Gunning for Warr
April 13, 2008
A look into Warr guitars through the eyes of their creator, Mark Warr, and their most prominent player, Trey Gunn.
|Editor''s Note: There are many videos of artists mentioned in this piece that show how these unique instruments are played and sound. We''ve embedded links to these in the text, so whenever you see this symbol: » with a linked word, it will take you to the related video.|
The Warr Guitar is the world’s most advanced “touch” guitar, an instrument that combines bass and melodic strings on a single broad fretboard to provide the sonic range of a keyboard, and an expressive range from ethereal to bombastic. Slung over the shoulder somewhat in the manner a traditional guitar, the Warr can be adjusted to a vertical position for two-handed tapping like a Chapman Stick, or held more horizontally for the strumming, plucking, picking and slapping techniques that are familiar to all guitarists and bass players. The instrument is available in both mono and stereo configurations, with magnetic and piezoelectric pickups, MIDI-triggering options, and from seven to 14 strings.
In various string configurations and tunings, the Warr Guitar has been Trey’s beast of burden for nearly 15 years. He has become the instrument’s most prominent artist and advocate, performing and recording internationally with King Crimson» and his Trey Gunn Band». He’s now working with Warr-percussion duo TU» with fellow Crimson alumnus Pat Mastelotto; the trio KTU», which adds Kimmo Pohjonen on accordian and vocals; the UKZ quintet featuring legendary violinist/keyboardist Eddie Jobson; and the new multimedia musical storytelling project Quodia» with long-time collaborator Joe Mendelson. Along the way he has backed up an array of artists including David Sylvian, Toni Childs, Vernon Reid, John Paul Jones and Eric Johnson. His new solo album, Music for Pictures, is a compilation of new recordings of scores he’s done for film, and will be available online at the end of May.
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Growing up in Texas, Gunn started his musical training at the age of seven on the classical piano before taking up the guitar and bass. Although he became an accomplished player, he increasingly felt that his musical vision was fenced in by the guitar.
A young Trey Gunn with Chapman Stick in 1995
“And I had this epiphany that it had to do more with the tuning than with the instrument. That’s when the Chapman Stick came to my mind. I thought, that thing’s tuned in fifths, and a cello is tuned in fifths. I wonder if there is a whole other way of playing the guitar. I had a feeling that If I was playing in fifths, it would open up a whole new vocabulary without this blues specter hanging over it.”
Trey might have quickly moved in the direction of the Stick if he had not met Robert Fripp, the founder of King Crimson and the League of Crafty Guitarists, in the mid-eighties. The “Crafty” in Crafty Guitarists refers to the fifth-based tuning that Fripp was pioneering, and which his disciples confidently refer to as New Standard Tuning. Specifically, the Crafty tuning separates the open strings by fifths, except for the highest string, which is raised only a minor third.
“Fripp was just starting to use a fifth-based tuning on his guitar,” Trey recalls. “And I put it on my guitar and I it was like, there you go, I was right! Let’s leave the past behind and go forward. So that pretty much revitalized my interest in the guitar and kept my interest in the Chapman Stick away for two or three years.”
But Trey did eventually try the Stick, where he found a new musical home and a new direction. “I finally did pick up the Stick, and as soon as I put the thing on for about a week (I use the term ‘put it on’ because that is the way you play the Stick – it’s like getting into a jousting outfit or something, bound to your body) I realized that all the other instruments I had been working with for the last 10 years were essentially the wrong instruments for what I trying to do. I really needed this two-handed tapping approach.”
Of course, touch and tapping techniques are not some recent, arcane, virtuoso invention. Touch techniques are part of the traditional approaches used by guitarists in a variety of genres. Hammering on is essentially a touch technique, because the tone is produced not by plucking or strumming, but by downward pressure of the finger causing an impact between the string and a fret. And while the touch and tapping techniques that have become commonplace in shred, metal, rock and jazz were popularized beginning in the seventies by guitarists including Harvey Mandel, Eddie Van Halen and Stanley Jordan, as well as Emmett Chapman’s innovative hands-free Stick, a working touch-guitar prototype» was invented more than a half century ago.
The realization that two-handed touch technique suited Trey’s musical vision turned out to be the easy part. “After about five or six hours, I realized how difficult it was really going to be to play this instrument with the fluidity that great musicians can do. There are so many strings and so many frets, but I wanted to be fluid across the whole thing, which would take an enormous amount of work, calisthenically, so I decided to limit myself. My left hand would only play the bass in the first seven frets and my right hand would only play between fret 10 and 17. So I reduced the instrument to a third of its range and worked on that for a year or so.”
