Avant Guitar 101: Alternate Attacks

Five of the freakiest, most out-there experimental guitar pioneers talk about wielding bizarre implements— everything from chopsticks to electric fans—in a tireless quest to discover new modes of 6-string expression.

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.

Keith Rowe uses a battery-powered fan and steel wool to agitate a spring placed on the
pickup of a miniature guitar at the AMPLIFY 2008 Festival in Tokyo. Photo by Yuko Zama

Frontiersmen Of Freakonia
Rowe was one of the earliest practitioners of extended techniques, and his band AMM played alongside the adventurous, Syd Barrett-captained version of Pink Floyd at the height of the psychedelic London scene. (Check out early footage of Barrett and the Floyd playing “Interstellar Overdrive” to see how Rowe’s techniques may have slipped into the mainstream.) His ventures into the bizarre were a matter of emulating techniques he applied to his visual artwork.

“I encountered so many problems with the approach I had to playing standard guitar,” says Rowe. “In my jazz-guitar world, I could not satisfactorily locate the idea of something like ‘ambiguity’—which, in the visual arts, was seen as important.” He found that laying the instrument flat on a table allowed him to apply a more painterly approach, likening it to Jackson Pollock placing the canvas on the floor. Further, in transmitting sounds from the airwaves through a radio’s headphone placed over the pickup, Rowe found parallels with the collage-like art of Robert Rauschenberg.

Rowe presses steel wool onto the strings of a Shadow Reinaldo Rivero Finger Trainer that’s outfi tted
with a pickup. Electronics in Rowe’s rig include a Z.Vex Fuzz Factory, a Boss RC-2 Loop Station,
an MXR 6-Band EQ, and a Boss PS-3 Pitch Shifter/Delay. Photo by Yuko Zama

For American composer Roger Kleier (who has collaborated with Frith, Elliott Sharp, and Marc Ribot, among others), an encounter with a John Cage piece for prepared piano—meaning miscellaneous items such as paper and clothespins were placed on the strings—inspired attacking the guitar with unusual implements.

“I was struck by how Cage could take one instrument and turn it into a new sound universe,” says Kleier. Frith’s first solo album, 1974’s Guitar Solos, revealed to Kleier how he too could enter this world. “He sounded like an army of guitarists making these unusual sounds,” he says. “On the back of the record cover, he is pictured playing guitar with this piece of glass, and there are electrician’s clips on the strings. I realized I could do prepared guitar, as opposed to prepared piano. I ran down to the hardware store and started buying stuff.”

Frith, too, was inspired by Cage, among others, to explore the full range of sounds available from an electric guitar. “In 1970, I had a friend build me an aluminum harness holding a pickup, which could be bolted onto the nut,” explains Frith. “With this pickup suspended above the first fret, I had a completely new instrument: the conventional electric guitar, along with an asymmetrical mirror image, with logarithmic scales running the ‘wrong’ way.” Frith notated the scales and learned to incorporate this new set of notes using tapping techniques—well before Eddie Van Halen. Still, he soon abandoned that line of research in favor of a more sound-based (as opposed to note-based) approach. “At some point in the early ’70s, I saw [Flying Lizards guitarist] David Toop using alligator clips on his guitar, and that led me to start ‘preparing’ the instrument in various ways, using clips and anything else that seemed useful and sounded interesting,” says Frith.

Roger Kleier’s kit of implements includes alligator clips (lower left), slides, springs, mini gongs,
paintbrushes, a chopstick, a pencil, a reed, a screwdriver, and an EBow. Photo by Annie Gosfield

German guitarist Hans Tammen also plays the instrument on a table, like Rowe. His progression from the worlds of British rock to classical guitar, jazz, and then into the world of extended techniques was a result of being more interested in creating lengthy, improvised introductions to tunes than in the tunes themselves. “I started using other areas of the electric-guitar body besides the fretboard to elicit sounds,” he explains. “The more subtle and varied that became, the more I started working with materials and gadgets on the strings. This is quite natural for a guitarist—we are using picks and bottlenecks already, and as soon as you get beyond that, the options become endless.”

