BY KURT GOTTSCHALK
WE GUITARISTS ARE A RESTLESS LOT. WE’VE CHOSEN AN instrument that is portable and populist and inspires its practitioners to go to extremes: to strut like roosters while playing it, to refashion it into a rectangle à la Bo Diddley or a Rick Nielsen five-neck behemoth—even to smash, break, burn, and destroy it. Sure, saxophonists have their altered mouthpieces and shaved reeds and pianists have been known to put washers and metal bowls on their strings, but no other musician is quite the mix of auto mechanic and smash-up derby driver as the guitarist.
While the guitar has already undergone innumerable design changes over the centuries, the spirit of innovation is far from dead, and there is currently a small cadre of guitarists making sometimes radical changes to the instrument, ranging from new body shapes to new stringing systems to new electronics to the implementation of mechanical plectra. Here, we’ll look at four fearless guitarists who have pushed the proverbial envelope in surprising new directions.
New York-based multi-instrumentalist and iconoclastic composer Elliott Sharp is in many ways the patron saint of radical instrument de-/re-constructers. For Sharp, the late ’60s were a time of listening to jazz giants John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, contemporary composers such as John Cage, Harry Partch, and Iannis Xenakis, and rock innovator Jimi Hendrix. These influences, combined with studies of higher mathematics and other sciences, lead to his crafting his own instruments and effects pedals—as well as a body of new music to play using them.
Since the ’70s, Sharp has been creating complex, mathematically structured ensemble music employing such self-designed instruments as the “violinoid” (a violin with multiple bridges and pickups), the “pantar” (built from a barrel lid and multiple guitar necks), and the “slab,” literally a slab of wood with electric bass strings, a Fender Precision Bass bridge, two Fender Jazz Bass pickups, and three additional moveable bridges, two with their own pickups, allowing for a complex combined stereo output.
Sharp’s most recent design is another attempt at mating the electric guitar with the electric bass. Taking a recommendation from Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, Sharp contacted Portland, Oregon luthier Saul Koll to make an 8-string electric-acoustic instrument with room behind the bridge to allow bending the strings. The beautifully crafted guitar has fanned frets—laid out to a visibly shorter scale on treble, longer on bass—following a design by Bay Area luthier Ralph Novak. The instrument has a single magnetic pickup and a separate stereo piezo pickup, providing the full range offered by two bass strings and six guitar strings.
“It’s like it was with Jimi Hendrix,” Sharp says of the drive to discover new sounds. “Here’s this instrument. How is it being used? What else can we do with it? How do you make a guitar not a guitar? How do you make it sound like a drum or a wind instrument?”
ERIK “KILLICK“ HINDS
Athens, Georgia-based Erik Hinds—who performs as “Killick”—found inspiration in larger and much older string instruments when concocting his offbeat relative to the guitar. Mating the arpeggione (a 6-string bowed but fretted instrument tuned like a guitar that briefly enjoyed popularity in mid 19th Century Vienna) with the Hardingfele (a 17th Century Norwegian instrument similar to a violin but with four or five sympathetic strings), Hinds created a crossbreed he named the “h’arpeggione.”
The h’arpeggione was built to Hinds’ specifications by specialty luthier Fred Carlson, and is fitted with quartertone frets. Hinds also had a Tesla solidbody guitar retrofitted with quartertone frets, and had a harp-guitar, lovingly named “Big Red,” built with a papier maché soundboard—but the h’arpaggione remains his primary altered axe. (It is also the instrument he played when recording his solo instrumental version of Slayer’s entire Reign in Blood album in 2005.)
“The h’arpeggione really brings it together for me,” says Hinds. “And I love that I’ve developed an idiosyncratic approach to it. At first, I treated it as an analog to guitar, bass, and cello, using techniques suited to those instruments—but after some time a unique way of playing it emerged, and my understanding continues to deepen and broaden. In turn, I have acquired fluidity on the Tesla and Big Red I never could have had before. The doors of guitar perception have been cracked open!”
