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Bart Hopkin & Yuri Landman

NICE NOISE Modifications and Preparations for Guitar

Experimental Musical Instruments 3

Copyright 2012 by Experimental Musical Instruments All rights reserved ISBN: 978-0-9727313-6-2 Printed in the USA Photography and graphics: Bart Hopkin and Yuri Landman, except where otherwise credited. Page layout: Yuri Landman For information contact Experimental Musical Instruments PO Box 421, Point Reyes Station California 94956 USA Phone/fax (415) 663-9691

This book comes with audio samples for the featured guitar preparations. These can be found and heard for free at and

This book was produced by Experimental Musical Instruments, an organization devoted to interesting and unusual musical instruments. Experimental Musical Instruments’ books, journals and CDs will lead you to a world of fascinating instruments, instrument makers and music. They also include how-to information for designing and building musical instruments, whether odd and exotic or familiar and conventional. To find out more about Experimental Musical Instruments and what it has available, please visit our web site or contact us at one of the addresses above to request a catalog.



Some Citations Page Introduction “How Did You Get That Sound?” Page Sidebar 1 Terminology Page Sidebar 2 Who’s Doing What and Where to Learn More Page

6 7 7 8

HOW TO PREPARE A GUITAR Page 9 Chapter 1 Foam Rubber Damping Page 11 Sidebar 3 Guitars Used in the Audio Samples Page 13 Chapter 2 Rattles on the Strings Page 14 Sidebar 4 Harmonic and Inharmonic Overtones Page 15 Chapter 3 Snared Strings Page 18 Chapter 4 Buzzing Bridges Page 19 Chapter 5 Weighted Strings Page 21 Chapter 6 Middle Bridges Page 24 Sidebar 5 Fret Spacing and Tunings Page 25 Sidebar 6 The Moodswinger Page 28 Sidebar 7 The Springtime and Twister Guitar Page 28 Chapter 7 Floating Bridges Page 30 Chapter 8 Crossed Strings Page 32 Chapter 9 Springs Page 34 Chapter 10 A Second Soundboard Page 36 Chapter 11 Rollers (Pipes or Rods Rolling on the Strings) Page 39 Chapter 12 Retuning or Detuning the Strings Page 40 Chapter 13 Sympathetic Strings Page 42 Chapter 14 Very High Capo Page 43 Chapter 15 Sounding the Strings: Lots of Possibilities Page 44 Sidebar 8 Electronic Effects Page 49 Chapter 16 Feedback Page 50 Sidebar 9 Pickups Page 52 Chapter 17 Ebow Page 53 Chapter 18 Using External Sources to Excite the Pickup Page 54 Chapter 19 Talk Box Page 56

PHYSICAL MODIFICATION OF THE GUITAR Page 57 Chapter 20 Percussion Elements Added to the Guitar Page 59 Chapter 21 Refretting for Non-Standard Tunings Page 63 Chapter 22 Going Fretless Page 64 Chapter 23 Scaloped Frets Page 64 Chapter 24 Rotated Pickups Page 65

Conclusion Page List of Sound Samples Page Biographies Page Acknowledgments Page

67 69 72 72


‘One of the great lessons in painting school for me was the professor pointing right into my nose saying, “Rowe, you cannot paint a Caravaggio. Only Caravaggio can paint Caravaggio.” Suddenly trying to play guitar like Jim Hall seemed quite wrong. Who am I? What do I have to say? I probably thought about that for between five and eight years, just constantly reflecting on how to do it, and, in a flash, I found the solution. Look at the American school of painting, which was very provincial in the 1800s: they really wanted to do something original but didn’t know how to do it, the clue was to get rid of European painting, but how could they ditch European painting, what did they have to do to do that? And Jackson Pollock did it - he just abandoned the technique. How could I abandon the technique? Lay the guitar flat! All that it’s doing is angling the body [of the guitar] from facing outwards to facing upwards - the strings remain horizontal, the strings are the same.’ – Keith Rowe ‘Those effect pedals aren’t very flexible anyway. They often do just one sound, or a little variation on it. But I’m interested in the relation between multiple sounds, placing them in order, or juxtaposing them to create a sonic progression. But for that, and for the people you’re playing with, you need to be flexible and fast. I figured the best way was to use all sorts of materials to agitate the strings, sticks, stones, screws, metals, motors and the like, because a slight change in the position of the screw can create something totally different. For many, many years I couldn’t pass by a hardware store without checking out the materials, and the only thing I regret is that they don’t let you in with a guitar and an amp to test everything.’ – Hans Tammen   ‘The possibilities inherent in the physical relationship between object, string, and pickup is pretty exciting stuff. Developing a language through such methods also really sets you in your own space.’ ...  ‘Since instrument preparation lends itself well to improvising, I like to avoid the pitfalls of routine and attempts to recreate.’ – Bill Horist



