrive” to see how Rowe’s techniques may have slipped into the mainstream.) His ventures into the bizarre were a matter of emulating techniques he applied to his visual artwork.

“I encountered so many problems with the approach I had to playing standard guitar,” says Rowe. “In my jazz-guitar world, I could not satisfactorily locate the idea of something like ‘ambiguity’—which, in the visual arts, was seen as important.” He found that laying the instrument flat on a table allowed him to apply a more painterly approach, likening it to Jackson Pollock placing the canvas on the floor. Further, in transmitting sounds from the airwaves through a radio’s headphone placed over the pickup, Rowe found parallels with the collage-like art of Robert Rauschenberg.

Rowe presses steel wool onto the strings of a Shadow Reinaldo Rivero Finger Trainer that’s outfi tted
with a pickup. Electronics in Rowe’s rig include a Z.Vex Fuzz Factory, a Boss RC-2 Loop Station,
an MXR 6-Band EQ, and a Boss PS-3 Pitch Shifter/Delay. Photo by Yuko Zama

For American composer Roger Kleier (who has collaborated with Frith, Elliott Sharp, and Marc Ribot, among others), an encounter with a John Cage piece for prepared piano—meaning miscellaneous items such as paper and clothespins were placed on the strings—inspired attacking the guitar with unusual implements.

“I was struck by how Cage could take one instrument and turn it into a new sound universe,” says Kleier. Frith’s first solo album, 1974’s Guitar Solos, revealed to Kleier how he too could enter this world. “He sounded like an army of guitarists making these unusual sounds,” he says. “On the back of the record cover, he is pictured playing guitar with this piece of glass, and there are electrician’s clips on the strings. I realized I could do prepared guitar, as opposed to prepared piano. I ran down to the hardware store and started buying stuff.”

Frith, too, was inspired by Cage, among others, to explore the full range of sounds available from an electric guitar. “In 1970, I had a friend build me an aluminum harness holding a pickup, which could be bolted onto the nut,” explains Frith. “With this pickup suspended above the first fret, I had a completely new instrument: the conventional electric guitar, along with an asymmetrical mirror image, with logarithmic scales running the ‘wrong’ way.” Frith notated the scales and learned to incorporate this new set of notes using tapping techniques—well before Eddie Van Halen. Still, he soon abandoned that line of research in favor of a more sound-based (as opposed to note-based) approach. “At some point in the early ’70s, I saw [Flying Lizards guitarist] David Toop using alligator clips on his guitar, and that led me to start ‘preparing’ the instrument in various ways, using clips and anything else that seemed useful and sounded interesting,” says Frith.