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Avant Guitar 101: Alternate Attacks

Avant Guitar 101: Alternate Attacks

The Kitchen Sink
As the previously discussed implements demonstrate, nothing is off-limits to guitarists dedicated to extended techniques. Frith uses a variety of tins—saddle soap, candy, etc.—and small Chinese gongs. “They can make beautiful sounds if you just place them on the strings with varying degrees of force—but they can also be bowed and scraped, or have objects placed in them while they are there,” he says. “Piano tuning felt is good for damping the strings—which, in conjunction with tapping, produces a percussive sound. Or you can use thin cloth for less extreme damping. Clothes brushes and paint brushes are great for stroking, caressing, rubbing, or deadening the strings—and for playing ‘drums.’”

At a 2009 performance in Seattle, Fred Frith uses drumsticks to coax a barrage of sound
from his Gibson ES-345—which is outfitted with a pickup at the nut. Photo by Aaron

Tammen has his own bag of similarly twisted tricks. “I place a strong magnet from a loudspeaker over a pickup and bang it with a soft mallet. It creates the most beautiful subsonic frequencies. With a subwoofer it blows you away—it may also blow the speaker away,” he warns. “When used as a slide, a pocket warmer with a soft metal cover sounds much more percussive than regular slides. It can also be smashed on the fretboard hard, without damaging the strings or the fretboard. I also slowly crawl over the fretboard with a battery-operated table vacuum cleaner to produce a drone that is rich in overtones.”

Handheld electric fans are good for exciting the strings, either with the blades themselves or by just blowing air over them. Playing prerecorded audio from tape recorders or iPhones into microphonic guitar pickups is also a great way to add speech or ambient sounds to a performance. Similarly, flipping through stations on a handheld radio can create an interesting element of randomness, too. Further, a quick look around your studio or kitchen is likely to produce a plethora of sonic possibilities.

Process and Processing
Though there is often beauty in the arranged noise created with these found objects, sometimes it is largely about the process of experimentation and exploration itself. And the limitless possibilities afforded by the implements discussed here—as well as the spirit of experimentation that you’ll find inspiring you to pick up all sorts of other tools—become exponentially inspiring when you consider what can be done by warping their mechanical tones with electronic gear.

For Westerhus, pedals are a huge part of his sonic playground. “I have a few pedals,” he says, referring to a collection that would rival that of many small music stores, “but I keep changing them. I tried going in the computer direction, but to me it sounds too digital. I don’t like it when I can’t control my own gain structure and push components into sounding different based on my playing dynamics. You don’t get that in a computer—it’s all in the way two or more pedals interact with each other.”

As that statement implies, feedback is an integral part of Westerhus’ sound— and that feedback comes the good old-fashioned way. “I guess I play [at a volume that] most people would describe as [expletive] loud,” he laughs. “It’s a way of sustaining my notes without using the horribly flat-sounding EBow.” He elaborates. “Using distortion, you can easily control feedback at almost any volume because of the compression created, but it becomes flat sounding. I generally don’t like to use anything more than a mild boost from my Fulltone Fulldrive. The big thing for me is that the guitar drives the effects chain hard, and that the amp has enough headroom to be driven hard so that the guitar will respond to the sound of the amp. This makes it all one big instrument. I just brace myself and hope I can control what sometimes feels like a screaming lion between my hands. It takes practice, and it’s different each night at different venues, depending on the room, acoustics, PA, etc. But it’s always good to push your luck onstage.”

Hans Tammen plays manipulates a Steinberger Spirit GT-Pro Deluxe routed through Cycling
74’s Max sound-editing software at the 2010 CeC Festival in India. Photo by Ashok Mehta

Tammen, on the other hand, has no problem with computers. He uses Cycling 74’s Max software to merge laptop and guitar into one instrument. “I do not use electronics in the sense of an effect that you apply to your traditional or extended guitar playing,” he says. “The guitar creates all the sounds, but it controls the software at the same time. The software ‘listens’ to the playing, then determines the parameters of the processing.” Tammen has been known to use an iPhone as a slide while enabling its accelerometer data to control the parameters of his software—effectively creating an extended slide guitar. “I also use a proximity sensor to influence software parameters,” he says. “If both of my hands are working on the guitar, moving my body into the sensor area allows me to control/produce a third voice next to the other two.”

Kleier uses pedals during live performance, but when he’s composing he often radically alters sounds in the computer. “A lot of my recorded sounds keep morphing through plug-ins until they are unrecognizable as guitar,” he explains.

Extend Yourself
But even if you’re more interested in traditional guitar playing, extended techniques can open your ears to new sonic possibilities you can incorporate in any genre. “The future of music relies on players expressing themselves beyond the limits of their instrument,” says Westerhus. Tammen agrees. “Guitarists have always been open to new ideas, instrument modifications, or other crazy things.”

Frith cuts to the heart of the matter. “All the word ‘technique’ means is ‘doing what you need to do to realize what you want to hear,” he says. “In order to develop techniques, you have to practice until you are in control of the material. It’s as true when placing a tin lid on the strings as when you play ‘All the Things You Are’ in Eb. In the end, the ‘what you want to hear’ is the interesting part.”

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