This book describes modifications, preparations and extensions for acoustic and electric guitars. Most of the ideas included here have been tested in performance, recording studio or both. Some of these tricks are widely known and used. Others have not been much seen and heard. Among the lesser-known techniques are plenty of the authors’ own quirky ideas as well as techniques from other one-of-a-kind guitar-sound experimenters. Famous or not-so-famous, the ideas are here for you to exploit, explore, and modify according to your taste and imagination. These techniques are concerned with tone quality – ways to get unusual sounds out of guitars. They apply to both electric and acoustic guitars. Some work better with one sort or the other, as will be indicated in each case. Most are simple techniques requiring no permanent modification of the guitar. On the chance that you have an old guitar or two around that you don’t mind messing with, toward the end of the book we also discuss some techniques that involve permanent alteration. The idea of modifying guitars to get new sounds has been around for a long time. It’s the sort of off-the beaten-track cultural phenomenon whose history is more diffuse than linear, taking shape in many individual efforts and explorations. Sometimes these developments have played out in public and in front of audiences. More often the explorations have taken place away from the public eye. Sidebar 2 on page 8 gives the names of some individuals who’ve made particularly notable contributions. Much of the prepared guitar work that’s been done over the years has tended toward an avantgarde aesthetic. As you’ll hear when you listen to the audio samples, this book contains plenty of sounds well suited for that. It also has lots of material that’s not far-out at all. Among the sound clips you’ll hear music from the classical guitar repertoire, some rock-flavored material, and some folky stuff. But questions of genre are not important. You can take these ideas and apply them to any style you wish, including your own personal style, whatever it may be. A lot of fun awaits you, and so do some very unusual musical sounds.

The terminology used in connection with altered guitar techniques is sometimes vague or inconsistent.

That is to be expected: idiosyncratic and evolving usage is a natural part of living, populist art forms such as this. Here are a few phrases you may encounter. Prepared Guitar; Guitar Preparations: These terms usually refer to temporary modifications to the guitar to alter the tone, often involving small objects attached to or inserted between the strings. The terminology derives from John Cage’s phrase ‘prepared piano’, referring to a series of works he composed for pianos modified in similar ways. Tabletop Guitar: Many people who’ve worked with prepared guitar find it convenient not to use the traditional playing position, but to lay the guitar and associated gadgetry on a table. This allows for easy manipulation and helps keep objects used for preparations from falling out due to gravity. The term ‘tabletop guitar’ refers to this approach, and may serve as a shorthand for gadget-based guitar work in general. Extended Techniques: In contemporary music, particularly in academic settings, this term refers to unconventional playing techniques. In guitar, common examples are knocking the wood of the guitar for percussive effects, plucking the normally unplayed segments of string beyond the nut, two-hand tapping, and artificial harmonics (fretted harmonics). Less often, this term may refer to physical modifications of the instrument. Guitar Effects or FX: In the context of popular music and the commercial music industry, the term “effects” usually refers to electronic signal processing, including digital or analog delay, reverb, and similar electronic manipulations. (The abbreviation ‘FX’ is sometimes used because it sounds like “effects”.) Guitar Modifications: This is a commonsense term, relatively free of either commercial or academic baggage. We’ll use it to refer to all manner of physical modifications to the guitar, either temporary or permanent, made in search of new sounds or playing techniques. 7







For those who’d like to learn more about what others have done with guitar preparations and modifications, here are a few avenues to explore. BOOKS There seem to be just a couple of other books on this subject. Only one is currently in print and easily available. Prepared Guitar Techniques, by Peter Yates and Matthew Elgart, was published in 1990 by California Guitar Archives, and remains available through It’s a 24-page pamphlet focused on classical guitar. In addition to describing a number of preparations, the authors provide a section on notation for prepared guitar, a list of prepared guitar compositions and recordings available at the time of the pamphlet’s publication, and notes on the preparations for a couple of specific pieces. The Contemporary Guitar, by John Schneider was published in 1983 by University of California Press. It is now out of print, still available used but at high cost. This book does not emphasize preparations or modifications foremost, but it covers the broad range of contemporary styles and playing techniques in depth. John Schneider for many years has been a leading player and scholar of contemporary classical guitar. WORLD WIDE WEB As you’d expect, there are lots of web sites and YouTube videos to be found. You can try search terms like “prepared guitar” or “guitar preparations,” “tabletop guitar,” “extended techniques for guitar,” and “guitar modifications.” A fine example, available at the time of this writing, is a YouTube video entitled Keith Rowe - Prepared Guitar*. The video features performance footage accompanied by Keith’s philosophical reflections on many years of avant-garde guitar work. PERFORMING ARTISTS Of people who have explored the field of modified guitar, the list is long. Many of these people have recordings available, and many have some presence on the internet. Jimi Hendrix was known to use a wide range of alternate extended techniques arising from his left-handed guitar playing on upside-down right-handed guitars. This allowed him to use the tremolo arm while playing rhythm guitar and fast on/ off switching with his hand on a Strat. Syd Barrett experimented heavily with his Zippo lighter as a slide in tracks like ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ and other early experimental Pink Floyd songs. This technique was used by many blues players before him, but he took the technique to much more radical levels of unruly expression. Although Hendrix, Barrett and other contemporaries developed a lot of extended techniques, they still played a regular guitar that was not adjusted with added objects that affected the timbre of the guitar itself. One of the first guitar players who adopted John Cage’s prepared piano techniques to guitar was Keith Rowe, starting around 1965. Unfortunatelly Rowe spent many years in obscurity, until he was re-discovered in the 90s. In 1974 Fred Frith popularized the technique by releasing the famous prepared guitar album called ‘Guitar Solos’. Many other guitarists followed in the mid-70s. Among experimental free jazz guitarists especially, it was hip to flirt with these techniques. In the ensuing years, preparations and extended techniques found a place in the modern classical environment as well, as can be seen in the books by John Schneider, Peter Yates, and Matthew Elgart mentioned above. With apologies to any we may have omitted, here is a short list of other players of prepared and modified guitars: In Germany Erhard Hirt, Frank Rühl, Annette Krebs, Hainer Wörmann, Hans Tammen. In France Jean-Marc Montera, Sharif Sehnaoui. In the US Glenn Branca, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Bill Horist, Roger Kleier, Nick Didkovsky, Chris Forsyth. In Japan Kazuhisa Uchihashi. And in the UK John Russell and most recently Mica Levi (aka Micachu). Other guitarists including Neil Feather, Bradford Reed and Hans Reichel are known for their instrument building as well as for their prepared guitar playing. *


How to Prepare a Guitar




FOAM DAMPER AT THE BRIDGE Making the damper wider for the bass strings creates a more balanced response. The photo on the left shows a damper made from a light, soft foam for a lesser damping effect. On the right is a damper of heavier foam for a more pronounced damping effect.


Many guitarists make good use of a technique called palm muting. The player presses the fleshy part of the plucking hand near the palm lightly against the strings while plucking the strings with the thumb and fingers or a pick. This produces a half-damped tone, very effective in the right musical contexts. You can get a similar effect with a strip of soft cloth weaved over and under the strings adjacent to the bridge, or with a strip of foam rubber wedged under the strings. The disadvantage of the foam or cloth approach is that you have to stop playing in order to insert the damping material, whereas with palm muting you can go in and out the damping effect immediately and effortlessly. But the advantage of the cloth or foam techniques is that they leave the hand free for easier and more natural plucking. Plus, you can get a variety of effects depending on what sort of damping material you use and how it’s positioned. These techniques work equally well in acoustic and electric guitars. My preference is for foam rather than the strip of cloth. Three different types of foam damping are described here. Damping at the Bridge This is the basic foam damping technique. Cut a narrow strip of foam rubber long enough to cross under all the strings, a little taller than the space between the strings and the soundboard beneath. Make it wider at one end and narrower at the other. A typical width might be ¼” (6mm) at the narrow end; 1” (25mm) at the wide end, but it’s worthwhile to experiment with different widths. Wedge the foam under the strings, up against the bridge with the wider side under the bass strings as shown in the photo, and play normally. Within those parameters, there’s a lot of room for variation. Firmer, denser foams provide more damping and a more percussive sound. Lighter, fluffier foams allow more sustain, but they still round off the tone in a way that can be pretty. Wider foam pieces, pressing against a greater portion of the string length, also give more damping. For some kinds of music it’s effective to make the bass side of the foam not just a little wider than the treble side, but much wider. This gives the bass accompaniment a rhythmic feel while allowing the upper strings a more singing tone. To damp the bass strings only, cut a short foam damper to go under the lower three strings only. As an alternative to foam, handkerchiefs can be very handy for quick modifications. Weave the handkerchief though the strings and position it close or less close to the bridge, depending on how muted you want the sound to be. These muted sounds are often reminiscent of violin played pizzicato, or of Asian plucked string instruments such as the Japanese shamisen. That’s because on violin, shamisen, and other unfretted instruments, the finger of the left hand contacts the active part of the string directly, with a damping effect similar to that of foam or palm damping. *This icon indicates that we’ve produced an audio sample illustrating this guitar preparation. These samples can be found and heard for free at and

