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Avant Guitar 101: Alternate Attacks

Avant Guitar 101: Alternate Attacks

When playing his Squier Tele onstage, Kleier keeps his implements
closeby on a music stand. Photo by Dominique Coupin

Pickup Sticks
Another common extended technique is to thread some sort of stick under or through your guitar’s strings. Frith sometimes uses doweling rods. Kleier often employs chopsticks. Whatever you use, the main thing is that you cover all six strings, which enables you to create different overtones than you get with alligator clips—and this approach is perfect for generating metallic percussion sounds. “A lot of this stuff [derives from] looking for alternate sources of rhythm,” Kleier explains.

This author found terrific sonic modifiers—a set of meat skewers—at that hotbed of musical equipment, Bed Bath & Beyond. Threaded through the strings, these long, thin, flat pieces of metal yielded cool metallic overtones to the sound of any string being picked. The end of the skewers curved into a circular handle, making them easy to twang, which created a fantastically sustained ringing sound that was ripe for processing.

In addition to using various sticks, Kleier and Frith also often thread a spare wound guitar string over and under the strings of the guitar. In addition to creating a unique set of overtones, it effectively bows the strings when the spare string is pulled back and forth. Which brings us to an extended technique that most guitarists are already familiar with, thanks to iconic photos of Jimmy Page.

EBow vs. Real Bow
Up to this point, the eccentric techniques and methods we’ve described are foreign territory to the vast majority of guitarists. But players and listeners alike are likely to recognize the sound of a guitar string being excited by a bow more commonly used on a violin or cello. Fans of Led Zeppelin or Sigur R—s have seen Page or J—n “J—nsi” Þ—r Birgisson stroke guitar strings with a bow to create sustained, ethereal tones.

Although this technique appears simple, perhaps even gimmicky or more visually than aurally motivated, it’s anything but easy—even for a guitarist who started on violin, as this author did. It took Westerhus a while to get the hang of it, too. “I am still learning,” he says. “It takes a lot of practice and is a real pain in the ass, as it will sound dreadful most of the time,” he relates.

That said, Westerhus clearly finds the pursuit worthwhile, because he has put considerable time and research into determining which type of bow best suits his needs. “I get the most dynamic range out of a cello bow, both on normal and baritone guitar. I use one made from some sort of carbon fiber. It’s a lot stronger than a wooden one, and can take being dropped—and it stays straighter for a longer period of time.” As for how he uses it, he says, “By adjusting the firmness, I get a lot of different textures. And your tone will differ, depending on where you stroke the string. The easiest place to start is pretty far back towards the bridge.”

Frith, on the other hand, prefers a smaller bow. “I mostly use children’s cello bows—they’re cheap, sturdy, and easy to put in a guitar case.” Technique-wise, he says, “it depends what you’re trying to do. If you play close to the bridge with the edge of the bow, you’ll get more harmonics. But if you play in the middle of the string with the flat of the bow, you’ll get a more beautiful, ringing tone. It also depends on the stroke—how hard and how quick you play—and how you lift the bow from the strings.”

Regardless of the bow type or technique, rosin is an essential supply for the bowing guitarist. Rosin, which looks like a little bar or cake of glycerin soap, is what violin, viola, cello, and double-bass players use to make the hair on the bow sticky so that it grips the string and pulls it, thus creating sound. As the bow moves, the string snaps back to its original position and is caught again by the rosined hair in a quickly repeated cycle. Without rosin’s grip, bow hair would slide over strings and produce very little sound. “I’ve found that going for something in between a cello and a violin/ viola rosin works well for me and doesn’t kill the strings too fast,” says Westerhus.

Stian Westerhus uses implements like bows and electronics to tweak tones, but he eschews software.
“It’s all in the way two or more pedals interact with each other.” Photo by Behnam Farazollahi

For those wishing to create infinitely sustaining strings with less wrist action and a less drastic learning curve, the Heet Sound EBow is an alternative to the classical bow. Amusingly, the handheld electronic bow Greg Heet invented in 1969 is both the most mechanically complex and the most mundane implement in this article, in terms of acceptance and familiarity among the general guitar-playing populace. This small plastic device has two plastic grooves that are placed upon two nonadjacent strings to enable the oscillating magnetic field in the center of the unit to focus on the string between them—which remains untouched by the EBow itself. Like a violin bow, it vibrates the string and creates various harmonics.

Players as diverse as U2’s the Edge, Be-Bop Deluxe’s Bill Nelson, Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien, and Zakk Wylde have typically used the EBow for sustained pedal tones or string-like melodies and pads. However, the word “typical” is never on one’s lips when listening to the device in the hands of an experimentalist like Tammen. “I prefer to bang it hard onto the pickups—it produces a very violent screeching sound that you can’t get any other way.”
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