Guitars are cool. They just are. It's relatively easy to learn enough to play a Ramones song, and it's easier to look cool holding one in the bathroom mirror than it is holding an oboe. Not only that, but it's like cake to get your avant garde on with them. Get yourself a distortion pedal and some alligator clips and you're in business. Not a well-paying business, but you'll be doing door gigs for three or four other musicians in no time.
We're not talking about prepared guitars this week. No, sir. This installment of TFGTSI focuses on folks who've put their money where their plectrums are and fundamentally altering their instruments. More strings. More things. Axes that would dissolve in the rain. All here. For you. Now.
Killick Erick Hinds is best known for covering Slayer's Reign in Blood in its entirety on his H'Arpeggione, a cello-like fretted beast of his own design with 18 strings. Another of his creations (constructed by Fred Carlson of Santa Cruz, CA) is Big Red, a 38-string guitar made of recycled redwood and paper mache. It has a hybrid fretless/fretted neck, sub-bass and super-treble strings and sympathetic strings running through a channel in the neck.
Killick lives in Athens, GA, but he's touring the Northeast right now. He's playing at The Stone in Manhattan tonight (Nov. 29), in the Bronx this weekend, and then heading to Syracuse and Portland, Maine.
Elliott Sharp has been fitting instruments to his eclectic needs for some 25 years. His creations include the pantars, the slab and the violinoid. More recently, he's been playing an eight-string electroacoustic guitarbass built for him by luthier Saul Koll of Portland, Oregon. Elliott was good enough to provide a preview of him playing that particular. Here's a track from Octal: Book One, his new solo album, to be released in January by Clean Feed.
Before moving from Italy to Brooklyn, Marco Cappelli took on an ambitious program for his "extreme guitar": a classical guitar rebuilt by lute maker Renato Barone with eight sympathetic strings and built-in electronics. He started commissioning pieces for his one-of-a-kind instrument and ended up with a songbook with pieces by Elliott Sharp, Marc Ribot, Ikue Mori, Nick Didkovsky, Anthony Coleman, Erik Friedlander, Annie Gosfield, Otomo Yoshihide, David Shea and Mark Stewart. Some of those pieces can be heard on his excellent CD Extreme Guitar Project, released by Mode Records. And the Ribot piece can be heard right here, right now.
Another Italian musician, Paolo Angeli, plays perhaps an even more extreme guitar. Created out of a Sardinian guitar (which is larger than most classical or folk guitars, about the size of a cello). Like Cappelli's, Angeli's guitar has a second set of strings stretched diagonally across the body. But his uses sitar strings, bicycle brake cables, a built-in electric fan which strums from the inside and a pedal system with a separate hammer for each string. His new record, Tessuti on ReR, is all compositions by Fred Frith and Bjork. Here's one of the Bjork cuts.
Derek Bailey was not just a major figure in the development of new techniques for guitar, but was one of the progenitors of extended improvisation after the free jazz explosion of the 1960s. Although he did come up with some innovative set-ups, such as his use of dual volume pedals running from his guitar to separate amps, he was not for the most part involved in preparing or modifying his instrument. His genius - and the word is not used lightly - was purely in the playing and an uncanny knack for alternately working with and deliberately against the people he played with. But for a short time he did play a mildly modified guitar. In 1997 he wrote:
"In the late 60s/early 70s I occasionally used bulldog clips etc. attached to the strings - all standard preparations at the time. Later I adapted a guitar - an Epiphone - for these purposes. This was the '19 string' (approx) guitar. The guitar had an internal mike attached to the practice amp. Additionally there was a longish wire/string that kind of trailed behind to which might be attached all kinds of things (on the recording 'Domestic and public pieces' the instrument pops up here and there and on that particular concert there was an amplified thunder sheet attached to the long string). The whole thing was of course mobile. Toward the end of the seventies I dumped it, finding that I preferred to look for whatever 'effects' I might need through technique."
(Robert Masotti's photo and the Bailey quote were both lifted from the excellent resource European Free Improvisation Pages, by the way.)
The brilliantly-named "'19 string' (approx) guitar" shows up on several recordings, most on Incus, the label Bailey founded with Evan Parker. Here's a cut from Tristan (Duo), an album of duos from 1975 and 1976 with cellist Tristan Honsinger.
On that record, Bailey also plays the Waiswich Crackle Box, which we might explore in a future post. (If anyone knows what the devil that is, write me in care of this station.)