For more information about the sound samples, see page 69-71. 11


DAMPER AT THREE INCHES A moderately light foam damper positioned two or three inches from the bridge creates a banjo-like effect, percussive yet with some overtones ringing out.

Three-Inch Damping If you position a foam damper two or three inches (5 or 6cm) from the bridge, you get a different effect. This positioning brings out a few odd high overtones, and also allows a somewhat trebly sound followed by abrupt damping. The effect is banjo-like. For this to work, the damping can’t be too heavy. Cut a piece of soft foam to a triangle crosssection so that only a portion of the apex contacts the strings. Remember to make the bass side larger than the treble side to provide heavier damping as needed there. This technique may create minor intonation problems, throwing the fretted notes slightly out of tune. Making the damper a little lighter and/or moving it closer to the bridge will lessen this problem. HARMONIC DAMPING

HARMONIC DAMPING A very light damper wedged under the strings at the 14th or 15th fret yields an unusual half-harmonics effect (effective only for notes fretted over the first four or five frets).

Harmonic Damping This is a trick for highlighting the octave harmonic in each note that you pluck. With a very light damper positioned near the string’s mid-point, the fundamental damps out almost immediately, while the octave harmonic sustains. It’s an enchanting effect. To work best, the damper should be a scrawny little strand of very lightweight foam, not more than about 3/16” (2mm) in triangular cross-section. Wedge this thin strip between the fret board and the strings near the 14th or 15th fret. In that position, the foam damper will bring out the octave harmonic as long as you’re fingering only the first four or five frets. Above that it won’t work as well. The idea here is that, in order to bring out the octave harmonic, the foam should be near the midpoint of the active string length for the note being played. For an open string that’s the 12th fret. For fretted notes the midpoint is located closer to the bridge. The suggested position around the 14th or 15th fret is a fair compromise for the notes in the first several frets. 12

Several different guitars were used to create this book’s audio samples. They include both commercially produced guitars and homemade oddities. Included among them: Kohno classical made in 1964. This was co-author Bart Hopkin’s workhorse guitar for many years and has the battle scars to show for it. Many of the guitar modifications in this book were first explored on this guitar. Gibson SG electric guitar. This widely used model is Gibson’s all-time best-selling electric, first produced in 1961. Fender Mustang 1972. This is a short-scale electric guitar, nowadays a desired vintage collectable. This guitar is used for no special reason other than that co-author Yuri Landman owns one. The ubiquitous Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster models, universally recognized among rock guitarists, also work fine for guitar preparations. Rogue steel string. This is an inexpensive, mass-produced, mass-market steel string acoustic guitar with a bridge pickup system. (Surprisingly nice sound, though not the nicest action.) Godin Multiac Nylon Duet. This is one of the Godin company’s attempts to create an amplified guitar that plays and sounds like a classical guitar. It has a bridge pickup and an internal microphone. It can also play unamplified (quietly), having a thin hollow body with a heavy spruce soundboard. Specially-made Guitars. In several of the audio samples you can hear specialized guitars created by Yuri, Bart and other builders to bring out particular modifications such as scalloped frets, alternative fret spacings, unusual bridge or soundboard configurations, and sympathetic strings. Some of the guitars listed above are fine instruments, but you’ll notice that it’s by no means a fancy selection. That’s because instruments of the highest quality are not required for this sort of work. In the book ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life’ (Little, Brown Books, 2001, page 243) author Michael Azerrad writes of the band Sonic Youth: ‘[Sonic Youth] could only afford cheap guitars, and cheap guitars sounded like cheap guitars. But with weird new tunings or something jammed under a particular fret, those humble instruments could sound rather amazing – bang a drum stick on a cheap Japanese Stratocaster copy in the right tuning, crank the amplifier to within an inch of its life, and it will sound like church bells.’

