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BTW, I see that fellow LDer David Orton also contributed to this
article. Does anyone know this band (Big Block 454)?
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Subject: [thewire] Unusual Guitar Sounds
"Smash It Up !"
How to Coax Unusual Sounds from your Guitar
No. 5 in a series of efficacious articles by Big Block 454
An electric guitar is a tool for sound production - although there
are various recognised standard ways of playing it, this should not
preclude you from trying out all sorts of other methods of getting
sounds out of it - it's not a classical instrument, so let's explore
the boundaries !
With modern recording techniques and samplers, it doesn't matter that
the wonderful sound that you have discovered only works on one note -
sample it, loop it, whatever.
I will not be talking about effects units, I'll just be dealing with
the guitar itself. What you do with the signal after it leaves the
guitar is your own business - and of course that deserves another
Some of the ideas I'll mention are extremely basic - but something
in here may hopefully stimulate your imagination, and that's what it's
Standard Playing Techniques
Right Hand : Plectrum or fingers
Left Hand : Fingers or glass bottleneck / steel slide
Well, let's not bother with any of those - you know all about them.
What else could you use to sound the strings with ?
Coins give an interesting edge to the sound - I believe Brian May
uses old sixpences. How long the strings last is another thing. Drum
sticks, chop sticks, rulers, spoons - for a percussion effect.
Hammer all the stings whilst holding a chord, or use the implements in
Violin bow - you've all seen Jimmy Page using this.
The guitar isn't designed to be bowed - all the strings are in the
same plane, whereas a violin's strings are at different heights.
Thus, you've no way of playing one of the middle guitar strings on its
own. The only possibilities are bowing either the top or the bottom
string (over the neck) or just dragging the bow across all the strings
- or bouncing the bow percussively like Page did. You could try
tying a thread round one or two strings, pulling it taut, and then
bowing the thread.
Glissando Guitar - a great technique, used by Daevid Allen and
Steve Hillage from Gong. "Bow" the strings with a metal object held
in the right hand. I believe Daevid Allen used silver scalpel
handles; I've used metal bottlenecks, jack plugs, pieces of model
railway track, whatever. It helps to use something not entirely
smooth; a brushed aluminium jack plug works better than a chrome one,
as it catches against the strings better. Hold your chosen object
at right angles to the strings; and move it rapidly up and down - I
tend to use a guitar tuned to a chord and often a bottleneck on the
left hand as well, plus a echo unit (but I said I wasn't going to
mention outboard effects... ). A silvery sound. As always, try
different pickup and tone control settings.
A similar effect is to hold a bottleneck in your right hand and slide
it up and down - odd things happen on a two-pickup guitar - with
the neck pickup on, the pitch goes down as you pass the pickup; with
both pickups on, you get a dual sound between the pickups, as one
picks up descending pitch whilst the other picks up ascending. Try
dragging small chains over the strings - I use one from an old bath
plug. I also use this to whip the surface of my banjo - a man's
got to have a hobby.
The E-Bow sits over one string at a time, and uses an electro-magnetic
field to stimulate the string into vibration. As you approach a
pickup, the volume becomes louder - and the E-Bow can be very loud !
There is a dead spot over the centre of a humbucker, which means you
can get a tremolo effect by sliding the E-Bow back and forth over the
pickup. A bottleneck and an E-Bow can give a theremin sound.
Two of the members of the band 10cc invented a unit called The Gizmo
a while ago. From what I remember, it consisted of a motor and six
brushes that attached to the guitar bridge. The brushes rotated all
the time, and there was a key for each brush, which brought it into
contact with the string. Thus, it was a bit like a mechanical
version of the E-Bow, but with the added effect of being able to play
more than one string at once. I believe Godley and Creme used it on
their albums. Try brushing the strings with a small electric fan, an
electric toothbrush, razor or vibrator for similar results.
