The Alternate Pick
Steve explores pick materials that are far from the norm.
If you had the opportunity to read the excellent article (The Spectrum of Plectrum, December 2008) and accompanying interview with Jim Dunlop by Chris Burgess, you’re armed with a lifetime of options to shape your tone by way of the pick. Taking a cue from that I’d like to stretch outside the boundaries of the pick and talk about alternative sources of striking those strings. Alternatives as in not with a pick, and not with your fingers…
There are a lot of ways to excite the strings of a guitar. While some of these come in the form of ready-made products that you can purchase, others come from everyday items you’d find around the house or office. Let’s start with the products you can or could buy at one point in time, then move on to the things you can use right now without laying having to spend a dime. Hey, a dime makes a great pick. Wait a minute… wrong article.
The Ebow (electronic bow) was conceived in the late sixties and debuted at the Chicago NAMM show in 1976. This incredible device is a battery-operated electro-magnetic bow that can simulate the sound of horns, strings and woodwind instruments. It’s incredibly sensitive and can infinitely sustain notes while being very expressive. Though it only sustains one string at a time because of the way it was designed, it also can be used to sweep the strings much like a violin bow goes across the strings. You can hear it on records from Smashing Pumpkins to David Bowie to Soundgarden. And for anyone who’s had the pleasure of checking out the live demos at NAMM, you’ve probably heard Ebow virtuoso, Lenny Walker showing off its many sounds. For more information check out ebow.com.
The most famous example of violin bow use with a guitar would have to be Jimmy Page. His epic orchestration in "Dazed and Confused" pretty much sums up the sound taken to the extreme. Though not the most agile of alternative picks for creating new sounds it has to be one of the most tonally effective. What it lacks in the ability to individually bow strings across the fingerboard it excels in single-string or double-stop violin-like sounds. For the more adventurous player the Togaman GuitarViol by Jonathan Wilson Designs (reviewed in the November 2008 Premier Guitar issue) addresses the issue of the fingerboard radius, pickups and many other guitar shortcomings and allows the bow to be used to its fullest potential.
This incredibly ambitious device was invented by Lol Crème and Kevin Godley of 10cc, back in 1975. The device was a small box that attached to the bridge of the guitar and consisted of six small motor-driven wheels, whose continuous bowing action was activated by pressing one or all of keys located on the top of the unit. Pressing a key would bow the corresponding string, while the other hand remained free to fret single notes or full chords. Or so it did in theory. Sadly, the Gizmotron was never able to be produced to its fullest intentions and this great idea for a product was a nightmare to install or use properly. Only a few players really ever made great use of the Gizmo, which of course would be Godley and Crème themselves. I bought a NOS bass Gizmotron at one point that seemed to work OK except the rubber wheels had dried out significantly and they ended up cracking off after just a few uses.
The Hammer Jammer is a discontinued product that I believe was distributed by SKB at one point. It was a plastic device that was either temporarily or permanently attached to the guitar by the neck pickup or sound hole. It had six hammers with interchangeable tips that mimicked the hammers on a piano. By tapping the hammers, notes would be struck on the guitar and produced a similar tone to a harpsichord or piano. Not only could you play one note at a time, you could play whole chords simultaneously or even roll multiple strings. I also still own one of these devices and use it to create interesting textures for game and film soundtracks. It can be haunting or aggressive. Definitely check one out if you can ever find one.
OK, so there are four examples of devices that have been or are still being manufactured, and I’m sure there are many more. Now let’s move on to items that you can use right now to achieve unique sounds out of your guitar...
Toothbrush - LISTEN
Probably best to go out and spend the $1 for this one. I don’t think anyone wants toothpaste or drool all over their guitar! The toothbrush can be used just like a pick by holding it by the handle and brushing the strings. It’s kind of like having a hundred really fine picks close together and it creates a wooshing sound that is better heard than described. Using a soft bristle brush will sound different than a harder one, just like a pick. It’s great for uniquely sustaining chords and I’ve found that it is much better for multiple strings due to the size of most bristles. If you do want to play individual strings you might find yourself getting creative with left-hand muting techniques to avoid ringing of unintentional strings.
Great for that woody tone. Thank you, I’ll be here all week. Seriously, though, the pencil is probably one of the simplest tools for creating hammered tones on the guitar. Holding it much like a pick between your thumb and first or second finger let it bounce off the strings. Experiment by hitting it closer to the bridge and move toward the neck. Notice how the tone naturally darkens and gets less springy sounding. You can approximate a dulcimer as your bounce technique gets better. On bass guitar I’ve seen a producer use a drumstick to great effect creating huge piano tones with superb attack and clarity.
Pen - LISTEN
I like a Sharpie because it produces a clean and fat attack. Like the pencil, pens of varying shapes and sizes can create great hammered sounds. Experimenting with different materials (metal, plastic, etc.) you’ll definitely be able to create a wide variety of sound. Acoustic guitars love them too.
Paper - LISTEN
What? Sure, why not? Take a piece of paper and fold it up a few times. The more folds, the thicker your pick will be. It’s surprising how familiar it will feel in your hands if you’re used to playing with a pick. The difference is that even with the hardest attack and most force it “gives” a lot more than a piece of plastic. This particular oddity though natural feeling is anything but natural sounding. With a thuddy attack and lack of a striking sound it’s definitely more of an effect. If you play an acoustic guitar or an electric with heavy strings the paper will fall apart very quickly so make sure you’ve got an extra sheet or two for your debut gig.
I’ve seen Paul Gilbert whip out a cordless drill with three picks attached to it to create the fastest speed-picking machine known to man (besides Paul himself!). I’ve also heard he got the drill caught in his hair…yikes! Hope it had a reverse on it. Anyway, in a similar spirit, the concept of using an airbrush can create really interesting and haunting effects. Clearly this is taking things to the extreme and a pneumatic airbrush may just create more noise than it’s worth. However, in the right circumstance using the brush set to a fine stream can open up a variety of sounds that mimic the use of a broken volume pedal. Great for infinite sustain and more fun than you’ll ever have building that WWII fighter plane model. I know because that’s how I discovered this…outside in my father-in-law’s garage while he was building a WWII fighter plane model.
I know this is all pretty extreme and it may sound rather funny but I take it quite seriously. To sum it up, what would guitar history be without the inventive nature of guys like Page, Hendrix, Van Halen and Tom Morello. Every one of these players and many more has done things that made an impact on tone by using (at the time) unconventional techniques. Who knows, one day you might be remembered for using a #2 pencil on a hit song’s guitar solo….and wouldn’t that be cool.
Steve is best known for his work on Guitar Hero III, the multi-platinum selling video game that is turning gamers into guitarists by the thousands. A guitarist/composer/producer, he holds a B.A. in Music Performance and Composition and spends his days and nights writing music for games, film and television. He’s also a rabid tone fanatic and amp enthusiast always looking for a unique sound. His original music can be found on iTunes and at myspace.com/steveouimette.