Expand your playing by limiting your options.
- Learn how to "trick" yourself into creativity.
- Understand how to focus on a single rhythmic motif through a progression.
- Develop a better sense of articulation, time, and phrasing.
Improvisation is one of the great joys in music that celebrates spontaneity and self-expression. It gives us a chance to explore our instrument and what we naturally hear and feel in an open format. Limitations help challenge us to improvise inside specific parameters and, as a result, can break us out of our typical musical vocabulary.
It is all too easy to devolve into incessant noodling when presented with a blank harmonic canvas. While this may be a blast to participate in, it doesn't necessarily mean it's fun for an audience to listen to, or that our ideas are linking together thoughtfully. Adding limitations can pave the way to inspiration.
These could include limiting yourself to a set of notes or a shape, creating phrases out of the same rhythmic idea, or physically restricting your access on the fretboard. If a personal goal is developing more focus with improvisation or getting more music out of fewer elements, this approach is highly recommended and can be a lot of fun.
The following examples will apply to a blues progression in the key of Ab, but can be used in any situation regardless of simplicity or complexity.
In Ex. 1 the limitation is only playing on the 4th and 2nd strings. This approach immediately shatters access to most of the pentatonic lines that many of us play, and makes us look for horizontal connections on the fretboard for ideas that we might generally play in a vertical box. Using sixths is one of the easier things to make music out of here, so there are a few of those for sure. Having less access to the fretboard will immediately create different ideas, and this limitation certainly facilitates that.
Limitless Limitations Ex. 1
The "Django" Limitation
This one is a Django limitation (Ex. 2), imagining that a caravan fire partially mangled our fretting hand, only leaving us with the use of the first two fingers. With such a physical limit, the ideas are naturally a little simpler, more horizontal than vertical, and provide an absorbing challenge. Even playing phrases that we naturally hear can call for a different layout on the fretboard when playing with two fingers instead of four. I tend to notice myself using more slides with this approach.
Limitless Limitations Ex. 2
Ex. 3 uses the same general rhythm of four consecutive eighth-notes for every idea through the chorus. We can place the four notes anywhere in the bar, but the rhythmic idea's consistency brings more attention to the note choices and allows us to hear them in a unique context. This one is helpful in any style and gives the listener something to grab onto almost immediately. Feel free to try doing this with longer rhythmic phrases as well.
Limitless Limitations Ex. 3
Bending is the focus of Ex. 4, and while the intention was to make every note a bend, there are a few cheater notes in there. This approach can help bring out different articulations, get us thinking about pitches above and below a particular scale shape, and be physically challenging since we usually have to support bends with more than one finger. Remember that these can include regular half- or whole-step bends, pre-bends, or double-stop bends.
Limitless Limitations Ex. 4
Ex. 5 uses double-stops (mostly thirds) exclusively in this chorus. This limitation helps us see a little more harmony in the scale than we might notice with single-note lines. Also, the physicality of playing two notes together for the left hand makes our ideas a little simpler, curbing the temptation of flashier playing in this context. There was quite a bit of horizontal movement here, but another angle would be to try this while staying in a single position.
Limitless Limitations Ex. 5
Ex. 6 can be tricky, but extremely rewarding once you get a hold of it. In this case, the limitation was to use one note over the entire chorus (an F on the 2nd string). Having little or no access to any other melodic options forces us to rely on rhythm, phrasing, articulation, or any other fundamental musical element. Another useful variation is using only a metronome and stick with two notes on one string for 3 to 5 minutes. If we can make one or two notes work, we can make almost anything work.
Limitless Limitations Ex. 6
Our last example (Ex. 7) is limiting us to a moving a melodic shape up the neck but keeping it inside the Mixolydian scales that follow the chord changes. If we harmonize a musical phrase through the entire scale, we can create six other lines or alternate versions of the same idea, a similar process to what we would naturally do with a chord scale. This approach results in many different melodic variations on the original phrase, but they are potentially useful together since they are all inside the harmony. Aside from the melodic thread of playing the same kinds of shapes, similar rhythmic placement also gives the listener a tangible element to grab.
Limitless Limitations Ex. 7
The above approaches are places to start if nothing else. Working with limitations helps us find new sounds and methods on the fretboard, expand our ideas a little longer than usual, and open our musical vocabulary in new and exciting ways. The beauty of limitations is that everyone will apply them differently and uniquely. Even using one that seems generic will naturally highlight our distinct musical voice and choices.
Using these is somewhat like running with weights on or swinging three baseball bats together. Once we run, swing, or solo in an actual situation, it can feel easier and freer, and we may have different ideas we can follow and build on. Sticking to a limitation for a short amount of time can create enough breadcrumbs the listener can track where they share in our excitement of creating improvised music in real time. Feel free to get creative, as any limitation we naturally conceive will likely prove valuable to our playing and improvisational development. They are always available at any moment you are playing music.
