PHOTO: Walter Looss Jr. | Getty Images
Electricity can do strange things. When it was added to the guitar, some years ago, it opened up new possibilities for players of the old box o’ six strings.
The following sonic scientists, using varying proportions of technique and effects, set out to discover just what these possibilities were.
The result? Guitars that don’t sound like guitars!
Alvino Rey, “St. Louis Blues”(1944)
In 1939, Rey began using a device called the Sonovox to modulate his pedal steel guitar. A precursor to the talk box, and created by Gilbert Wright, the Sonovox employed a pair of transducers that were attached to the user’s throat. An audio signal would be sent to the device, with the resulting sound emanating from the performer’s mouth. To conceal the trick from audiences, Rey’s wife would stand offstage doing the voice work while Rey played his instrument onstage. His performance was complemented by a mascot called “Stringy, the Talking Guitar,” whose creepy looks undoubtedly scared many children away from learning the pedal steel, leading to its eventual marginalization.
Les Paul, “Lover”(1948)
Paul’s pioneering use of varispeeding and multi-tracking led him create a veritable symphony of shimmering, glycerine hyperspeed guitars. It sounds pretty tame today, but Paul’s work here paved the road for sonic manipulations of the Beatles, Hendrix and many others who followed.
Pete Drake, “Forever”
Drake’s pioneering use of a talk box on his pedal steel guitar in the Sixties predated the Joe Walshes and Peter Framptons by a decade. A fine pedal steel player, Drake provided gorgeous weeping lines (sans talk box) for countless hit songs, including Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors,” “Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” and Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.”
Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago”
This is a rare occasion—Jimmy Page and some long-forgotten player named Jeff Beck playing guitar together in the Yardbirds. Before the solo kicks in, the two guitar heroes, in tandem, unleash 15 seconds of controlled feedback that sounds like a police siren. Think context: this was the 1960s, before everyone started using signal processing.
Bill Bartlett, “Through with You”
The Lemon Pipers—Green Tambourine (1968)
The Lemon Pipers are recalled today, if at all, for their cheesy psychedelic pop hit “My Green Tambourine,” but Bartlett’s guitar work on this nine-minute workout is pretty sophisticated stuff for its time. He combines pick scrapes and taps with wah over Byrdsian “Eight Miles High” riffs. Around the 5:10 mark, he employs tape echo and moves the machine’s playback head to create rubbery peals of guitar work and ghostly feedback swells. An overlooked psychedelic gem.
Jimi Hendrix, “The Star Spangled Banner”
Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack and More (1970)
Jimi performed this at the height of the Vietnam War, and his revolutionary use of feedback and tremolo bar was the perfect musical correlative to “bombs bursting in air.” When you first listened to this, did your mom come into the room and ask if the stereo was broken?
Fred Frith, “Should Old Arthur”
Guitar Solos (1974)
On his 1974 album, Guitar Solos, this former member of obscure prog-rockers Henry Cow pioneered the concept of “preparing” guitars: tuning them to unorthodox pitches, attaching alligator clips to the strings, and playing them by any means other than picking. This particular track sounds like a drunken ghost talking.
Todd Rundgren, “The Spark of Life”
Deep into synthesizers, Rundgren was using the devices not only to create entire productions but also to shape the sound of other instruments. “The Spark of Life” appears to feature not only synthesized vocals but also electric guitar, as heard on the instrumental’s final vicious blast, which includes a pretty fine impression of a horse whinny. Take that, EVH!
Eddie Van Halen, “Eruption”
Van Halen—Van Halen (1978)
Again, it’s the context, man. We may take the techniques for granted these days, but in 1978, Eddie’s fingerboard tapping and whammy-bar dive bombs were like the shape of video-game soundtracks for years to come. Then, of course, every guitarist in L.A. jumped on the bandwagon, and before long things got much more sophisticated than Space Invaders.
Adrian Belew, “Elephant Talk”
King Crimson—Discipline (1981)
When Belew joined Robert Fripp’s reformed King Crimson for 1981’s Discipline, he stunned guitarists by harnessing the effects in his rack to sound like a herd of animals. In this case, an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff running into a Deluxe Electric Mistress flanger helps transform a guitar into a roaring elephant. (Note: The studio version is not available, so we bring you this excellent live performance instead.)
Glenn Branca, Symphony No. 3 (Gloria)
Symphony No. 3 (Gloria)(1983)
New York No-Wave pioneer Glenn Branca used the guitar like no one before. His double-bodied harmonic guitar, played with a slide, featured two bodies joined by a single neck, with pickups at both ends to amplify the harmonics behind the barred note. His 1983 opus Gloria features both harmonic guitars and mallet guitars, zither-like creations played struck percussively.
Steve Vai, “Next Stop Earth”
From his solo-debut, Flex-Able, this gem finds Vai imitating the inflections of a human voice via finger slides, micro-bends and a wah pedal. Can you tell he used to play with Zappa?
Johnny Marr “How Soon is Now?”
The Smiths—Hatful of Hollow (1984)
What is that pulsing sound in the Smiths' coolest song? Marr cranking the tremolo setting on his Fender Twin to make his one-chord riff sound like an automated machine. Actually, the effect was studio enhanced: he re-recorded the part with five twins.
Paul Gilbert, “Solo”
Racer X—Extreme Volume Live Extreme (1988)
Some players use effects as tools. Paul Gilbert uses tools as effects. One pick wasn’t enough to get the tremelo-picking sound he wanted. The solution? A cordless drill, on whose bit were mounted three picks. This produces overtones that make it sound as if he’s playing in unison with himself, if that makes sense.
Vernon Reid, “Information Overload”
Living Colour—Time’s Up(1990)
Reid’s intro to this track is truly bizarre, with two heavily distorted guitar lines at either extreme of the sound field, sputtering and howling like a vintage fax modem uplinking to the devil’s own network.
Buckethead, “Dead Man Walking”
Praxis—Transmutation (Mutatis Mutandis) (1992)
This is the next level of video-game soundtracks played by electric guitar. The masked man’s hyper-frenetic tapping here out-blips a computer in heat.
Tom Morello, “Revolver”
Rage Against the Machine—Evil Empire (1996)
The intro sounds like R2D2 on a bad trip, while the start of the solo calls to mind a factory treadmill. It just goes to show that if you give a man a DigiTech Whammy pedal, an Ibanez Talman with a sturdy toggle switch and few Allen wrenches, he can make all the same noises as a turntablist—and then some.
Reeves Gabrels, “Little Wonder”
David Bowie—Earthling (1997)
This track from David Bowie’s sorely underrated 1997 album, Earthling, is full of Gabrels’ beautifully noisy squawks and squeals. Like Reid on “Information Overload,” Gabrels seems to be channeling the sound of a 56k modem, creating rhythmic stuttering that helps propel the song along at breakneck pace.