Get ready for a genre-bending lesson that aims to delight, confound, and inspire.
• Celebrate and analyze the pioneers and expounders of weird guitar.
• Highlight elements that characterize weird guitar and demonstrate how to use these uncommon features to create your own weird sounds and songs.
• Discuss how intuition, industry, and music theory can work together to create weird music that is logical, clever, vital, and sustainable.
Weird guitar isn't a genre, but there are a few odd techniques, characteristics, and approaches that allow one to gather a big tent of diverse musicians such as Derek Bailey, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, James Blood Ulmer, Janet Feder, Dillinger Escape Plan, and many others. And while “weird" means different things to different people, in this lesson we'll strive to cover enough ground that, at some point, everyone reading this will say, “That's weird."
What Is “Weird" Guitar?
Because “weird" means different things to different people, I am determined to provide you with a myriad of references. I will also highlight commonalities between seemingly disparate musicians in an effort to bring cohesion to the classification. I myself find it difficult to listen to a whole album of weird music, although I rarely listen to “normal" guitar albums all the way through either. Still, musical options allow one to appreciate life to the fullest and weird guitar provides alternatives you won't hear elsewhere.
Unfortunately, this lesson will exclude more than it includes. This is due to the massive amount of weird guitar music that has been produced in the last 60 years, not to mention what is uploaded to the internet daily. For the record, I have bypassed certain guitarists when I have not studied their playing in depth, appreciating their music purely on a listening level, such as Joseph Spence and Robbie Basho. Nor am I including guitarists whose playing is problematic to notate, such as Sonny Sharrock or Pete Cosey. Also, arbitrarily, in order to limit my references, I have featured only American and English guitar players and avoided the world of weird classical guitar.
Dissonance as a Hallmark
Though I've done my best to structure this lesson from pioneers to contemporaries, I am presenting these weird etudes grouped by concept. This process has led me first to the use of dissonance.
Many people think of dissonance as something that sounds bad or grating, but in fact dissonance is a sound that is unstable or unresolved. One of the best ways to demonstrate this is to play Ex. 1, a G chord to a D7 chord but don't go back to the G, even though that's what the sound of the D7 longs to do. One of the reasons for this is the fact that the D7 has a dissonant tritone in it, which creates instability compared to the G.
Contrary to this usual function of “rest, tension, release" as heard in G–D7–G, weird guitarists have a habit of composing music that is more “tension, tension, release, tension." One of the ways to do this is to fill your music with an abundance of tritones, seconds, and sevenths, all of which are dissonant.
Ex. 2 does just this. It was inspired by the guitar duet “Dali's Car" from Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica—arguably the weirdest record ever made—and performed by Jeff Cotton aka Antennae Jimmy Semens and Bill Harkleroad aka Zoot Horn Rollo. The example features myriad unresolved tritones, as well as major and minor seconds. There are several rhythmic challenges, including a variety of uncommon rhythms: the changing of time signatures seven times in the space of ten measures. In addition to Beefheart, I also added syncopated slides with volume swells (measures 9-10) heard on the Hampton Grease Band's Music to Eat album (featuring the brilliant guitarists Glenn Phillips and Harold Kelling), and the final two measures were inspired by Pat Metheny's “Part 2" from his Zero Tolerance for Silence recording, which is an outrageously peculiar and highly recommended album.
Let's stick with this concept of dissonance for a few more examples, but in the following one we'll be more logical, using riffs and melodies created strictly within a whole-tone scale. Ex. 3 was inspired by King Crimson's “Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part 2," although there also traces of the Police's “Mother," and even a bit of Primus' “Jerry Was a Racecar Driver."
Once again, the tritone takes center stage in both the riff and melody, though a cohesiveness stems from the fact that all the notes, as dissonant as they sound, come from the whole-tone scale (Ex. 4). For a more complete view of the whole-tone scale, check out my “Digging Deeper: A Whole-Tone Primer" lesson.
Ex. 5 is a mosaic of the tritone intro, arranged for one guitar, with a backwards guitar solo. For the solo, I recorded the lead as seen in Ex. 6, then I reversed the file in Logic with the click of a button. A similar effect can be achieved in real-time with various pedals, but for the sake of ease, I used the computer shortcut. Although he's admired throughout the mainstream, you don't have to dig too deep to find weird Jimi Hendrix guitar music.