CONN DRIFTER One of the more radical adapted guitars of Sonic Youth. In earlier years it was abused by Thurston Moore by hitting it with drumsticks (as can be heard on the track Burning Spear, 1983 on YouTube*). Over the years the Conn Drifter went through several modifications. In the mid 80s it had an unfretted neck with four bass strings. Single coil pickups were taped in, the two E tuners were removed and it was played with one or two drumsticks. The guitar is used in this configuration on the well known Daydream Nation track Eric’s Trip. The guitar was stolen in 1999. *








THE CROSSLANDER AND SEVERAL CROSSED STRINGS INSTRUMENTS Left Yuri’s X-shaped Crosslander. Above an instrument built by Bart, the Trillium Harp. And on the facing page, on the left Bart’s Trillium Cluster, and on the right Yuri’s Laces instrument, twelve pairs of crossed strings. Note that Bart’s instruments feature Y-shaped strings, Yuri uses two strings that simply cross each other.

There’s another extended technique that is close in effect and similar in physical theory to the floating bridge preparation. Some years ago, some experimental jazz guitar players came up with the idea of crossing their strings. By flipping the B string over the E string you get an X-shaped string pair with a sound reminiscent of the floating bridge. But the X-shaped pair is a more primal version of a floating bridge because the strings clamp together at the center of the X and automatically interconnect as a floating bridge for each other's vibrations. The Brooklyn-based experimental band Zs has taken this instant preparation a bit further by restringing their guitars in three X-shaped crossed string pairs. They do this by reposition the mounting order at the tail to position 2-1-4-3-6-5 instead of 1-2-3-4-5-6. The crossed strings give a weird, unpredictable gong-like sound. Yuri has built a simple crossshaped instrument to do some research on the tone structure of the X-shaped string pairs. When both strings are tuned identically, the gong sound is absent and the tone sounds rather normal, though a bit hollow. As soon as one string differs in pitch from the other, the timbre of the X pair chances radically and generates the gong sound. With a screwdriver sliding technique, Yuri discovered the timbre is actually closer to the sound of a ring modulator than a gong. In a ring modulator, a tone combination of 500 Hz and 400 Hz generates tones at 100 Hz (the difference tone of 500-400) and at 900 Hz (the sum tone of 500+400). The crossed-string instrument generates something like that too, and multiphonic tones can be accurately played by placing the slide at specific locations along one of the strings. In this way the preparation that was supposed to be random can become a controlled system. Both strings function equally in the ring modulation effect, so it doesn’t matter which one you shorten to get a certain tone. The same multiphonic tone occurs if you shorten string one or string two at identical locations. An interesting anomaly in experimental guitar building is the Tritare*, invented in 2003 by Samuel Gaudet and Claude Gauthier at the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Université de Moncton, Canada. The instrument features Y-shaped strings. One of the legs of the complex string shape is on a regular fretted guitar neck and the other two legs go to two fretless necks, meant only for mounting and not for playing. The sound of this instrument is very similar to the floating bridge preparations and to Yuri’s X-shaped instrument. Gaudet and Gauthier tried to market the invention, but the production was short-lived. Only a few copies of the instruments have been made. Most information including sound samples of the instrument is unfortunately no longer available online. * 32


LACES, Yuri Landman Built for the Shoes Or No Shoes? Museum in Belgium. Twelve pairs of crossed strings.