But he didn’t just sit in his New York room woodshedding. “I figured the best way to learn how to play it was to be playing with other people, so I went on about a hundred auditions as a bass player with no intention of joining the band whatsoever. I was just putting myself in a context that would be a challenge to me, and learning by playing with other people. I auditioned for dozens of rock bands, of course, but also celtic, jazz, country… anything at all. I just showed up with this instrument and faked it as best I could.”
And it must have worked, because Gunn found himself touring and recording with Fripp and David Sylvian» for several years.
A Path to Warr
Randy Strom playing a Warr "Artist" model
While Gunn was demonstrating mastery of the Chapman Stick on the world’s stages, Mark Warr, a keyboard player and a captain with the Oakland Country Fire Department, was designing and building string touch instruments in his garage for his personal use. He engaged ace pickup maker Bill Bartolini, who custom-wound pick-ups specifically for the unique requirements of Mark’s touch instruments. The original Warr instruments were massive creatures, laid horizontally on a series of drum stands. As he advanced the design, he retired the old instruments or just gave them away.
“I started off building them for myself, but guitarist Randy Strom had been bugging me for a long time to build him an instrument. I eventually did, just because I needed some extra dough to buy a keyboard,” Mark explains. “Randy was just on my case, ‘We’ve got to make this thing hang like a guitar.’ I fought with that design for weeks, staying up all hours of the night trying to get it to balance correctly, to the point where I actually gave up and decided that it can’t be done. And then one night I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, ‘I haven’t tried this.’ I was out in the garage at 3 o’clock in the morning with saws and drills, and I got very close. Within a week I was able to get it to work very well.” That was 1991.
Meanwhile, the band that Gunn was touring with happened to set down in the town where Strom was performing» on the new, guitar-styled Warr instrument, and the connection was made.
“I was leery about the instrument at first,” Trey admits. “The Stick is such a simple design. There’s just a neck and the way it’s held up against your body is really cool – it’s really light, super futuristic and you don’t have to hold the instrument in place. The Warr Guitar is held by a strap on your should like a traditional guitar, and at first it seemed like going backwards a bit. It looks like a guitar and I had left the guitar behind. But I knew there was something really cool about it, too. It seemed like it was an evolution. The sound of his instrument was fantastic.”
So Trey gave Mark a call. “A drummer I was playing with and I were both big fans of King Crimson,” Mark says. “We had just read an article that Crimson was forming again, and we were all jazzed up about that, when, out of nowhere, I heard this guy named Trey Gunn on my answering machine – the guy that we had just been reading about.
“Once he told me he wanted an instrument, I had to think about it, because I realized what the ramifications would be. I figured that, once I made one for Trey, I’d have a lot of people knocking at my door, and I had to decide if I was committed to that. And so I decided to give him a call back and tell him that I would build him an instrument at a particular price, hoping that it would make him go away – but it didn’t.” With that, Warr Guitars as a full-time commercial enterprise was born.
“When I first started working with Mark, he pretty much built me almost exactly what I asked for,” Trey says. “He did a prototype first, and I made, like, three pages of suggestions – improve this, move this, change the weight – then about four weeks later I had a new instrument with all the changes. And then I was completely sold. That King Crimson tour, right after the 1994 THRAK recording, is the first time I took the instrument out, and I’ve been playing it ever since.”
And Mark was right about the impact of a musician of Gunn’s stature showcasing his unique-looking and great-sounding instruments in concerts and recordings. Guitarists likely have one of two responses when they see and hear the Warr Guitar: “That’s really interesting, but kinda weird” or “I gotta GET me one of THOSE.” The phone did start ringing, and over the past two decades, several thousand musicians have become converts to the revolutionary Warr.
Developing Warr Models
At first, Mark heard from mostly Stick players, but as interest mounted, his company evolved new styles and configurations. The earliest commercial Warr Guitars are still represented in his Artist Series, available in eight, ten and 12-string models with “crossed tuning” – the lowest bass string is in the middle, with the bass strings on the top and the melodic strings on the bottom.
Mark later introduced the Phalanx Series» with an “uncrossed” tuning that offers an easier transition to touch playing for guitarists and bassists accustomed to the traditional string arrangements. The recognizable configurations of bass and melodic strings are side by side, with the bass strings on the bottom. Mark says that the uncrossed tuning now accounts for about half of the company’s sales: “This enables musicians to play what they know, and then incorporate the other aspects of the instruments.”
Trey Gunn Signature Warr
And what does Trey want? Increased sustain, for one, so Mark tilted the headstock back 14 degrees and added string trees to create more tension behind the nut. He also raised the nut slightly, so that the distance between the strings and the frets is increased on the lowest frets, making the use of those frets more sonically productive. “The way the physics of the instrument are, the farther you have go to hit the fret, the more sound there is,” Trey explains. “So there’s less energy the closer you get to the nut.”
