Sunday, October 24, 2010
UPDATE: Geeky pictures that illustrate some of these things can be found here.
So, ja, a week or so ago, I played a set of solo improvised no-FX guitar in public for the first time in my fucking life.
Embarrassing, I know. How is that possible. I guess it's two things: my lack of non-failure-based motivation, and plus...I'm shy? I don't know, I guess for a long time I focused on doing creative things with analog/digital processing gunk and over the past 3 or 4 years have kind transferred that interest into doing it without the gunk.
But, so, whatever: I agreed to do this solo thing, mostly because I'd never never done it before. And in the end it went OK, it was fun, but alas, oops, shit: the night's performances weren't recorded. And since I spent quite a bit of time building some preparations to improvise with that night, I thought I'd write down the recipes. Mostly for myself because I'm notoriously bad at repeating inspired concoctions, but also I figured that someone else out there might be at home Googling "homemade superball mallet" like I was last week, and well now here's one more relevant result.
Quick setting: like a lot of prepared guitar, many of these sounds are the result of creating one or more extra bridges. I'm really starting to dig on soft or fibrous materials for bridges b/c of their unpredictability (foam and aluminium foil are my go-to materials right now) and odd timbres when ebowed.
I'm calling these studies, I guess that's what they are. Basically I fuck around with a technique/setting/set of objects until I can predict some of what will happen, then I press REC and play for about two minutes or so, because this is the default setting for my attention span.
I'm trying to be as musical as possible but in some cases I fail more than others: I was mostly in a hurry to capture my gross sonic intentions so I could retune and restring my ridiculous guitar and get on down the road.
Yes, the recording quality is crap: I could apply some gloss and sweetener via some reverb, EQ, spectral infusionators and whatnot...but also I'm a sucker for ugly-ass guitar, and this is supposed to be the raw naked shit, people! I'm trying to put the gunk behind me. So yeah this is just a guitar, a cable, and an amplifier. And some foam.
Before I lose this tiny crinkled scrap of paper with this 12-string tuning on it, I write it here, yes? Thickest string to thinnest string:
BC GA DB GbEb BC DbEb:
I think it can maybe best be described as Eb Altered? Maybe some kind person who understands harmony can confirm/deny.
I didn't write down the tuning for the 6-string neck b/c in this case the open strings aren't used for distinct pitches, and if you're going to get inspired and retune while playing, the bottom neck is the one to use (listening to or watching someone tune a normal guitar onstage is one of the All-Time Great Boring Stage Events, but listening to or watching someone tune a 12-string guitar onstage is like spending all day at the dentist's office. I can only imagine what it's like watching someone tune their 12-string neck onstage and THEN move on to tune their 6 string neck, because anyone who's ever tried it has probably been killed immediately).
All that's important for this first set of studies is that the 5th and 3rd strings are slacker than their neighboring strings (for ebowing).
So these first studies are using especially snappy foam mutes under the strings at the pickups and then a capo on the top neck. By snappy I mean foam that is very dense and squeaky (two words you almost never see together, or at least not often enough), not like a sponge, but almost like styrofoam? To get the greatest variety of sounds, it seemed to work well to have the double-muted neck on its neck pickup and the capoed 12-string neck on bridge pickup, remembering to play inside all newly bridged areas (behind capo, between capo and mute, between mutes, behind mutes, etc).
Most of the bass is coming from the lower neck and the harmonics-esque notes are coming from the 12-string neck, which means, if you're careful, you can one-handedly pluck out interesting clusters of notes that you wouldn't have access to on a 6-string neck.
Musically, yeah. The development kind of officially stalls a bit around the two-minute mark because 1) as I mentioned, that's the default setting for my attention span, and 2) I was wanting to slide the capo down a fret but couldn't find a good time to do it.
Why the pretentious Braxtonesque nomenclature: I've had to number my mutes because they're all cut special (for example, this prep idea can also be done usefully with mutes 7 and 9, with quite a different result), and for now it's helpful to remember what goes where. I can imagine getting tired of these names pretty quick, so if they go away, well let's call it natural selection.
