Robert Rich on Crafting Ambient Lap-Steel Sounds

January 30, 2014

AMBIENT MUSIC COMPOSER Robert Rich is typically more associated with synthesizers than guitar, but many of the spacy sounds on his nearly 30 albums were actually produced with a lap-steel guitar.

“I acquired a $60 Magnatone lap-steel when I was looking for a fretless instrument I could use to play in just intonation,” explains Rich. “Back in the early ’70s, I was getting into composers like Terry Riley and Harry Partch, and I couldn’t find synthesizers that would play in the sorts of tunings and microtunings I wanted to experiment with. I’ve always treated the lap-steel like an oscillator—an electro-acoustic system with a continuous pitch control.

“Ultimately, I am trying to find a substitute for the expressive component of the human voice, and I use things that allow me to have unlimited sustain and to control my attack. I’m probably best known for a technique called ‘gliss guitar’ that I stole from Daevid Allen of Gong. Daevid plays a Fender Strat, and he scrapes the handle of a surgical scalpel on the strings. What I do is similar, except that the lap-steel has a high bridge and no frets, so I can push into the strings to get different sorts of effects. I use a tool from a nut driver set—holding it using my thumb and third finger—and I scrape it rapidly back and forth over the strings almost like I’m bowing, except that I change the pitch by moving it up and down the string. At the same time, I use my left hand to mute the strings I’m not playing, as well as to make subtle changes to the overtones by lifting up and pushing down. Only one of my lap-steels sounds good using this technique—a no-name junker loaded with a DiMarzio Super Distortion pickup that I’ve had for 25 years. The technique works best on the first and last strings—though it is possible to bow across all of the strings if they are in an open tuning. People think the sound is a synthesizer, a voice, or some weird process, but other than adding a bit of echo, it is just the sound of the instrument.

“I’ve been playing with EBows for years, and one great thing about using them with lap-steel is that you can just lay them right on the strings. As my tunings usually involve octaves, I can even place two EBows on the guitar at the same time and get infinite sustain with a natural octave sound. I also have a Sustainiac pickup in a lap-steel built by Todd Plummer that lets me get some crazy distorted tones, and I can create cool overtones using the Harmonic Overdrive function. In that mode, the instrument almost plays itself, and my job is mostly just to keep musical train wrecks from happening!”

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