Happy Accidents: Musical Feedback
A look at the early (and often accidental) instances of feedback, and how you can use feedback.
How’s everyone doing? Since I’ve been revisiting The Beatles’ recorded catalog in mono, I thought that this might be great time to discuss musical inventions that come to us as “happy accidents.” It was on their song “I Feel Fine” that feedback from an electric guitar was first used in a musical way on record. That particular decade from 1956 to 1966 gave us notable recorded musical examples that you can use as a springboard to come up with ideas for using feedback effects in your own music.
It was also back in the mid-1950s when the original version of “The Train Kept A Rollin’” was recorded by Johnny Burnette and the Rock ‘n Roll Trio. This was the record where the Trio’s guitarist, Paul Burlison, discovered a more distorted tone from a very unforeseen source. Somehow (due to some heavy vibration), Burlison’s Fender amplifier had an output tube come loose from its socket, and this created the dirtier guitar sound he heard as a result … quite by accident. Of course, these were the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, so neat things were being discovered in the then new genre of music. However, it seems that capturing feedback on record first began emanating from the British Isles and the amplifiers being made there at the time.
1965–1966 were really big years for feedback. In addition to the Beatles song mentioned above, feedback also was heard on the Who’s “My Generation,” the guitar solo section of The Yardbirds’ “Lost Woman” and on the intro section of The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Foxy Lady,” to name just a few. But there was even more to come. Just before Peter Green put together Fleetwood Mac, he was playing with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers on the record A Hard Road and captured some of the most incredibly divine feedback to ever grace a vinyl record—on the track named “The Supernatural.” I still think that it was Green who spurred Carlos Santana on to hit those long, creamy sustained notes. It’s been said that “The Supernatural,” and most of A Hard Road, was recorded with a Marshall amp, which apparently was not Green’s amplifier of choice. Most of the time he was seen playing through blackface Fender heads with 2x12 Fender extension cabinets, or early Matamps. Perhaps the use of the Marshall amplifier in the studio with Mayall accidentally gave him that particularly wonderful feedback effect during that session?
Last month, Buddy Guy told us the story about how a G-string that was accidentally brushed by a woman’s dress passing by his guitar while it was leaning against his amplifier started his whole idea about using that feedback effect. Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton have both claimed the influence of Buddy Guy from their days of listening to American blues records.
Here are some things you can do to make feedback a useful musical tool. The first is to find the spot in relation to your guitar amp’s speakers that aids in the production of feedback. You need to stand in the line of fire to get the most bang for the note! Volume is the second component needed to get the results you want. It has to be loud enough to create that sympathetic sustain. Think of this as a loop. There are a couple other things that you can do to help yourself find these great effects. I’ve found the use of a decent delay pedal in combination with the judicious use of a whammy bar really helps things get going! What happens when you hit a chord (or a note) that’s delayed is that the notes will “collide” with the others ringing out as you bring them back together. There are other ways of doing this if your guitar doesn’t have a whammy bar installed on it. You’ll need to use your fingers and wrist motion to excite the strings long enough to create that feedback.
In the late 1990s, I had a trio that did some covers and mostly original material. One day I picked up my effects rack too quickly (and in the wrong way) and I felt a tendon stretch a bit too far. Every time I tried to bend a string, it really hurt. I could feel that tendon scraping over another bone right below my wrist in line with my thumb. Needless to say I went to the doctor and the diagnosis was swift: I had De Quervain’s Tenosynovitus. They wasted no time putting my playing arm in a big cast that was very metallic and really uncomfortable. The thing was, we had booked two back-to-back gigs! That same night of the doctor’s visit we had a band rehearsal, so I attempted to play with this huge barrier surrounding my left arm. I couldn’t really play, but I sure found out that night I could make a hell of a lot of noise. I was so frustrated having to deal with that cast that I went crazy and started to bang my Stratocaster’s headstock repeatedly into the side of my speaker cabinets! I have to say that some of the coolest sounds I found, feedback-wise, were discovered then and there. I still don’t know to this day how I managed to get through those two gigs in that cast, but somehow I did. I think Jimi and Dick Dale might have been proud of my discoveries.
I suggest you listen to bands such as Sonic Youth or The Mermen, as a couple of modern examples of how others use feedback. Lastly, be sure to check out everything that Jimi Hendrix recorded live, along with the songs listed above. Remember that the more you listen, the more creative ideas will come to you at the most musically appropriate time (even if you find yourself in a diminished capacity). The sky’s the limit! See you next month.
Dean is the chief designer of "Snake Oil Brand Strings" (sobstrings.net) and has had a profound influence on the trends in the strings of today.