Death By Audio Exploding Head Review
A clever triple-delay offers infinite avenues to echo bliss.
Mysterious, hazy, and uncommon echo colors. A cool break from the same-old-delay blues. Streamlined design.
Clock noise could turn off some users. Limited numbers available—so far.
Death By Audio Exploding Head
If you don’t follow the many-splendored musical world of noisy psychedelia, you might be surprised to know that Oliver Ackermann, co-founder of the sometimes psychotic but often thrilling stompbox concern Death By Audio, also helms the equally psychotic and thrilling band A Place to Bury Strangers. If you’ve seen APTBS live, you’ll understand much about what makes Death By Audio pedals unconventional. APTBS is generally a sensory overload experience. They are loud, sonically confrontational, and capable of oscillating between chaos and dark beauty. Last year marked the 13th anniversary of the band’s breakthrough LP, Exploding Head, and,in typically perverse fashion, Ackermann elected to celebrate that most unlucky of anniversaries with a triple delay named in the LP’s honor.
In very relative terms, the Exploding Head seems normal compared to many DBA pedals. It’s three identical delays run in series. Simple, right? But that simplicity belies great range and a deep capacity for weirdness and subtlety. Exploding Head creates washy reverbs, percussive multi-head delay effects, and mutant delays that chatter like rogue tremolos. It can feel quirky and tricky to handle as you get to know it’s weird ways. But mastering just a few simple tricks makes the Exploding Head an engaging, painterly, and even practical effect.
Honed To Honor the Head
Delays arranged in series are one of the coolest ways to mangle and massage sound and time. I often prefer the texture and complexity of two simple delays to traditional delay-and-reverb setups because fewer overtones and harmonics go missing in the wash. In fact, a two-delay setup can actually enhance certain overtones as echoes intertwine and collide. The Exploding Head expands on this concept and enables deep exploration of those interrelationships.
The Exploding Head is effectively an evolution of DBA’s own extinct and much-coveted Ghost Delay—an effect instrumental in creating the blown out, industrial, Jesus and Mary Chain-meets-Isn’t Anything haze of Exploding Head. The Ghost Delay utilized three cascading delays as well, but featured preset wet/dry blends instead of the three independent blend controls on the Exploding Head. That design change, however, makes a big difference.
”The bright, rhythmic underpinning of the echoes makes individual delay lines more distinct as you add in others.“
Controls are superficially simple. There are delay time, feedback, and wet/dry blend knobs, just as you’d see on any delay. But like an analog synthesizer, the interactivity between the three cascading sets of controls makes it hard to replicate sounds precisely, and there are no presets or digital control. Practice and tuning your ear to the pedal’s quirks and tendencies helps you engineer roughly identical setups pretty readily. Still, I was inclined to snap pictures of settings that made my favorite sounds—just in case.
Exploding Head’s infinity switch is another treat that distinguishes it from the Ghost Delay. Engaging it feeds the output from the third delay in the sequence (red) into the first (black), which enables momentary self-oscillation effects. The addition of this option—on top of a delay array that already lives happily at the edge of feedback and creates blurry washes of polyrhythms—makes the Exploding Head a delightful chaos engine if you choose to take it there.
Willows and Hurricanes
The Exploding Head’s chaotic side is a big part of the pedal’s personality. But it can be civilized and subdued, too. It happily generates trad delay textures. And when you get a feel for how Exploding Head works as an organism, you’ll find a varied lot of echo colors that are as familiar as they are freaked out.
While digital, the basic tonality of a single Exploding Head delay line is not worlds apart from a bright analog echo. It’s a touch trebly. There is also perceptible clock noise at many settings, just like an analog unit. This can be jarring at first if you like your delay lush and dreamy, but the bright, rhythmic underpinning of the echoes make individual delay lines more distinct as you add in others, which also has a thickening and darkening effect that blunts the clock noise.
A good place to start exploration of the Exploding Head is to turn all the blend controls to completely dry settings, set the time and feedback controls to near-identical levels (each at high noon is a good place to start,) and then advance the blend of the first delay until it sounds right. As you slowly, incrementally elevate the blend levels of the other delays and shift the other parameters, you’ll hear the signal get thicker and wider. And, depending on your time and blend settings, the pedal will generate wild multi-head patterns or subtler variations that have the quality of tremolo or chorusing.
Like any delay, you can use short delay times, dry blends, and long feedback levels to approximate reverb textures. These are a great addition to composite delay images in any position. But I found that situating reverb-like textures in the middle position enables the most ambient colors. The middle delay can also be critical in creating polyrhythmic echoes. Mating a delay-forward blend setting to an odd subdivision of the first delay generates complex percolating repeats that vary in volume. It sounds a little like a multi-head delay arranged via William Burroughs cut-up method—disorienting but also a source of sound poetry that shifts your perspective dramatically.
