I recently had the opportunity to participate in the $100 Guitar Project, initiated by Nick Didkovsky and Chuck O’Meara. As they put it:
“On Oct 20, 2010, Nick Didkovsky and Chuck O'Meara (that's us) bought a $100 electric guitar from Elderly Instruments. We did not know what it sounded like or if it even worked, but we were charmed by its no-name vibe and single bridge pickup that looks like an old radio.”
Soon, a long list of guitarists had signed on to spend a week with the instrument, composing and recording a piece of music using it, including Elliot Sharp, John Shiurba, Fred Frith, Henry Kaiser, Mike Keneally, Jeff Tweedy, Nels Cline, Alex Skolnick, Bruce Eisenbeil, Keith Rowe, Teisco Del Rey, and Chris Cutler (a complete list is here).
I received the $100 Guitar from Hillary Fielding on March 30 and passed it to Ava Mendoza on April 5.
According to O’Meara, the guitar is a Kawai Ibanez with a single Teisco gold foil pickup (favored by Ry Cooder) made in Japan in the ’60s. It is a curious instrument with two Volume controls, a Tone control, and two rocker switches. With rocker switch one “on,” no sound is produced. With rocker switch two on, only one Volume control works. With both rocker switches engaged, both Volume controls work, but the first one shorts out when turned all the way up. The bridge is equipped with two springs, but doesn’t respond to attempts to change pitch, and the hole where a vibrato arm might be inserted is filled. Go figure. The action and intonation, however, are quite good (probably thanks to Elderly), and I like the tone, though the funky circuitry is more than a little noisy.
When I received the guitar it was tuned D, A, D, A, A, D (low to high), and I just left it in that tuning. As soon as I began playing it, melodic ideas on the combined 2nd and 3rd strings, working against a drone on the other strings, just popped out of the thing! (I got the impression that there are a lot of songs in that guitar.) When recording, I ran it through a Moogerfooger MuRF pedal to create a rhythmic pattern, and an Eventide TimeFactor set on Analog Delay to create some additional motion and ambiance. From there, the signal went into a Fractal Audio Axe-Fx Ultra on a clean setting for the basic tracks and overdubs, and a complex patch utilizing delays, harmonizers, and reverb for additional overdubs. I played using my thumb and the occasional finger—a technique I have never used before. I also used a Chinese erhu bow for orchestral string sounds and Masley bowhammers to slap out some low notes. The backwards melodies were played in real time using the Reverse patch on the TimeFactor.
Everything I played was entirely improvised, including the overdubs.
Here’s the completed track with overdubs and some additional processing (Universal Audio and Waves compressors and EQs, SoundToys EchoBoy delay, and Lexicon reverb), followed by the original track as played with no additional processing: