Perhaps it’s best if I start this article with a confession: I’m mostly known for being “the guy who built guitars for Sonic Youth.” Actually, I only built one guitar for one member of SY—Lee Ranaldo. Even so, I will probably live with this “stigma” for the rest of my life. Not that this worries me—it could be much worse. Here’s the story of how it happened.
(Be sure to check out the video of Dutch avant-garde luthier Yuri Landman delivering the DIY drone guitar he built for former Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore. Bonus: see and hear Thurston demo this bad boy. Watch it all here.)
In 2006, I built a 12-string, zither-like instrument called the Moodswinger and donated it to Liars, an experimental band based in Los Angeles, as a form of mutual promotion. Full disclosure—this was a setup: I knew they had opened for Sonic Youth a few years before and that the connection might help me get my foot in the door with Lee and Thurston Moore. As soon as I finished that job, I contacted Sonic Youth’s management and offered them the same instrument deal. Within an hour I got a reply saying my request had been forwarded to Lee. The next day Lee enthusiastically replied that he was interested in such a project and proposed something like a harp guitar. The conversations with Lee eventually culminated in the 18-string Moonlander.
After that I did a third instrument called the Bachelor for Jad Fair of Maryland art-punk outfit Half Japanese—which meant I had my weird instruments in the hands of a fresh, hip young band, a famous veteran outfit, and a legendary cult act. They’re three of my favorite bands, for different reasons.
Left to right: The Moodswinger, Moonlander, and Bachelor.
Again, I stress that all three instruments were donations. I insisted on this, since I don’t possess the level of skills most expect from a bona fide luthier. I just have odd ideas and I’m not afraid to try them out. In order to both ensure that I didn’t get complaints and that I could maintain absolute autonomy in the builds, the first condition was not taking any money.
Regardless of this fact, media attention exploded almost immediately after all this happened. It first came from Pitchfork, then from basically every newspaper in my home country (the Netherlands), and then from the U.K.’s Guardian (which touted me as their “favorite luthier”—the latter being theirterm, not mine!). CNN then published an interview, which caused the whole media thing to spiral into a somewhat nervous situation for me: Bands starting asking me to build stuff—this time for money. But the strange reality was that nobody really played my instruments publicly! Liars did one track (“Leather Prowler,” on their album Liars), Blood Red Shoes did a couple of overdubs (“Colours Fade” and “When We Wake,” from Fire Like This), and the Luyas used it on three tracks (“Canary,” “Moodslayer,” and “Spherical Mattress,” on the album Too Beautiful to Work)—that’s probably the extent of it. My stuff and status was close to a big hoax.
Luckily, in 2009 I stumbled upon a suitable niche for my work—workshops and performances that revolve around my approach as a designer and musician. I dived underground and bid good riddance to the hysterical world of “indie pop,” where I really didn’t belong. I thrive in the world of research music, where there’s less media attention.
In 2012, Bart Hopkin and I published the guitar education book Nice Noise: Preparations and Modifications for Guitar, which soon prompted Premier Guitar to ask me to write an article about a crazy mod we ended up calling the Flying Double Dutchman Crunch. So I did: I trashed a cheap guitar and modded it in the rudest, fastest way possible. Predictably, the response was polarizing. Plenty of adventurous players were intrigued, but many others were livid that I would do such an evil thing. Personally, I think the guitar deserved it—it was a pretty bad Gibson copy in the first place.
Despite all the people up in arms about the Dutchman (me and the mutilated 6-string), I’ve been asked once again to walk the brave, courageous, and slightly crazy among you through another building project. But instead of damaging an existing guitar, this time I decided to do something to the best of my skills as a “luthier.” On top of that, I proposed to give it away to one of my favorite guitarists. Since I’ve already built something for Lee Ranaldo but not for Thurston Moore, I reached out to Thurston to see if he had any interest. He responded positively.
Both former Sonic Youth players are often credited for being exceptionally talented, but unlike many guitarists you’ll find on various best-guitarists-of-all-time lists, Lee and Thurston are not fast-playing virtuosos. They stand out from the crowd because of how they’ve worked out a wide range of extended techniques—banging their guitars with drum sticks, sticking screwdrivers under the strings to get strange sounds, strumming behind their Jazzmasters’ bridges, using radical alternate tunings, and doing whatever else they can think of to deconstruct traditional guitar playing. And they are capable of writing good songs with this “language.”
Check out Yuri's cover story in the March 2013 issue of Premier Guitar.
This new guitar I’ve built is based on many of those extended techniques, but even more specifically I hoped to achieve these four main goals on a single instrument:
Banjo-inspired drone strings. The 5th string on a bluegrass banjo starts at the 5th fret. So I figured, why not drill holes in the neck and add tuning pegs to the body—only our guitar will have four extra strings rather than just one! This allows you to play sets of drone-y open strings up to a certain fret position, and from there the extra strings go up the neck along with the normal strings. I’ve never seen a guitar with a mod like this.
More frets. I dislike that most guitars only have 21 or 22 frets (or 24 on some shred guitars). I understand frets get too narrow if you go beyond that, but I decided to add a few more frets that I think make particularly logical sense (while leaving out the in-between frets that are less likely to be used). These extra frets are on the body of the guitar, but they are not just “extra frets”: The added frets take the instrument into the microtonal, just-intonation realm used in a lot of non-Western music. In other words, the added frets will let the player access notes and harmonic intervals that are in-between the 12 notes typically heard in Western music.
Variable behind-the-bridge playing area. The Flying Double Dutchman Crunch guitar featured a behind-the-bridge playing area with an extra pickup behind the Tune-o-matic-style bridge and a new anchor point for all 6 strings at the butt end of the guitar. The scale length of the portion of the strings that extended from the Tune-o-matic to the new bridge/anchor was about a quarter of the guitar’s standard bridge-to-nut scale. I’m quite keen on this sort of setup, because it works excellent if you are hunting for dreamy, Sonic Youth-y overtone screams. Because of this, our new drone guitar features a similar behind-the-bridge playing area as well. However, here I’ve expanded the idea to include a metal bar that functions like a pivoting second bridge, altering the scale of the behind-the-bridge playing area so you can create a sky full of sparkling overtones at various positions.
Djent bars (sort of). Last year I performed at the Resonate music, visual-arts, and digital-culture festival in Belgrade, Serbia. During my soundcheck I met the experimental noise duo Senyawa from Indonesia. The “guitarist,” Wukir Suryadi, plays an incredible tube-shaped stringed instrument that he made from a piece of bamboo. Before he joined vocalist Rully Shabara to create Senyawa’s fascinating blend of folk, punk, and neo-tribal music, Wukir played the same instrument in metal bands. In addition to its strings, the bamboo guitar has three thin slices of steel that are mounted quite floppy on the instrument. When he dials in the parameters of his amp, he searches for an EQ setting that resonates with the pieces of steel and achieves the typical scooped-distortion djent sound of metal music. Instead of palm-muting his low E, he strums the metal bars to get a similar result. What a wonderful, efficient, and smart invention! I tried to copy that idea on this guitar by mounting three metal pieces (which have their own 1/4" output) above the low E string.
Okay, enough background info. The only other thing I’m going to point out before we begin is that all my measurements for materials, drill-bit sizes, etc. are in the metric units that we use here in Europe (and much of the rest of the world). For other readers, we’ve converted measurements to the simplest decimal equivalent in inches, but you may need to adjust some slightly to accommodate materials at your disposal.
All right—let’s dive in!