For Norway’s Stian Westerhus, it’s not necessarily about “guitar,” but about feeling the urge for a broader palette for his instrument. “I wasn’t that into playing guitar, but more into creating the music I was hearing in my head,” he says. “In my early teens, I would record stuff from the radio onto cassettes, cutting and splicing the tape to create weird collages of sound and music.” Westerhus revels in the randomness that alternate modes can introduce. “The stuff I hear back when I take risks pushes me in directions I can’t calculate, but can only try to control—extended techniques came out of that.”

’Gator Aid
You might think the experimental nature of these artists’ music would lead them toward complex custom instruments. However, they mostly use the same guitars you would see in your local club band. Kleier plays a Les Paul, a Telecaster, and a Stratocaster. Frith often wields a 1959 Gibson ES-345. Westerhus likes a baritone Danelectro or a Gibson ES-335 with a Bigsby. And Tammen, having been through various custom contraptions now says, “I’m just happy with my $300 Steinberger Spirit.”

When it comes to effects though, you are as likely to find these guys at Home Depot as Guitar Center. Picks, slides, and pedals aside, many of the implements for extended techniques come from hardware and kitchen supply stores, flea markets, and garage sales.

One tool employed almost universally is the aforementioned alligator or electrician’s clip, which can be placed anywhere along the length of a guitar string to great effect. In school, Kleier found he liked ring modulators and metallic-sounding synth sounds, but because he was a destitute student, he had no access to those electronic luxuries— and he was better off for it. “I found that an electrician’s clip placed on the strings gave me very unusual overtones. And when you add distortion, you can really get the ring-modulator sound. [Placing the clips] closer to the bridge, you get more of the fundamental notes—Gamelan-like . . . further back toward the nut, you get more upper [harmonic] partials.”

Tammen prefers to clip them between the bridge and neck pickups to draw out very low, gong-like sounds. “These are great for creating rhythms by banging the strings with different kinds of mallets,” he says. “I have a collection of five mallets, going from a hard wooden one to one with a fluffy top. Having the correct mallet at hand makes a big difference.”

In his own experimentation, this author found that though there is no “right” place along the neck to put the clips, they tend to fall onto the neighboring strings when placed on unwound strings—but this, too, can create interesting sounds. Attaching clips on the low E, A, and D strings, and between the pickups of a two-pickup instrument also changed the prevailing overtones when switching between pickups. “It takes some experimentation with them,” says Westerhus, “but there is a huge palette of uneven harmonics that vary, depending on where the clips are placed, and where and how you pluck the string.”

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.”

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.”

Attack Squad
A brief introduction to our extended-techniques "professors."

Keith Rowe
Trained as a visual artist, Rowe was a founding member of both the influential AMM in the mid 1960s and M.I.M.E.O. Since the late ’90s, he has been busy recording and touring. He is seen as a godfather of electro-acoustic improvisation, and many of his recent recordings have been released by Erstwhile Records.
Essential Listening: Weather Sky

Fred Frith
Frith was one of the founding members of the English avant-rock group Henry Cow. He has also been a member of Art Bears, Massacre, and Skeleton Crew, collaborating with Robert Wyatt, Derek Bailey, the Residents, John Zorn, Brian Eno, and Bill Laswell. He has composed several long works, and teaches at Mills College.
Essential Listening: Guitar Solos

Stian Westerhus
If the world of extended guitar treatments has a rock star, it’s definitely Stian Westerhus. He plays in Monolithic, Puma, Nils Petter Molvaer Group, and many more ensembles. Recently, he has put his energy into challenging the electric guitar alone onstage through the filter of his Norwegian heritage and his love of the iconic metal band Slayer.
Essential Listening: Pitch Black Star Spangled

Hans Tammen
Tammen produces what he calls “endangered guitar”—aggressive sonic eruptions, quiet pulses, and barely audible sounds—with both mechanical implements and interactive software programming. His works are presented at festivals all over the world. He has recorded for Innova, ESP-DISK, Nur/Nicht/Nur, Creative Sources, Leo Records, Potlatch, Cadence, and Hybrid.
Essential Listening: Endangered Guitar

Roger Kleier
Kleier’s past includes composition studies at North Texas State University and the University of Southern California, where he developed a style that draws from improvisation, contemporary classical music, blues, jazz, and rock. Much of his compositional work involves the use of extended techniques and digital sound manipulation. He has composed new works for soloists and chamber groups, and collaborated with Annie Gosfield, Marc Ribot, Elliott Sharp, Fred Frith, John Zorn, and many others.
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