And Trey likes pudauk, a red African wood that gives the instrument’s lowest bass strings a distinctive timbre he prefers. “They hate working with it, because it’s toxic and when you sand it, it produces a super-fine dust that gets all over your work space,” Trey says. “So they have to cover the whole work space in plastic and they have to wear masks. I hear about that every time they build me something new, and I kinda feel bad for them, but it has this kind of growly sound in the low bass frequency that I really like.”
“It stains all the heavy-duty metal tools red,” Mark adds. “It’s almost like spray-painting or something. We always try to steer people away from pudauk, but every instrument we make for Trey is sure to have some pudauk in it.”
Treys instruments employ a combination of magnetic and piezoelectric pick-ups. “My main instruments use four batteries – two for the Bartolinis – and I also have piezo pickups, which have the MIDI-RMC converters on them. So the electronics are pretty crazy, even though I have a rather simplified version. Some people have a lot of tone controls. I don’t have tone controls. I have volume control and a fade between the piezo and the regular pickups.”
Trey’s fans and imitators might be surprised to learn, given the spectrum of sounds, moods and expressive nuances he is able to coax from the instrument in concert and recordings, that he is something of a technological minimalist.
For one thing, he rarely used the instrument’s MIDI capability, and has now abandoned it entirely, preferring to shape the sound through his physical relationship with the instrument and carefully selected processing. “I never used MIDI that much,” he says. “ I used it some with King Crimson and ‘ProjeCKts,’ to make a fake feedback. I would take a flute sound up an octave and route the regular guitar sound and this flute sound into my distortion. I could fade up the flute and it would sound like I was going into overtone feedback. Now I’ve found a way to get that effect with pitch-transposition plug-ins.”
In fact, as a musician who travels the globe from his Seattle base, he is always looking to minimize the weight and bulk of his gear. You won’t find him tending a huge array of pedals and effect buttons. “I’ve got to put the thing in a case and carry it around the world,” he says. “I’m always looking for ways to make my gear smaller, cheaper and more convenient to move around the world. I am almost entirely away from using amps. I’ve used full-range Euphonic amps – my bass-side goes up into the guitar register. With Crimson I used SWR bass cabinets. But pretty much I’m a direct guy, as much as I can be – I like to trim down the rig so that it’s small enough that I can get on an airplane and fly anywhere with everything I need.
“I use Native Instruments software on my laptop for the melody side. A little compression to squeeze the dynamics. I send the guitar side into the laptop and the bass side into a little Raven Lab bass preamp and then out to the house. And I carry a couple of fuzzboxes on the bass side for live performance.”
Over the years, Warr Guitars has built Trey a variety of instruments, including a streamlined eight-string mono version he used on the King Crimson “ProjeCKts,” and a nylon-stringed, fretless piezo instrument – with no magnetics at all – that he has used with King Crimson and on his new CD.
Although there has been a close collaboration between Trey and Mark in product development, there is also a sense that he does not receive special treatment. When you visit the Warr Guitars website, you will see sections devoted to the various “lines” of instruments – the Artist Series, the Artisan Series, the Trey Gunn Signature Series, the Phalanx Series – but Warr Guitars are not off-the-shelf instruments, shipped from a mass-produced standing inventory. The company is still small enough – with a staff of four – that each instrument is custom-built to meet the exact specifications of each musician, just like Trey’s instruments are made for his.
The choice of woods, electronics, string design, and a variety of other elements are at the discretion of the individual. Mark not only collaborates on custom designs, but every customer gets the same attention to detail and quality under Mark’s direct supervision. “I make sure every instrument is top-of-the-line,” he says proudly. “We look through a thousand board feet of wood until we find enough wood for a single neck. So we don’t just grab a bunch of maple, or whatever we use. We don’t have to buy that much to get it, but we have to look through that much. It’s a very time-intensive process.”
The Challenges of Warr
The Warr Guitar is developing in two directions simultaneously: The design and engineering is progressing at the same time that an ever-growing community of musicians is exploring and expanding its playing techniques and stylistic possibilities.
Much of the Warr design and engineering is proprietary, accumulated through Mark’s many years of designing and building experience, but the peculiar challenges of producing top-of-the-line, stereo touch instruments with wide dynamic and pitch ranges are constants. For example, graphite reinforcement and dual truss rods enable the massive fingerboard to cope with the tension of so many strings.
“One of the original challenges of these stereo instruments was getting isolation between the two sides,” Trey explains. “They have separate outputs and separate pickups, but the strings are very close together so if the bass side is bleeding into the melody side, the effects on one side are heard on the other side.” Part of the solution to this “cross-talk” lies in electronic developments in the pickups, but Mark also employs high-end audiophile techniques in the engineering of the instruments’ bodies.