Some guitars now incorporate a transducer as well as normal magnetic
pickups, to get an acoustic sound as well as an electric one. Try
using a contact mike for a similar effect. Try attaching it to the
headstock, for some weird harmonics - it will tend to pick up the
sound of the strings beyond your left-hand fingerings, especially as
you change chord positions - you could also pluck the stings behind
your left hand if you want. Remember, contact mikes don't put out
much of a signal, and semi-acoustics may work better than solids.
The avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey used to use this technique. I
believe Frank Zappa had a Strat with a built-in contact mike, which I
think is used on "Zoot Allures".
Just close-miking an electric guitar (whilst also playing it through
an amp) gives an acoustic, cutting edge to the sound - apparently
Buddy Holly did this.
Some pickups pick up exterior sounds - try shouting or whistling
into one. My Gibson Melody Maker is particularly susceptible to this
- possibly because the pickup is mounted on the scratch plate
rather than firmly attached to the body. Try a compressor to get the
Try bringing a motor, electric drill or radio close to a pickup -
weird sounds may result. A large magnet may also work, but mind you
don't wreck your pickups. Playing a cassette recorder near the
pickups may be interesting.
Switches and Controls
The obvious technique here is blipping the pickup selector switch.
The "Pete Townshend" - on a guitar with Les Paul-style controls, set
one pickup volume to zero, then blip the sound on-and-off Morse-code
style, preferably at the end of a song, with loads of feedback. The
"Jimi Hendrix" - just change rapidly back-and-forth between pickups
for abrupt tone changes - it happens fairly early on in "Voodoo
Chile - Slight Return".
Like John Cage's prepared piano, objects can be inserted between the
strings to make strange sounds. Try rulers, coat hangers, tinfoil,
screwdrivers, forks and knives between the strings and so on.
Clipping two strings together with a crocodile clip or paper clip
makes some good noises. Also, try damping materials like rubbers or
cloth. In a lot of cases, you'll find one note will sound great, and
the rest won't - so sample the good one !
The Coral Sitar Guitar used a floating bridge to simulate the sound
of a sitar. Someone published details of a way of fitting a metal
block near the bridge of a guitar so that it just touched the strings
and equally made a sitar-like sound - if anyone knows any more
about this, please contact me.
A guitar or bass laid across your lap can be played percussively by
using the fingers of both hands on the fretboard, like a typewriter.
I saw Derek Bailey playing a guitar with two extra strings - a thin
one lying loose on the fretboard, and a bass one attached to a machine
head and the bridge, but stretched round his foot (he was sitting
down). He would pluck the bass string, then bend the note by moving
his foot. (You could also bow it). The thin string would be played,
then wrenched round the back of the neck. He was playing a
semi-acoustic with various contact mics on it.
Rolling Things Down The Strings
The two main participants in Big Block 454, myself and Pete, both
started our musical careers by rolling things down guitar strings and
recording the results - have we progressed much since then ? I
used ball bearings and marbles; Pete used batteries. Stop recording
before they hit the bridge and fall onto the floor (or drop inside the
soundhole on an acoustic).
Take the backplate off your guitar and play the tremolo arm tension
springs - you need the volume up for this one. Play the strings
beyond the bridge or nut.
Finally, try whipping the guitar with a cat'o'nine tails or a riding
crop, or using a chrome dildo on it - thanks to Steve and Terry from
I hope this article has stimulated you to go out and try something new
on your guitar. There are more articles like this on the Official Big
Block 454 Non-Ironic Web Site at http://www.bigblock454.mcmail.com
Thanks to the contributors to this article :
David Cooper Orton, Ray Peck, Stephen Moyes, Hal Shows, Vanessa Hays,
Steve & Terry from LOG, J. Sexton, Michael Peters, Joris Gillet, Eric
Tischler, Jeff from Hub City Records, Aaron Brown from Elias Krone,
Manfret Polstra, Jon4NoWave, James Dye, Shannon, Johnny Proctor, and
various others who didn't leave their names.
Colin, Big Block 454, Manchester, England
The Official Big Block 454 Non-Ironic Web Site
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