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 guitars.
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 the 12-string?
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 44.1kHz.
Did you do anything more unusual when recording or mixing?
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 reverb.
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 that.
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.