STEVE TIBBETTS LANDED A RECORD DEAL WITH ECM
Records back in the ’80s by sending the label head, Manfred
Eicher, an envelope full of negative press clippings marked
“Rave Reviews.” ECM released six albums by the guitarist
between 1982 and 1994, beginning with Northern Song, a sparse
acoustic-ambient work centered on Tibbetts’ singular acoustic
12-string playing and Marc Anderson’s tasteful percussion. On
later recordings, Tibbetts often juxtaposed his acoustic work
and subtle atmospherics with Strat-into-a-Marshall sheets of
coruscating noise and feedback. In the late ’90s he began working
with Chöying Drolma, a Tibetan Buddhist nun, with whom
he performed and recorded several albums. Tibbetts’ latest
release, Natural Causes [ECM], brings him full circle, back to
the gentler acoustic sounds of Northern Song.
The guitarist’s signature acoustic 12-
string sound involves subtle pitch shifts,
sophisticated multi-finger tapping, and
interesting voicings that pivot off of
unusually tuned open strings. Tibbetts
is also a master sound designer adept at
sampling, processing, and triggering
sounds, as well as an innovative producer
and mixing engineer.
Which guitars did you play on the record?
Almost exclusively a 45-year-old Martin
D12-20 with frets that are almost entirely
worn down in the first position and
around the 12th fret, where I tend to play
the most. I was having some very, very
slight intonation problems with that, so
I took it over to Ron Tracy at Hoffman
Guitars and asked him to re-fret it. He
said, “Why do you want to re-fret it?”
Ron is a real professional. Somebody who
just wanted work would say, “Ok, that
will be $900.” He asked if I liked the way
it sounded and when I said yes he refused
to re-fret it. That was really cool.
Describe how you string and tune your
On both acoustic and electric I drop
the sixth string to C and the fifth string
to G [C, G, D, G, B, E, low to high]. I use
the same tuning on the 12-string, but
with all of the strings dropped down a
whole step [Bb, F, C, F, A, D, low to high].
And sometimes I just use a dropped-D
tuning. I also string and tune the third,
fourth, and sometimes the fifth strings
as double choruses rather than octave
strings, which puts more stress on the
neck, but so far it hasn’t broken off.
What brand and gauges are the strings on
From low to high they are .054/.030,
.044/.044, .044/.020, .032/.032, .024/.024,
.016/.016, .012/.012. I use GHS Phosphor
Bronze strings unless I’m using the
guitar to trigger MIDI, in which case I
use GHS White Bronze.
One of the characteristic qualities of your
12-string sound is pitch modulation. Are you doing that primarily with finger vibrato?
Yes. And because most of my strings
are double choruses rather than octaves,
if you tune them in unison and then bend
them slightly, they’ll chorus and flange
against each other. It is essentially like
having two guitars—two hands and two
guitars. You might say it is also a way of
doing cheap real-time overdubbing. I actually
got a lot of my sound by copying Bill
Conners, particularly the album Theme to
the Guardian. The other musician I try to
emulate is sarangi master Sultan Khan.
I can’t even come close to imitating the
sarangi, but he creates a singing sound
and pays uncanny attention to pitch that
I try to imitate a little bit.
Do you ever play with a pick?
I play exclusively with my fingers, and
I fret with the fingers on both hands,
which is something I stole from Harvey
Mandel. Harvey Mandel was playing a
goldtop through a Marshall and fretting
with the index finger of his right hand
when Eddie Van Halen was still in his
nappies. I use my right-hand index, middle,
and ring fingers to fret, but only one
at a time. For example, I’ll fret something
with my left and right hands on the first
string, and then my left hand will move
to the second string and I’ll fret notes on
that string with it and my middle finger.
Then my left hand will move to the third
string, and I’ll fret a note on that string
with it and my index finger. That makes it easier to play quick flourishes of notes.
How do you record your 12-string?
I place a Neumann TLM 170 largediaphragm
condenser a bit to the right of
the soundhole from the guitarist’s perspective,
and I place either an AKG C 451 or a
Mojave tube condenser at about a 90-degree
angle to the spot where the neck joins the
body, listening to each mic centered individually
in my headphones to find the best spots.