It seems preposterous to try to assign ratings to the Exploding Head. Some players will find great utility in the pedal, readily encounter beauty in theintermingled echoes, and get blissfully lost exploring the interactive controls. Other players will be baffled. Given that, a prospective customer should be prepared to round up or down—particularly where the tone and ease of use scores are concerned.
One thing all users will agree on, though, is that the Exploding Head sounds colossal. And with a loud amplifier, it sounds wonderfully alive. In the absence of presets, you’ll have to be pretty fearless to make changes to the controls on the fly. But perhaps a chain of Exploding Heads is the answer? That would be an expensive proposition. But it might actually result in few exploding heads, too.
Death By Audio Exploding Head
David Lindley: 1944—2023
The great multi-instrumentalist, world music pioneer, and larger-than-life personality is warmly remembered by his friend, veteran music journalist and musician Dan Forte.
People often ask me, “Who was the best musician you ever met?” or, “Who was your favorite interviewee?” I always say David Lindley and David Lindley. Across 47 years and some 1,000-plus interviews, with such fascinating subjects as Frank Zappa and George Harrison and master musicians the caliber of Stéphane Grappelli and James Jamerson, Lindley takes the cake.
Have you ever been too depressed to cry? That’s been my condition since hearing that Lindley died on the morning of March 3 due to complications with long Covid. I did nine articles on David and interviewed him several times more. In the grand scheme of things, it’s very rare for a writer and artist to become friends and have a relationship beyond the interview. But there was a connection from our first meeting, and I was lucky enough to spend quality, “off the clock” time with David.
I’ve been asked to share a few stories about Lindley … not to make it all about Me, but to illustrate what kind of person, as well as musician, he was.
In 1967, I saw the man in Kaleidoscope, arguably the first “world music” rock band, decades before the term was coined. They played an “Electric Band Session” as part of the Berkeley Folk Music Festival. I was not quite 14. Practically every member of the group was a multi-instrumentalist, and David even brought his huge Gibson harp guitar (an early-20th Century Style U) on the road. At one point they’d gotten themselves situated with their chosen instruments when, just before the downbeat, some fan hollered, “Louisiana Man!” They paused, looked at each, and then started exchanging instruments while the crowd laughed. They proceeded to peel off a terrific rendition of Doug Kershaw’s Cajun classic.
Decades later, I interviewed Ben Harper, who was a neighbor of the Lindleys growing up in Claremont, California. He’s about 15 years younger than I am, and when I told him I’d seen the band, we got into a “No way!” “Way!” exchange à la Wayne’s World.
I first interviewed Lindley in 1977, after a United Farm Workers benefit with Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon. Riding to the hotel with Lindley and Zevon, their back-and-forth had me laughing all the way, including a battle of the Long John Silvers: Robert Newton versus Wallace Beery.
Completing the interview a month later at his home, David allowed me into the “inner sanctum,” where instruments took nearly all floor and wall space—guitars, steels, banjos, mandolins, fiddles, viola de gamba, saz, tar, cümbüş, the Gibson harp guitar, and more. Regarding his approach to disparate instruments, he said, “You know how an ant can taste and hear and smell with one organ—this all-encompassing feeler? That’s more what it’s like … being an ant.”
Blurring lines between traditional and iconoclastic, he studied, investigated, incorporated, and became a prominent voice in styles spanning the globe, on more instruments than even he knew. He said, “I played all kinds of things which were ‘not played’ on guitar.” This included bowing an electric guitar. He laughed, “And it wasn’t Jimmy Page.”
David Lindley lays into a vintage Silvertone. Dan Forte recalls, “He was the first guy I saw in a major act playing Silvertone amp-in-case models or a Dan Armstrong London with two sliding pickups—extracting killer tones—leading me down a rabbit-hole hunt for Goyas and Zim-Gars.”
Photo by Ebet Roberts
In the process, he expanded the parameters of popular music, stylistically and instrumentally, to a degree that precious few can claim.
His inspiration for taking up lap steel was the late bluesman Freddie Roulette. But of influences on the instrument, he said, “I’m basically a sax player”— naming King Curtis, Junior Walker, and David Sanborn.
Obituaries lump him in with soft rock, which was true of much of his ’70s work. But the highlights of countless Jackson Browne concerts were Lindley’s incandescent lap-steel solos on “Doctor My Eyes” and “Running on Empty.” And his performances were also an indelible part of hits by Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, Zevon, Dolly Parton, and many more.
When it finally came time for a solo album, 1981’s El Rayo-X defied and exceeded all expectations. It was mature, fully realized, and original; eclectic but cohesive. Rather than present a Whitman’s sampler of various styles, he said, “I wanted to have a coherent theme to the whole thing.
