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VooDoo Harmonics

August 5, 2008
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“In the Swedish woods, no one can hear you scream,” says Mattias “IA” Eklundh. “They can’t hear you cry either.”

Normally, when a guy utters such creepy statements, he’s not the kind of person with whom people are inclined to spend a few days alone in the desolate wilderness. Guitar players, however, know that Eklundh isn’t actually psychopathic—at least not towards people. The only thing this self-proclaimed “left-handed pagan, bastard Viking son-of-a-hey” tortures is guitars, and, in so doing, gets some of the most mind-boggling sounds ever achieved with just an electric guitar, a cable, and an amp. Captivated by Eklundh’s unique techniques, set at ease by his self-effacing humor, and intrigued by his occasional use of G-, PG-, or even X-rated devices to get cool tones out of his ax, guitar slingers flock to Eklundh’s annual Freak Guitar Camp in droves.

“We rent a lovely place in the woods and I sit on my High Guru chair teaching 96 brave players from all over the world for three weeks,” says Eklundh. “People play until their fingers bleed, literally.”

A prime attraction for Freak Campers, of course, is the opportunity to be in the same room with Eklundh and observe his magical powers up close. No doubt, these happy campers are particularly entranced by the Scandinavian guitar phenom’s astonishing knack for getting satisfying squawks and squeals, gorgeous dissonances, and soaring melodies using ordinary harmonics. Luckily, if you can’t make it to Sweden this summer, you can enjoy a front-row seat to Eklundh’s harmonic mastery by clicking to guitarplayertv.com and watching complete video of this interview. Perhaps your reaction will be like Michael Molenda’s:

“Whoa—that’s pure voodoo,” said GP’s esteemed editor in chief when he first saw the footage. Indeed, when you first witness Eklundh’s supernatural ability to get about two dozen different
harmonics out of any string simply by “smacking” his 2nd finger against the string at specific nodes, it almost seems as if the lion-maned Swede is cheating with some sort of black magic. The technique is bonehead simple—he just bangs the flat part of that finger on the string, and a wailing partial rings forth—yet most mortal guitarists find the approach frustratingly tricky at first.
“I get emails every day from people asking me, ‘What kind of Whammy pedal do you use?’” says Eklundh, whose practice of scooping into high-pitched harmonics using his signature model Caparison Apple Horn guitar’s Schaller Floyd Rose locking tremolo system does indeed evoke sounds generated by DigiTech’s famous pedal. “I don’t use any Whammy effects—I don’t have to, because the guitar is just infested with natural harmonics. What’s puzzling to me is why so few players actually take advantage of these harmonics. Some people make ‘horsie’ sounds and other noises with harmonics, but that’s not really cool. Harmonics are actual notes, and they need to be treated with respect.”

Smack Habit

One thing that stands out about Eklundh’s harmonics is that although they are rarely picked, they’re often as full and as vocal-sounding as any picked note. Whether he’s playing through his go-to Laney heads and combos (he loves GH100- and VH100-series Laneys) or a small practice amp, such as the Roland Micro Cube he borrowed for this interview, as long as the distortion is fairly thick, he just smacks a harmonic, and the overtone sings loudly. And no, despite the “shredder” label he is tagged with from time to time, his guitar certainly doesn’t have a cushy shred setup. He plays DR Pure Blues strings gauged .009-.042 with the strings set higher than those of some slide players. (“I have action from hell. It’s very high. I say you should be able to fit your sex organ between the strings and the fretboard.”)

To try your luck with smacked harmonics, start by striking the low-E string with the underside of your 2nd finger exactly over the 5th fret and see if you can get that octave-E harmonic to ring [Ex. 1]. “My finger hits the string right about where my first joint is,” says Eklundh. “Don’t push down on the string, or you’ll choke the harmonic. The idea is to whip your finger against the string so it immediately bounces off the string. Also, what I often do is lower the bar just a bit before I smack the harmonic and then release it [Ex. 2]. Sometimes it sounds smoother that way. Next, try smacking other harmonics on the same string [Ex. 3].”

Speaking of other harmonics, another astonishing thing about Eklundh’s playing is, as mentioned, the sheer number of harmonics he can smack out of a given string. His favorite string to smack seems to be the centrally located G string, so that’s the string upon which we’ll map his go-to overtones—all 22 of ’em! [Ex. 4]. Notice how stratospherically high some of these pitches are, and that decimal points are used to express the approximate locations of those nodes that reside between frets. (For instance, because the second harmonic, C#, resides halfway between the 10th and 11th frets, it is expressed as “10.5” in the tablature staff.)

“With the 12th-fret center harmonic being the root,” says Eklundh, “these harmonics give you [all but the 6th tone of] a Lydian dominant scale [which is spelled root, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, b7]. This scale is also known as the overtone scale, or the Béla Bartók scale. The interval relationship between the harmonics is the same on every string. It’s also the same on either side of the 12th fret. Any harmonic you find on one side of the 12th you’ll find the same distance away on the other side of the 12th fret. When it comes to harmonics, the fretboard is like a mirror.”

The Art of Noise

“I’m a big fan of dissonances,” says Eklundh, who often turns the volume down on his guitar, smacks a few harmonics on different strings, and then, using his volume knob (and sometimes the vibrato arm), swells into the resultant dissonances to emulate car horns, police sirens, or—as he puts it—to “talk to cats, dogs, and squirrels.” The cornerstone of Eklundh’s dissonance approach, though, is the way he combines natural harmonics with fretted notes in the same phrase to generate intriguing overtones that almost sound like ring modulation.