Hinds’ guitar journey started on an $80 bright red Hondo solidbody. “It was heavy, unwieldy, and had action like a ski jump,” he says. “It had a fixed bridge with a whammy bar, which, with great effort, could be used to dive-bomb about a quartertone, possibly inspiring my future path [laughs]. Mostly I just preferred improvising. I remember a funeral dirge riff being the first tune I plucked out. An appropriate start!”
As a Steve Vai-inspired teen, Hinds started experimenting with alternate tunings on an Ovation acoustic, and then acquired an acoustic 7-string made by Woodsound Studios in Maine. That led him to a Timtone fretless 7-string electric and an 11- string Warr guitar, both of which served as inspiration for his h’arpeggione. And, not surprisingly, Hinds’ design dreams continue.
“My latest conceptual obsession is having a fretless electric with a whammy bar,” he says. “Overkill, perhaps, but imagine the warbling possibilities. I don’t know if I’ll ever have one, but it’s fun to dream. And I’d love to try a Gittler skeleton guitar. Andy Summers and the Police stoked that fire.”
The inspiration for Italian guitarist and composer Marco Cappelli’s “extreme guitar” dates back to his first teacher at home in Naples where he was introduced to the world of strings at age ten. Cappelli’s own guitar at the time was an inexpensive no-name instrument, but at his teacher’s home he discovered Russian balalaikas, Mexican guitarrons, and other folk instruments from around the world. “I was fascinated to go in this place and look at all these instruments,” Cappelli recalls. “He was not a professional. He was a professor of physics. But every time he went somewhere he came back with a new instrument and a new cat.”
Years later, after his teacher’s death, Cappelli used the collection of instruments to record his own adaptations of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint and John Zorn’s Book of Heads—and that array of strings also put him on the path toward modifying a Yairi classical guitar. “I took the Yairi to a guitar maker and asked him to put on eight extra strings,” says Cappelli. “I cannot say the idea was mine, as John McLaughlin already had the Shakti guitars with sympathetic strings. But as far as I remember, McLaughlin didn’t play the extra strings. What I wanted to do was put the strings on at an angle so I could play them, because the nylon strings combined with the steel strings produce quite an interesting sound.”
That guitar that led to Cappelli’s Extreme Guitar Project, which included commissions by Sharp, Marc Ribot, Nick Didkovsky, and Mark Stewart, as well as a number of New York-based non-guitarists.
Hailing from a different region in Italy than Cappelli, Paolo Angeli’s first guitar was a cheap Korean-made Kingston nylon-string, which he still plays at home. He had initially wanted to play keyboards and ordered one when he was nine, but it never came and his father taught him guitar instead. “I started to improvise when I was still a beginner, which is a good way to start an exploration of the instrument you play,” says Angeli. “A friend gave me a book that included a part on techniques to change the sound of the guitar, such as placing pieces of audio tape across the strings to produce banjo-like textures. That book was a good starting point for the exploration of how to modify the sound of the guitar.”
As Angeli began to discover some of the more rarified corners of improvised music and players such as guitarist Fred Frith, the late cellist Tom Cora, and violinist Jon Rose, he started imagining his own alterations. In 1993 he bought a large, inexpensive Sardinian guitar, which has the same scale as a baritone guitar and is tuned A, D, G, B, E, A [low to high]. Working with an instrument builder, he added eight sympathetic strings and four sitar strings on a large, arched bridge, and then devised piano hammers operated by foot pedals to strike the array of strings. The guitar also has three small propellers—like handheld fans—that strike the strings, and a total of 13 pickups and small microphones to capture the variety of sounds from different points on the instrument. After three years of experimentation, the pair arrived at what Angeli refers to as “a hybrid of guitar, acoustic bass, cello, and drums.” In 2003, that instrument became the prototype for two new, fully built instruments funded by Pat Metheny, who kept one for his Orchestrion project and gave the other to Angeli.
Despite all of the innovations, however, Angeli continues to devise new ways to alter his axe. “Just this week I built two new prototypes,” he says. “I placed a humbucker under the mechanical pedals that trigger the hammers, so it’s like having a very small electric guitar under my foot, but without strings, and I use some small objects in combination with my foot to play it. I’m also working a lot on new sounds, trying to produce sound colors like you’d get using a synthesizer. It’s very, very funny!”