Another challenge is to achieve a consistency of sound in all parts of the instrument. Output must be somehow balanced for each string. Trey’s strings range in gauge from 9 – the “light” gauge for the traditional guitar high “E” string – to 128 for the heaviest bass string. “The little strings are such a small sound compared to the bass side,” he points out. “You have incredible dynamic range, but you can’t output it like that because you need the high strings to sound as loud as the low strings. That’s quite a challenge, but he figured out how to do it.
“With all traditional instruments, the sound comes from the right hand – how they use a pick, or the fingers or the thumb. We’ve taken that element away with touch guitars. There aren’t that many options for articulating a note. So that’s another obstacle we were working with – I was always wrestling with a really clear, fat bass sound – so we did some research and discovered some ways to improve the bass sound while reducing the mass of the instrument. When you touch the string, it’s such a light, little touch, and to get a lot of sound out of it, you need specially wound pickups and you need the mass of the instrument to respond.”
Trey has a home remedy for another of the challenges – the sonic sensitivity required for touch instruments has a pernicious side effect: any inadvertent contact with a string produces a sound, and the release of a string will tend to sound the open string. Trey carefully weaves a special fiber just below the nut to mute the open strings, much as the felt dampers prevent unstruck piano strings from sounding, and he uses additional muting to isolate particular strings when recording. “I also have an almost unconscious approach to using my lower hand, whichever one that is, to mute as much as possible,” he adds.
That “unconscious” muting technique is representative of the playing-technique challenges that confront musicians as they take up any touch instrument. “Your finger technique requires you to do something that is not applicable on any other instrument,” Trey says. “On a keyboard, you move left to right across in front of you, which we have, too, but also we have forward and backwards. You need to be able to move and articulate each finger very specifically, and you have to hit the string in the right spot. You want to hit the string right behind the fret. When I say it, it’s hard to believe we can actually do it, but it’s not as crazy as it sounds.
“You are using your fingers in a completely different way. I wish I could say it’s easy, but it’s not. You’ve got to have energy behind it to get the sound, but you have to use the right use of energy of the fingers. Even though it’s light, it’s got to be the right force. And that force determines the quality of the sound.”
Once a musician has come to grips with the physical challenges of the touch technique, they find that the Warr Guitar is remarkably versatile. Randy Strom is an example of a musician who uses the range of the instrument to play like a jazz pianist – or, in guitar terms, to play bass and melodic lines simultaneously. Other artists have used the instrument to play everything from Indian ragas to the avant-metal of Behold the Arctopus».
The Future of Touch Style
At this point musicians have developed at least 26 documented tunings for the Warr Guitar, using both crossed and uncrossed string deployments. Some tunings expand the range of the instrument, while others may make playing patterns more symmetrical; some are more reminiscent of traditional guitar tunings, while others take the instrument into entirely new territory. Some artists are even experimenting beyond stereo, using three sets of strings on one neck, processed through three separate channels.
Although Trey is the Warr Guitar’s most prominent artist, his approach to the instrument is decidedly idiosyncratic. “You build your own genre as you go,” he says. “I kind of treat it more as an African instrument or a big marimba or mbira – or as a single instrument that just has that incredible range. I’m not interested in being the bass player and the soloist at the same time. It’s hard enough doing one thing at once – I don’t need to be doing two things at once. I’d rather be creating new music instead of spending all the time that’s necessary to be able to be good at that thing. What those players do is quite amazing, but it’s just not what I’m interested in doing.”
So what is the next step in the Warr Guitar evolution? About five years ago, while Trey was still with King Crimson, he began returning to the Warr Guitar’s roots – playing with the instrument horizontal on a stand – and that approach has deepened with his new projects. “Not only is it easier on the wrists, but the kind of dynamic you can get, with the wrists in a straight line from the arms and letting gravity help with the fingers, and ability to shape a musical phrase – it doesn’t even compare,” he says. “In the guitar position the stress on the hands keeps it from happening.
“The dynamics just expand. It’s terrifying, actually. It’s like going back to kindergarten. Oh my god, I’m thinking, I don’t even have the technique to deal with this kind of dynamic range. I’ve been researching keyboard technique and I’ve discovered some interesting things. So we are in the process of completely destroying the instrument again.”
At the same time that the upper limits of design and engineering are being expanded – with the corresponding prices – Warr Guitars is also working on simpler, less-expensive instruments to make the touch-guitar experience accessible to young musicians with more limited means.
And, although Mark is playing his cards close to the vest, he promises that there are other exciting new developments that are about to emerge. Stay tuned.
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