“I was sort of working on an art project. I had my guitar with me and a lot of materials were scattered around. It was that peanut-butter-and-chocolate moment, where these two things came together.”
— Experimental guitarist Janet Feder, discussing with Premier Guitar how she fell into the process of preparing her instruments, by putting different objects onto the strings to see how they would change the tenor of the sound the device would make. At the time Feder came up with the idea roughly two decades ago, she wasn't aware of many other people doing the same thing, although plenty of experimenters were out there. Since then, she's pretty much owned the approach—check out her performance of "I Hear Voices" to get an idea of how the tiny objects she puts on the guitar help to give her songs additional texture and percussion.
Five kinds of objects used to prepare a guitar
- Alligator clips: Perhaps the most common kind of object used to prepare a guitar, these tiny clips fit efficiently around guitar strings, making them a natural way to modify the sound of the guitar without adding a lot of extra heft. On acoustic guitars, they create percussion; on electrics, they add feedback.
- Violin bows: This is probably the one most people are familiar with, because Jimmy Page popularized it during his time with Led Zeppelin. Bows are also popular among guitar preparers, in part because they sustain a note for a long period of time. The EBow, a battery-powered electronic device introduced in the 1970s, basically does the same thing as a traditional bow might.
- Twine or hair. On an electric guitar in particular, these create something of a dragging effect on the strings, sort of a ragged version of what you might get if you're using a bow. (This clip shows a guy using both twine and a bow. Compare and contrast.) Feder in particular is a fan of using horsehair on her guitars.
- Screwdrivers or metal rods. One popular technique among some experimental guitar players is something called the "third bridge," which basically involves putting a metal rod in the middle of the guitar, which basically splits the neck into two separate guitars. Sonic Youth and their early mentor, Glenn Branca, were big on this technique—here's a clip of the band's Lee Ronaldo using it to his musical advantage.
- Split rings: Another one of Feder's preferred tools, these are basically the tiny coils you use to loop keys onto a keychain, but the really small versions you've most likely seen on a Swiss army knife. "What it creates here is more like a spectrum of sound," Feder told NPR of the tool. "It has a lot of low tone and high tone to it at the same time, like a bell does."
The album with the terrible cover that redefined how the guitar could be played
In the history of music, never has an album cover and title been such a poor match to the music contained within than the avant noises found on Guitar Solos, Fred Frith's first solo album, released in 1974.
A record that basically laughs in the face of convention, it essentially features Frith improvising using a set of heavily prepared guitars, discovering and modifying the sounds being made by the devices using an array of volume pedals.
He added pickups to the necks of the guitars he was playing, threw capos onto the middle of the neck, and effectively turned the devices into two different guitars each, rather than just one. And he would play both guitars at the same time, of course.
The album as a whole is a challenging but rewarding listen, with the beautiful drones on the intro to the album's closer, "No Birds," proving that accessibility can be had in the midst of free improvisation.
This kind of material has been mined numerous times since–British electronic act Fuck Buttons, for example, was taking notes when it mined beauty from discord, as "No Birds" does so effectively—but Frith did it with just a couple of creatively prepared guitars.
In an interview with documentarian Steve Elkins, Frith said that the recording came about after Virgin Records, the label at the time for his band Henry Cow, got the idea that Frith should record a solo album. Rather than making a record to highlight his ability to play guitar solos, he got the idea to basically see if he could redefine the instrument's parameters entirely.
"They thought that rock guitar players should make solo records, because it's 'cool,'" Frith said. "But they had no idea what they were getting into in my case. "
The approach led him to basically start playing guitar in ways that actively avoided the traditional dynamic of the instrument:
One of the things I did for that record, was I laid two guitars flat on the ground, with their necks coming from opposite directions. So I had these two necks, which were basically like keyboards, and I started preparing them. I'd seen David Toop, who opened for Henry Cow at a concert in 1971, using alligator clips on his guitar. That led me into a whole thing about, if the alligator clip could produce a sound out of an electric guitar which sounds like a gong, then there must be all kinds of things you can do to a guitar, which are going to do comparably interesting things. So I started to try out everything. I used sticks, bits of glass, metal, springs, chains, and all the things which have become a part of my vocabulary ever since. Dropping things on the guitars came later.