Solo Study 1 (mutes 1 + 4 + 10 capo 4).
Solo Study 1a.
That could be some kind of digital glitch at the beginning, because I proudly use Tascam! but it could also be this pickup-palming thing I was doing. This take is not so hugely different from the first, but it does emphasize a new farty bass sound that i like very much (from sliding the lower mute back towards the bridge), and yes also fewer pitched sounds, more metallic timbres, etc. I also include this take to remind me that it can be almost OK to fingertap as long as you don't sustain anything, use vibrato, or accidentally sound like slap bass.
Solo Study 2 (knitting needle at 12th fret through both necks, ebowing on headstock side of needle while moving needle with ebow hand).
This is a hard-to-do and almost definitely stupid-looking right hand position that involves a) grabbing the exposed bottom (hee hee!) of the 12th-fret knitting needle with your right-hand pinky so you can wiggle it while you ebow, b) holding on to the ebow as far away as you possibly can from the 12th fret (otherwise there's not enough string length for it to vibrate), for me this is around the 7th fret, which leaves frets 1-6 available for non-tempered fretting with the left hand, and c) leaving your right ring finger free to rudely plunk the string you're ebowing now and then. I like how this generates some very Ab sounds (that's Ab Baars, not A flat).
Solo Study 2a (excerpt).
Solo Study 3 (knitting needle at 12th fret through both necks, ebowing with one ebow on each neck, headstock side, moving knitting needle with mouth).
This is one of those non-musical performances where it's all about documentation. The point here was to figure out how to use two ebows, holding one in each hand, and still coming up with interesting ways to add vibrato and change pitch and timbre. I was really surprised that the 12-string neck doesn't add much here, I was hoping to get 3 simultaneous notes, but without a fretting finger you can't really get the top neck string pairs to sound both notes reliably: thus, you usually hear one ebow note per neck.
The more abrasive timbres here are what happens when you push the needle off the neck via your mouth or chin...and so it's kind of like you're fretting the string from the underside of the string (not with your chin, luckily)?
Note to self: for playing the knitting needle with the mouth, I really have to find a way to not crack a tooth or Mara will kill me, probably just a firm piece of (non-toxic!) foam. I also thought maybe a pencil eraser would work, assuming those still exist. Besides tooth breakage the other downside of this preparation is that it's totally possible to start, eh, drooling, a guitar problem you don't see every day.
Solo Study 4 (superball mallet).
This is a homemade mallet built from a superball crazyglued onto a metal kebab skewer. Unfortunately it doesn't even do the thing that I made it to do, which is to make an awesome squawky sound when you drag it across a lacquered hollow object like, say, a cello: my doubleneck isn't hollow enough.
BUT, the mallet has a couple of other interesting properties: the skewer has a ring at one end so you can loosely dangle it off your finger and let gravity do most of the work, which actually allows the ball to bounce. Here's two mallets at the same time, both dangling from right hand fingers, which takes some practice. This time I'm also "fretting" with this slide made of hard green foam, that I'll also play by itself in a second.
Solo Study 4b (two superball mallets).
Solo Study 5 (hard foam slide).
I guess this isn't truly a preparation, I'm just playing slide with this thing I was just talking about, the bouncy green foam that does an awesome job of finding harmonics and letting them ring. I just like the sound of it. The final 30 seconds or so of this are really braindead wanking and I would normally edit that shit out but I was running out of steam and wanted to finish this little project.
Solo Study 6 (two knitting needles, two ebows).
I could have included this in the knitting needle/double ebow discussion, but this one is kind of different and less versatile. Because you've got 4 bridges now (nut, two needles, actual bridge), the area between the two needles is really resonant and gives you lots of interesting but difficult-to-pitch sounds, which is why it's sometimes useful to use one of the ebows pressed up against the string so that it's fretting a pitch while it's vibrating the string.