“You know how an ant can taste and hear and smell with one organ—this all-encompassing feeler? That’s more what it’s like … being an ant.”—David Lindley
His associates were eager to sing his praises, and I was able to interview several. Booker T. Jones said, “He’s the one who makes the band go,” while Ry Cooder declared, “He has the sensitivity that allows him to grasp what the hell is going on.”
Graham Nash described a session with Lindley on fiddle: “I said, ‘I’d like you to stand on the street corner and play like an old bum.’ And he said, ‘Boy, that’s real easy for me.’”
Ronstadt offered, “He just instinctively gravitates towards something that is extremely high-quality and has integrity in whatever art form he’s contemplating—which is a lovely thing to have.”
Although Lindley supports Jackson Browne on round-neck guitar here, the highlights of countless Browne concerts were Lindley’s incandescent lap-steel solos on “Doctor My Eyes” and “Running on Empty.”
Photo by Ebet Roberts
And Browne stated, “I can’t even call it ‘my music’ when I think about David, because he’s such an integral part of it."
The band David put together, also named El Rayo-X, was without question one of the top five live bands I ever saw. And I saw Jimi Hendrix twice! Mr. Dave had me open for them in 1981, when my surf combo Cowabunga had only done three gigs. But I got to actually play with David in ’98, as part of the Festival d'été de Québec City’s “guitar summit,” featuring Martin Simpson, Bob Brozman, percussionist Wally Ingram, and Lindley on acoustic Hawaiian Weissenborn slide. During a mini-rehearsal, I’m guessing he could sense that I was nervous. (Wouldn’t you be?) But he put me at ease, and wanted to give me a chunk of the spotlight. I asked him if he still did “Brother John,” the Wild Tchoupitoulas song. I had a second line take on “Limbo Rock,” so we stitched them together. Somewhere during my solo, I quoted War’s “Low Rider,” and Lindley was on it in a millisecond.
Things That Lindley Fans Might Not Know About Him
• Correlating his musical aptitude and high school track career, he said, “I could run hurdles the first time—I knew what I was doing. So, they put me in the 120 low hurdles.”
• Also, during high school, he played flamenco in a guitar duo.
• The bane of Lindley’s existence was that loud knock from housekeeping—despite threatening signs he affixed to hotel doors. As good as he was with voices, his impersonation of a mad dog just inside the door was so convincing, the next sound was that of the maid running for dear life.
• He was a great cartoonist, illustrating his solo CDs with comical self-portraits.
• David once mentioned that Peter Lewis of Moby Grape was his cousin. I said, “Isn’t he Loretta Young’s son?” “Yep.” “So, Loretta Young is your aunt?” It’s true: Lindley was part of the same gene pool as the epitome of Hollywood glamor.
• At a time when female producers were extremely rare, he asked Ronstadt to helm his fourth solo album, Very Greasy.
• He was an expert marksman and archer.
• He and guitarist/producer Henry Kaiser traveled to Madagascar to record the acclaimed A World Out of Time albums with indigenous musicians, resulting in considerable income for the Malagasy players and citizens.
I’ve always been fascinated with the so-called “zone” musicians sometimes achieve, like a basketball player with a hot hand, when you play something you didn’t know you could. It doesn’t require virtuosity, but the chances for someone with Lindley’s talent surely improves the odds. He described the sort of out-of-body experience. “I fail a lot. When that happens, that’s when you have to fall back on all the mechanical stuff and technique,” he told me in 2006. But being in the zone, he said, was like watching himself from three feet away.
“The bane of Lindley’s existence was that loud knock from housekeeping. His impersonation of a mad dog just inside the door was so convincing, the next sound was that of the maid running for dear life.”
I’ve thought about what influence, if any, David had on me. Not as a guitarist, really, because I can’t play like him; no one can. But he was the first guy I saw in a major act playing Silvertone amp-in-case models or a Dan Armstrong London with two sliding pickups— extracting killer tones—leading me down a rabbit-hole hunt for Goyas and Zim-Gars. He even gave me my pen- and stage-name, Teisco Del Rey. Then there was his clothes. Need I say more?
He was a serious musician not taking himself too seriously. He didn’t hide his wacky sense of humor in order to make music of the highest order. That’s the dichotomy. He wrote songs like “Sport Utility Suck,” “Cat Food Sandwiches,” and “When a Guy Gets Boobs,” and told hilarious stories onstage. He led audiences in singalongs to Frizz Fuller’s “Tiki Torches at Twilight.” So, you’d see this leprechaun in garish polyester, talking about Krispy Kreme donuts, and then he’d play something beautiful like his “Quarter of a Man” or something biting like "Revenge Will Come” [for every child kept down].
He gave me permission to display all sides of my personality, and you have that permission too. We have him to thank for that and so much more.