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The Art of Noise

How to inject some noise into your sound

You know what I love about the guitar? If you’re twisted enough, creative enough, or destructive enough, you can pretty much make it do whatever you want. If you ask me, it’s the defining creative medium of expression for some of our generation’s most memorable compositions. It’s like a piano you can wear. That said, here’s what I hate about it: I’m not as good at playing it as I’d like to be! In fact, I’d wager most of us aren’t. Just like anything else, the guitar has its heroes and champions, and those who seem to reach an altitude where the air is just too thin for the rest of us aspiring mortals.

I love to listen to artists ranging from Larry Carlton to Eddie Van Halen, Fredrik Thordendal (Mesuggah) to James Taylor, but I’m often inclined to stop labeling myself a musician by comparison. I remember reading an interview with Tom Morello where he was commenting on his early gigging days and seeing the guitar players from other bands warming up. He was floored by how amazing some guys were, and realized he’d have to do something besides nail a diminished sweep to be noticed. I think he succeeded in his tenure with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave.

Other players in the past couple of decades have been equally inventive, one of them being Matt Bellamy from Muse. These guys have inspired me quite a bit, and made me step outside the box with my own playing. If you’re looking to add a fresh twist to your playing, here are some fun things you can try with effects and, if you’re really feeling adventurous, a Dremel tool or router and a soldering iron—that will set you apart from the rest of the pack:

The Kaoss Pad, from Korg, is one of the coolest gadgets for creating guitar effects, even if it was originally designed as a DJ piece. It’s a touchpad X-Y controller that’s full of effects. It allows you to control the sounds in real time depending on your finger’s location on the pad; the X axis controls one parameter and the Y axis controls another. I broke out the Dremel and soldering iron and built one of these into a guitar for live performance in an industrial band, after seeing Matt Bellamy do it. It’s incredibly fun, and you can do really crazy things with delay feedback and other effects, without reaching down to tweak a pedal. Just be sure to use a direct box, as the output of the Kaoss Pad is line level, not guitar/instrument level.

Speaking of delays, a really fun trick is to set the tap tempo/delay time of a delay to quarter notes and use the pedal as a harmonizer. If you’re arpeggiating in the correct intervals, the last arpeggio will repeat as you’re playing the next one, allowing you to harmonize with it. This is especially fun with Line 6’s Sweep Delay effect, which is found on their DL4 Delay modeler.

The Sustainer pickup, which is offered in different variations by Fernandes and Jackson, is an absolute blast to just make noise with, but also is a great way to get controlled feedback of harmonics or straight notes. The lower strings, when sustained under lots of distortion, can sound absolutely huge. This effect is a big part of the sound of Type O Negative, which many may know well. The EBow does something similar to a single string, but without requiring modifications to your guitar, so it is also worth mentioning here.

A killswitch can be really useful. This is a momentary switch, usually in the form of a button, which you can build into the body of the guitar or wire into a pedal. Pressing the killswitch momentarily interrupts the signal path, muting the guitar’s output. With a little timing and practice, this allows you to create “slice” and “stutter” effects. It’s especially interesting when combined with slide playing. (Listen to “RPM” by Sugar Ray for a great example.)

Try a special pick. There are a number of non-standard pick options available these days that can radically change the sound of your guitar. I’m a big fan of metal picks, because I can get really pronounced pick slides, and playing pinch harmonics is a breeze. Jellyfish picks are also interesting. They feature a row of tines, and can create a 12-string effect when used on a 6-string guitar.

I hope you enjoy using some or all of these suggestions to freshen your playing. I think that we’re still in the infant stages of where we’ll go with the electric guitar, as young as the instrument is. I challenge all of you to go out and do something unique, and make it yours!

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