Frith's experiments since have helped to expand the possibilities of what exactly a guitar can sound like, and have since inspired generations of players—even if they didn't end up going the free-improvisation route that he did. A 2007 clip of Frith offering lessons on how to use prepared elements on a guitar is amazing in the depth of his knowledge. At one point he uses a paintbrush (!) to sustain a note on the guitar.
It's worth noting that this free improvisation strategy can quickly go wrong in the wrong hands—Lou Reed's infamous Metal Machine Music, which didn't use prepared guitars but basically was just an excuse for Reed to create music from noisy feedback for an hour, is widely considered one of the worst albums ever made. (That said, it has received some critical reassessments of late.)
But Frith used the launching pad from Guitar Solos to build a decades-long career in experimental music that's included documentaries on his life, collaborations with John Zorn, and a body of work that has never compromised in the name of commercial interest.
Impressive work, considering such an unassuming album cover.
The amount Glenn Branca, a famed no-wave guitarist, sold a double-bodied "harmonics" guitar for on eBay last year. "Double-bodied," you say? Yes. For more than three decades, Branca has been custom-making electric guitars that feature a single neck, but two guitar bodies. Why would one do this? Well, according to Branca, the result, while impossible to play as a traditional guitar, creates richer harmonics effects. "The guitar facing away from your body plays mainly just harmonics. The one against the body sounds the same as a slide guitar," he explains in the eBay listing. "You can use either one or both guitars balancing them the way you want. When using 2 amps you can get an extreme stereo guitar effect. The fret positions do not correspond to the pitches since the strings are longer than usual. The guitar can only be played with a slide bar." (And in case you're wondering: Yes, there is video of him playing this specific guitar.)
In an age when we expect our music to be three to five minutes long, to have a catchy chorus, and to tell a complete, relatable story in that timeframe, it's likely impossible that we'll ever see prepared guitarists along the lines of Fred Frith gain a wide audience. Sonic Youth is probably the closest we'll ever get to seeing it go mainstream.
Still, there are plenty of artists out there trying ambitious, experimental things. Bill Horist, a Seattle-based musical improviser who uses guitar preparation to build impressive soundscapes, uses all sorts of crazy tools, including all of the ones we mentioned above, along with things like drum cymbals. (Here he is in action.)
"Being a lefty who plays guitar right-handed, I'm predisposed to different dominances in my approach. Preparing the guitar enables me to play with these reversals," Horist told The Stranger in 2004.
Janet Feder's playing isn't outside the realm of traditional possibility—it's experimental but not to the point where it makes the songs unpalatable to mainstream ears, and as a result she's gotten to play on NPR's tiny stage. But what do you do with someone like Bill Horist?
You attempt to put him on America's Got Talent, apparently. On his website, Horist offers up a lengthy blog post describing how he was talked into doing the show in 2013, despite the fact that he had "checked out of mainstream entertainment and society back in 1983 as an incipient punk."
The process was lengthy, and the final result was just as frustrating as you would imagine—required to throw out his lengthy composition strategy, he instead created something that the judges and the audience could listen to, ponder, and decide to hate in just 90 seconds.
And after all that … of course, the judges hated it. He pissed off Heidi Klum. Howard Stern thought he was a teenager. And ultimately, the effort proved somewhat for naught, as it doesn't appear to have actually aired on the show.
Horist appears to believe the format was ill-suited for his work:
There was consensus among my family that I was set up from the beginning. I believe it is possible but I also believe that the judges just didn’t get it. 90 seconds is an incredibly short time in which to absorb what I’m doing and how I use objects to create strange unguitar-like sounds. When one is doing such strange and unfamiliar things to an instrument, it takes a few minutes for the uninitiated to connect the dots between what is seen and heard.
And ultimately, he's probably right. Sounds like he needs to get in the red hot nickel ball business.