When Sanford isn’t onstage or jamming in the studio with Zedek, he fronts the band Neptune, who play a variety of handmade, ornamental, and functional instruments.
Jason Sanford’s Totally Wired Guitar
Thalia Zedek’s co-guitarist in E is Jason Sanford. Sanford makes his own instruments—from scratch—and his other band, Neptune, plays only homemade creations. Sanford’s background is in sculpture and his foray into luthiery began as an attempt to create functional art. But it’s grown into much more than that and includes radical designs, applied philosophy, innovative electronics, and stompboxes that function as standalone instruments.
Why did you start building your own instruments?
Jason Sanford: It came out of wanting to make sculpture that was functional, and realizing that musical instruments are exactly that—functional sculpture. But also, just wanting to be more connected to the whole process. To me, being an instrument maker and a musician is similar to being a painter who goes to the trouble of mixing his own paints from the powders and the linseed oil. The end picture may or may not look different, but you’re in touch with the process from the very beginning in a different way.
Did you formally study how to build a guitar?
No [laughs]. It has been a real long process of trial and error. That is just the way I learn. I have to try to do things my own way and find out. I’m always reinventing the wheel, which usually doesn’t pan out, but once in a while I get something really interesting. The first guitar I made had 13 frets to the octave instead of 12. I didn’t really have any idea what would happen, but it taught me a big lesson about why people do it that way—have 12 frets to the octave. I came at it 20 years ago. I really had no musical theory and very little training musically. It’s been an experimental process.
“You can pass your finger right through the fretboard,” Sanford says of his main instrument. “There is no Lucite or anything there. It’s just a wire frame. In part, it’s the evolution of the instruments I’ve built over the years.”
Talk about the guitar you play now.
The guitar I play now, mostly, is a wire frame guitar. Sometimes it’s referred to as a skeleton guitar. It looks like a drawing in space of a guitar. You can pass your hand through the body. You can pass your finger right through the fretboard. There is no Lucite or anything there. It’s just a wire frame. In part, it’s the evolution of the instruments I’ve built over the years. The early guitars I made were heavy scrap metal objects. I used to say that I looked like somebody from the house band in a Mad Max movie. But like a lot of scrap metal sculpture, they carried with them a visual critique of post-industrial waste culture. That kind of thinking was tied up in the visual aesthetic. But eventually, in part after I’d been playing for some years and realizing that these really heavy guitars were taking a toll on my body, I began to think, “Let me not just critique this problem. Can I also think about a solution?” So I began to think about how much can I strip away from the guitar and have it still be a guitar. At this point it’s like a memory of a guitar almost. It still plays like a guitar.
How do you hold it? Is there a metal rod on the back of the neck?
Yes, there is a metal rod in the back. There are basically three rods. It’s like a bridge structure—not a guitar bridge, but a bridge you can cross—or a little bit like the Eiffel Tower or something. It’s got three rods that are braced against each other and then the frets go across the top two rods. You wrap your thumb around the back rod.
Do you have problems with the neck bending or warping?
No, though it is a little bit unsteady in rapidly changing temperature conditions. If we play in a club where it’s really cold or if we do an outdoor gig on a chilly day, I need to be sure to start holding the guitar in my hands before we get onstage for 10 minutes or so, so it will get to my body temperature. Otherwise, the tuning will shift and it will be a little rougher.
Is the hardware standard or did you make that as well?
I’ve played around with wrapping my own pickups and creating my own tuning machines, that sort of thing, but it just seems like I need to draw the line somewhere [laughs]. You could go in that direction until you’re mining and refining your own ore [laughs].
How do you tune it?
I have this funny tuning where I’ve got double low E strings and no high upper E string.
So your tuning is E–E–A–D–G–B?
Exactly, that’s it. That’s how I tune it to play in this band E with Thalia.
Are those low E’s an octave or in unison?
It’s in unison, which is interesting. It’s nice once in a while to hit those strings, but one fret off from each other to throw in this dissonant beating thing. That appears on a few of our songs.
Are those strings different gauges or the same?
They are different. One is just a normal low E string and one is a little beefier, like a light-gauged bass string. So that’s a little bit more floppy.
Thalia mentioned you have custom stompboxes with things like hacksaws inside them. Can you tell us about those?
We’re a non-traditional band for a number of reasons, and one of them is we don’t have a bass. We’re two guitars and drums. I wanted to fill up the low end, so I built this stompbox that I use a lot. I stomp on it, but it’s not an effect. It is its own instrument. It’s like a pedal that can rock up and stomp down. It has a guitar pickup inside it—a humbucker—and a single hacksaw blade that is vibrating in front of it. That hacksaw blade is tuned to a low E, like a bass or sub-frequency E. Most of our songs are in E. There are a number of songs where I kick that at the same time that I’m playing an E chord and it fills out the low end a lot.
Does the blade vibrate in sympathy to what the guitar is playing?
When I step on it, I’m physically causing the vibration with the stomping of my foot. It’s essentially like a thumb piano—those are sometimes made with hacksaw blades—except it’s just got the one tine inside of it and it’s played by stomping instead of with your hands.
What other homemade pedals do you use?
I also have a bass frequency oscillator that I built. It’s just an electronic circuit. It’s tuned to a low A. It gets used in a couple of our songs and is controlled by a footswitch, too.
Do you use any conventional pedals?
I do. I use a Boss reverb pedal. I have it set on the very smallest amount of reverb. You can barely hear it, but I’m also using it as a splitter, because I run two amps. I split the signal and I send a clean-ish guitar signal to a bass amp. Then I have a preamp—it’s a circuit of my own design that I made that dirties up the sound a little—and that is a crunchy sound that goes to a guitar amp. So I’m getting a fat, relatively clean, bottom end and then a distorted top end.