“Say you were in B minor, and you wrote a simple, single-string melody that goes like this,” says Eklundh, playing Ex. 5, the theme to a new song he’s working on called “In the Goo of the Evening.” “You don’t have to play it the old-fashioned way, as I just did with the pick. It’s 2008. We need to move on. You can smack the first note as a D harmonic on the 7th fret of the G string and then, while letting the harmonic ring, play the rest of the melody on the 1st string [Ex. 6]. You’ll hear some beautiful dissonance as the harmonic and the fretted notes overlap. To change things up the second time through, play the opening D harmonic an octave up by smacking it an octave higher [at 3.2] on the same string.”

For more cool “ring mod” sounds, experiment with the bar-happy Ex. 7, and the Twilight Zone-esque Ex. 8, which introduces our first “mirror” harmonic. (That B harmonic at the approximate 16th fret is the same one we heard back at 8.1 on the same string.)

Again, because it’s 2008, Eklundh urges you to shatter clichéd guitar licks any way you can. “Try repeating this move,” says Eklundh, tapping the 22nd fret of the 1st string with his picking hand’s middle finger, bending the note up about a half-step, and then pulling his tapping finger off of the string to effect a pull-off to a harmonic held at the node way down the neck at the 5th fret. It has a bluesy, Chuck Berry sound, only an octave higher than the rock guitar founding father would play it. “Don’t stop there,” adds Eklundh. “Once you get the idea, you can pull tapped notes off to many different harmonics on the same string [Ex. 9].”

Ten Types of Pain

“When I was 13 years old, I went to a party, drank some Swedish beer—that’s not funny—and jumped out of a window,” says Eklundh, “I thought the window was open. It wasn’t, and I cut myself. I now have a little piece of glass in my picking hand’s middle finger. Usually if you get a strange object in your body, the body will reject it, but I’m from Sweden, so it just stayed put. That piece of glass makes the fingertip completely numb, and that’s good for tapping.”

To demonstrate the tapping prowess of his desensitized middle finger, Eklundh launches into a tantalizing two-handed “ten-tuplet” theme he calls “Ten Types of Pain” [Ex. 10]. The moral of the story? “If you think it hurts to play this lick,” says Eklundh, “just go to a Swedish party and jump out a window.”

Cookin’ In the Freak Kitchen

Bitch and moan all you want about how lame the record industry has become, but here in 2008, as we head ever deeper into the digital age, there are more ways than ever for you to become a globally acclaimed guitar hero. Take Mattias “IA” Eklundh—he has yet to place high on the Billboard charts, and he and his band, Freak Kitchen, may never land the cover of Rolling Stone, but, in many ways, he is the prototypical guitar hero of the new millennium. That’s because he’s got two things in great abundance—a spectacular and original sound and, just as important, some serious hustle. Thanks to his solo debut, Freak Guitar [Favored Nations], his incessant clinic tours, the annual Freak Guitar Camp he leads each summer in Sweden, his endorsement deals with Caparison guitars and Laney Amplification, and his rabid following on YouTube, Eklundh is celebrated in guitar circles around the world. 2008 finds Eklundh at work on new solo and Freak Kitchen albums, filming both live and instructional DVDs, guest starring on Jonas Hellborg’s new experi-metal CD, Art Metal [Abstrackt Logix], and preparing to perform Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with the Vasteras Sinfonietta in Sweden. (“It’s the first time the piece has ever been performed on guitar,” says Eklundh. “It’s the trickiest thing I have ever sunk my pagan teeth into.”) For more updates on the hardest working Swede in the guitar business, visit his Web site, freakguitar.com.

Noise Toys

Picture, if you will, a bluesman’s har-monica belt—you know, one of those bandolero-style shoulder straps that holds upwards of 12 harps—only it’s loaded with what we’re simply going to describe here as battery-powered marital aids. Mattias Eklundh was almost locked up in Taiwan for possession of this kinky accoutrement. “I was at the Taipei airport, on a clinic tour, when I heard them say, ‘Mattias Eklundh, please come to Gate 27,’” says the guitarist. “When I got to the gate, there was this huge security guy there holding that belt, and it was vibrating. I guess I forgot to turn off some of the batteries. They really don’t like vibrating luggage these days [laughs]!”

If, by now, you’ve concluded that Eklundh is a total freak (“I’ve got a signature dildo coming out,” he jokes), well, you’re right—but he’s freaky in a cool avant-shred kind of way. While he has certainly gained notoriety for attacking his instrument with motorized shafts (“set to different speeds to get different sounds”) that are adult-rated enough to have even the great musical instrument preparer John Cage blushing in his grave, it’s the Swedish guitar sorcerer’s stunning musicality that earns him regular coverage in GP.

“You can use anything on a guitar—printers, chopsticks, hose clips—and you’ll get a sound,” says Eklundh, holding the driving toy shown above. “I stole this from my son,” he says, placing the toy over his guitar and broadcasting the gizmo’s many traffic sounds through his bridge pickup in a clever rhythmic sequence. (Video of this piece awaits you on guitarplayertv.com.) “Anything goes in my book, as long as the resulting sound is musical in some way. If it’s musical, it will never be cheesy.”

Rock Around the Clocks

While each clock inlay on Eklundh’s Mattias “IA” Eklundh Signature Model Caparison Apple Horn guitar only displays the correct time twice a day, these inlays always indicate the correct fret. For example, the first-position clock pictured here reads one o’clock, representing the adjacent 1st fret. The clock at the fifth position—you guessed it—is set to five o’clock. The clock at the 27th fret (which, if you do the math, you’ll find appropriately reads three o’clock) is tiny indeed—it has to be, because when you’ve extended your fretboard, as Eklundh has, so you can hit ultra-high “dog whistle” notes two-and-a-quarter octaves (27 frets) above the nut, there’s not much room between the highest frets.

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