Ex. 7 is one last, dissonance-centered etude, performed in the so-called math-metal or mathcore style of bands such as Dazzling Killmen, Coalesce, and Orthrelm. This is an homage to the Dillinger Escape Plan and their intrepid leader, guitarist Ben Weinman. It features dissonant minor and major seconds, a riff that requires precise string-skipping ability, and additional dissonances that can be discerned when focusing on the guitar and bass harmonies.
Ostentatious Complex Rhythms
As hinted at in the previous examples, another feature of weird guitarists is the use of complex rhythms. And while one could argue that this pomposity for convolution is contrived and lacks groove, I would suggest that…well, yes, sometimes. However, these seemingly unnatural rhythms are the most natural of all, as humans don't talk in 4/4 time, walk with consistently even tempos, or breathe to a steady beat. So why consistently force music into such constraints?
Accordingly, let's go all in with a Frank Zappa-inspired etude that pushes rhythmic intricacy to the extreme! Ex. 8 borrows many of the rhythmic ideas Zappa used in his iconic “The Black Page," which, although originally composed for drum kit and melodic percussion, has been performed by Zappa alumni Steve Vai and Mike Keneally, as well as by Zappa's son Dweezil.
To make this etude slightly more comprehensible, I have written it entirely in the key of C, with minimal position shifts. I've also added a step filter effect to my guitar make the tone a bit more Zappa-esque. For more puzzling Zappa rhythms, I recommend you peruse The Frank Zappa Guitar Book, transcribed by Steve Vai.
Ex. 9 is my meager attempt to capture the rhythmic irregularity of James Blood Ulmer, though his brand of weirdness extends far beyond rhythm. Ulmer has a distinctive voice developed from years of playing in soul and jazz ensembles, performing and recording with free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, constructing his “Unwritten Theory of Guitar Harmolodics," and dreaming up (literally) tunings like A–A–A–E–A–E and E–E–B–E–B–E. Ex. 9 (performed in standard tuning) should be understood as focusing solely on Ulmer's rhythmic style, which was very much inspired by Ornette Coleman's melodic lines but in a decidedly non-idiomatic style.
Pay attention to the syncopations, the lack of emphasis of the downbeat, the mixed meters, and the unexpectedly fast sixteenth-note and quintuplet phrases. You'll also notice the unusual drums and the almost unison bass line. This is important not only for Ulmer but for most weird guitarists–they usually have weird band members. Weird guitar is good but a weird ensemble is great!
When Is a Guitar Not a Guitar?
Many weird guitarists have gone out of their way to make their guitars sound unlike guitars. Building on of the techniques and vocabulary that composer John Cage used with his prepared piano, prepared guitar pioneers Bjorn Fongaard, Keith Rowe, and Fred Frith created an entirely new approach to the instrument. They did so by attaching various objects directly onto, under, and in between the strings. Anything that will modify the sound of the guitar is fair game, paperclips, rubber bands, alligator clips, cardboard, pencils, the kitchen sink (use the faucet as a slide!), you name it.
My favorite prepared guitarist is Janet Feder, who in recent years has brought prepared guitar to a wider audience by mixing prepared guitar machinations with traditional classical techniques and avant-songwriting skills. One preparation Feder uses to angelic effect is the placing of split rings onto various strings, which in turn produce a bell-like chime, emphasizing the harmonic overtones at the point of placement. Ex. 10 demonstrates this technique with an abstract, Feder-esque etude in which I have placed split rings on the 1st (E), 3rd (G), and 5th (A) strings. The notation and tab represent only the notes I played, not the notes you hear. For more on Janet Feder check out Premier Guitar's 2016 profile piece.
Ex. 11 and Ex. 12 feature another prepared technique by shoving a pencil under the strings, effectively turning the guitar into a poor man's koto. While many guitarists have done this, “Empitsu No Uta" by Richard Leo Johnson was the initial inspiration for this etude. Before we get to the etude, this example demonstrates, in succession, three systems the pencil preparation generates:
1) Placed a regular No. 2 pencil under the strings at the 20th fret (you can place it anywhere; I chose my highest fret). This makes it so that, picking over the soundhole you can only play the notes heard at the 20th fret C–F–Bb–Eb–G–C. Although not perfectly in tune yet they still sound wonderful.
2) This might seem limiting at first until you realize these notes create a displaced C minor pentatonic scale.
3) If you pick over the soundhole and push down on the string on the fretboard side at the 17th fret, you can bend the notes up both a quarter- and a half-step, giving you more notes and articulations to play with. (I should mention that there are playable notes on the other side of the pencil, but you'll have to work that side out yourself.)
