As artists like Jeff Beck, Jimmy Bryant, Ali Farka Touré, and Adrian Belew have proven time and again over the past few decades, the electric guitar is capable of an amazing array of tones with just a pick, fingers, a few pedals, and an amplifier. Still, some artists feel this is not enough. In fact, in the 1960s an entire scene of avant-garde music was spawned by off-the-wall British guitarists Keith Rowe and Fred Frith, both of whom approached the instrument with what has come to be referred to as “extended techniques.” In essence, this translates into using unorthodox implements and processing to coax strange, unheard-of new sounds from the instrument. Rowe gained fame as a founder of the free-improvisation AMM, while Frith first gained notoriety for his work with Henry Cow.
Much of the music created by players who follow the avant-garde-ist philosophy may sound like noise at first—and it is. But the best of this music is organized around the core principles of every other style: dynamics, tension and release, and repeated themes. However, practitioners of extended techniques focus on pure sound rather than notes to create an emotional impact with their music.
Perhaps the best way to approach players like Rowe, Frith, and their acolytes is to think in terms of visual art: “Regular” guitar playing is analogous to a visual artist painting a lifelike, realist portrait of a person or a vase of flowers, while extended-technique guitar playing is closer to abstract and conceptual art—a world where anything goes. For instance, Rowe has been known to route the electronic chatter from his Bluetooth mouse through his guitar pickup.
Both Frith and Rowe deserve an entire article about their vast and captivating catalog of aural and performance arts, but here, we’ll focus on some of the unique tools and techniques used by them and fellow individualists Hans Tammen, Roger Kleier, and Stian Westerhus.