These Martin 12-strings are known for their
woofiness, and you have to find spots that
aren’t too woofy. Then, once I’ve got two
good sounding individual mics, I spread them
out hard right and left, hope that the stereo
image is good, and if it’s not I do little micro
adjustments. Both mics go through a John
Hardy M-1 four-channel mic preamp straight
into MOTU Digital Performer recording at
24-bit/88.2kHz. I think that 24-bit resolution
provides a certain harmonic richness,
especially for percussion and complex cymbal
sounds, but also for guitar. And I tried
recording at 96kHz, but I couldn’t hear much
difference between that and 88.2, and my
mastering guy said he “liked the math better”
when it came time to convert to
Did you do anything more unusual when recording
The most unusual thing overall was that
I didn’t use practically any EQ or compression,
which is why the record sounds so dull.
I decided early on that at this point the guitar
and the piano and all of the drum and
percussion instruments were already perfect
sounding, so I’d just use good mics to get a
good sound initially and work from there.
That annoyed the mastering guy tremendously
and ECM too. They wanted more
Yes, and that leads to another unusual
thing I did. Rather than using digital reverb,
I used an actual concert hall. I thought I
would continue my “unpasteurized”
approach, so I dragged all my gear over to
McAllister Concert Hall, played the dry
recorded tracks on speakers, and recorded
the sound of the space.
You created an old-school echo chamber.
Yes. I set up good speakers and four good
microphones—two in a stereo pair in the
back of the concert hall and two in the middle
seats. Then I played individual guitar and
percussion tracks into the concert hall and
printed the reverb from each of them onto
separate digital tracks. Then I went back to
my studio and mixed. It didn’t really sound
much different than the hall program on my
digital reverb, but it satisfied the crankiness
of a mid-50s guitar player.
You mentioned triggering MIDI. Elaborate on
I have a Roland GK-2 MIDI pickup on the
12-string that I use with a Roland S-760 digital
sampler, so I can blend the sound of the
guitar with samples of various sorts, or just
trigger the samples on their own—and if I
assign each string to a separate MIDI channel,
that MIDI data can be used to trigger
up to six different instruments. So, for example, I spent several months mapping out
scales on the sampler that didn’t necessarily
correspond to the notes I’d played on the
guitar—an A might trigger an E, B a D, and
so on. So, I can take that MIDI data and then
go to my library of 50 or 60 diatonic scales
that I’ve programmed with gongs, Indonesian
percussion, guitar, and other things I’ve
sampled over the years, and assign separate
instruments to be played by each individual
MIDI channel. It’s fun, and it can result in
quick and easy “compositions” that can be
the basis for further development.
You use gong cycles a lot in your compositions.
Briefly explain what they are and the role they
play in your music.
Between 1985 and 1997 I worked for
study abroad programs, most years spending
autumn in Katmandu and spring in Bali.
Living in Indonesia for two or three months
out of every year, you hear gong cycles
everywhere. There are different sized gongs
that sound at various points in the cycle,
demarcating where you are in that cycle,
and because you hear them in school bands,
at funerals, at temple ceremonies, in the
rice fields—everywhere—they sort of get
under your skin after a while, and you don’t
forget them. I recorded a huge number of
these instruments in a gong-making shop
one day, and it worked out well except for
bits of chicken sounds that got recorded
with some of the gongs. So when I’m looking
for inspiration or something to adorn
a composition, I’ll create rhythmic cycles
using the samples.
Are you a jazz guitarist?
No. Jazz came much later. I like jazz.
When I worked at Minnesota public radio,
I was the board operator for a show called
The Jazz Image, and I got a great education
listening to the DJ and all the music that was
played on the show. But really I grew up
thinking of nothing more than trying to get
a band like Blue Cheer together. I wanted to
play and have hair like Leigh Stephens and
an album like Vincebus Eruptum. That was it.
If that’s jazz, sure, I’m a jazz guitarist.