That's the method and system, now we're obliged to create music, which I've done in Ex. 12.
One last pseudo-preparation to mention is self-proclaimed “Freak Guitarist" Mattias IA Eklundh's use of a comb to play notes. I say “pseudo" because the only modification he's made is the replacement of the pick in the right-hand with a comb. Nevertheless, Eklundh gets a variety of maniacal sounds from this seemingly unhinged idea. Check out his brilliant post-shred song “Musth" to hear an artful use of this technique.
For more on the history of prepared guitar, check out Michael Ross excellent article “Avant Guitar 101: Alternate Attacks."
The concept of Postmodernism often equates, for better or worse, to “anything goes" or “everything is equal." I don't know that I believe this, yet I do know that weird guitarists appear to value an all-inclusive philosophy. To that point, a few bands in the late 1980s and early 1990s embraced the idea that all musical styles were so equal that not only could you mix genres in one set you could mix genres in one song. Examples of these early mashups include Scatterbrain's “Don't Call Me Dude" and Mr. Bungle's first, self-titled album. But, in my opinion, no one has ever done it better than John Zorn's Naked City, featuring weird guitarists Bill Frisell and Fred Frith (on bass). What I admire about Naked City is that, rather than creating a pastiche, they managed to blend disparate elements so artfully as to be alchemical, creating completely new music.
Ex. 13 is a Naked City etude that, while it lasts for only 31 seconds, is longer than several Naked City originals! Be prepared to switch styles, grooves, and keys in quick succession. I've kept the tempo the same throughout, double-time and half-time notwithstanding.
The depiction of musical directions/prompts using symbols outside the realm of traditional music notation, such as scribbles, text with various font sizes, and colors isn't limited to the world of weird guitar. Still, enough guitarists use the technique to reason for its inclusion in this lesson. I also have a delightfully fun video example to share, which demonstrates that, while most weird guitarists are serious about their art, they can maintain a sense of humor too.
Which brings us to a video featuring Nick Didkovsky (who performs solo and with various weird ensembles, most notably Dr. Nerve).
In the video you'll see Didkovsky composing a graphic notation score, followed by a recording session, ending with the final product “Could Have Been an Ankles Tableau," one of his contributions to the $100 Guitar Project, a various artists recording that features an abundance of weird (and a few “normal") guitarists. Enjoy.
It was difficult to figure out where and how to put Derek Bailey into this lesson as he epitomizes weird guitar, using every anomalous technique you can image. Therefore, I saved him for last and created his own category.
While Bailey is perhaps best known for his idiosyncratic, non-idiomatic free improvisation style featuring unpredictable rhythms, note clusters, large intervallic leaps, harmonics, scraping the string with the pick, plucking below the bridge of archtop guitars, and more, he has also recorded his take on jazz standards. This is how I have represented him in Ex. 14. As if Derek Bailey was playing the classic “Avalon."
This is a perfect vehicle for penetrating Bailey's style, as “Avalon" is a relatively straightforward song, yet this etude was composed. Yes, I had to compose what sounds like an improvisation to get it right–to make it seem byzantine. There are many features to analyze here but you should listen to the audio a few times first. Note that I included the original chords in this chart, though I am not playing them most of the time but rather implying them. This is important because I am playing the melody and inferring the changes. None of this is random.
The opening chord is classic Bailey, including three minor seconds and two minor sevenths. This a quintessential chord cluster. The piece ends with a similar cluster, performed by moving the previous shape over one string. After the opening, as anomalous as it sounds, the etude stays true to the original melody, though it's been enhanced and obfuscated by blending it into abnormal chords, playing it in harmonics, displacing melody notes down or up an octave, and adding a few “outside" notes (the way any jazz musician might, though Bailey's are more outside than most).
Postscript: Who Did We Skip?
Due to the dilemma of who to leave out, this was easily the most challenging article I have ever written for any publication. Because, although this lesson is lengthy, I cut out ten times more! So, who did I cut and why? Fortunately, you can find that extensive list, along with links, recommendations, and additional lessons at weirdguitarlessons.com.
Before I sign off, I want to acknowledge the help of Henry Kaiser, Michael Ross, David Starobin, Joe Gore, Steve Feigenbaum, Jack Vees, Andre Cholmondeley, and Richard Leo Johnson for points of reference and insight. And finally, my sincere gratitude to Premier Guitar, and Jason Shadrick specifically, for publishing this lengthy, weird guitar lesson, which is so near and dear to my heart. I am beyond grateful.