To complete the discussion of floating bridge systems and their physical mechanisms, here are Yuri’s conclusions so far. A floating bridge system can be considered a group of strings connected to one another. In addition to making this connection, the rod functions like a hanging object as described in weighted strings section (page 21-23). Depending of the weight of the bridge, the number of strings and the tuning, effect may either be more like the X-shaped string pair, or more like the gong sound of the weighted strings. If the weight is very heavy it can go beyond the effect of a weighted string and become more like a (hanging) pseudo middle bridge. For instance, here's an exaggerated example: a brick weighing one kilo mounted to the middle of a string doesn't create a sound like a gong. The large weight causes the brick to vibrate at a fundamental below 20 Hz, too slow to be audible (it wiggles a bit, but not fast enough to create a humming tone). Rather than acting like a smaller string weight, it becomes almost as solid as a middle bridge mounted to the instrument. It mostly affects the shared resonance in the string sections on either side while itself vibrating. However, the slow oscillation of a heavy floating bridge produces a vibrato in the tone, which is not present in mounted middle bridge systems. It's awkward to try to attach a very large weight to guitar strings in normal playing, but there is a way to experiment with this using a guitar: position the guitar upside down with the pickup pointed toward the ground and hang a heavy object on the strings at a harmonic position (5th, 7th fret or 12th fret for instance). A brick-shaped piece of wood with one or two steel hooks work well. Besides plucking the strings you can also drum on the back of the body to create pitched tremolo sounds. HEAVY WEIGHTS

HEAVY WEIGHTS ON STRINGS Six pieces of wood each hanging on one string. When you position the blocks at a simple fraction (1/2, 1/3, 1/4, etc.) of the string length you emphasize the shared overtones, as with middle bridge preparations. The weight bounces and creates a natural autotremolo effect. 33


Rock guitarists since the end of the 1960s have used the talk box, a clever device by which an electric guitar (and other amplified instruments as well) can seem to articulate words. No single inventor can be credited with this idea; several people have contributed to its development. Commercial versions are available, most prominently the Heil Talk Box now sold by Dunlop, originally designed by Bob Heil. Homemade versions abound as well. Here's the basic idea: The output from an electric guitar goes to an amplifier and from there not to the usual speaker, but to a small but powerful compression driver enclosed in a small box. An air-tight plastic tube exits the box. The player places the open end of the tube in his or her mouth, from the side. With the sound of the guitar thus directed into the oral cavity, the player articulates words. It's as if the normal sound of the vocal chords is replaced by the tones of the guitar. Lo and behold, the guitar seems to speak – or perhaps we should say the human speaks in the voice of the guitar. And you need not always form words: wah-wah effects, much more varied and organic than the output of a wah-wah pedal, are easy to do, and there's a lot of exploring to be done with different contortions of the mouth and throat. The talk box player typically uses a microphone in the same way a singer does, to pick up the sound coming from his or her mouth. Usually the talk box is equipped with a switch allowing you to direct the guitar's output either to a conventional speaker or to the talk box. We haven't included audio clips or photos for the talk box in this book, but you can find good information on YouTube and elsewhere online. If you do this, be sure also to search on the term "ghetto talk box", which has come to refer to homemade versions of the device.


Physical Modification of the Guitar




If you really want to free yourself from the dictates of twelve-tone equal temperament, or any other fret spacing, one option is to use a slide. Another is to go fretless. Going fretless means removing the frets from the fingerboard of the guitar, or perhaps giving the guitar a new, fretless fingerboard. This allows you to finger any note anywhere along the neck, including all the in-between tones that would be unavailable on a fretted fingerboard. It also enables you to gliss all you want, scoop your notes all over the place, or make use of any number of other sliding techniques. The tone is heavily damped – not quite as much as pizzicato violin, but enough to reduce the sustain and produce recognizably pizzicato-like sound. In the absence of frets to ensure correct intonation, playing in tune requires some practice. Helpfully, the narrow slots which held the frets prior to their removal can serve as a visual guide. Unless you plan to become a serious fretless player, you'd probably only remove the frets on an old or cheap guitar that you don't mind altering permanently. To remove the frets, carefully wedge the angled tip of a wood chisel under the edge of a fret with the beveled edge down. Tap the end very gently with a hammer to force the blade a short distance underneath the fret, and use the chisel as a lever to gently lift the fret out of its slot.

THE SCALLOPED NECK OF THE TWISTER GUITAR Built in 2009 for John Schmersal. The frets are partly scooped out for the thin strings only, except on the 12 th fret which is completly scooped out. The thinnest string is tripled to create a chorus effect.


Some guitarists like guitars in which the wood of the fingerboard between the frets is scooped out, creating a curved hollow between the frets. This gives an odd “scalloped” look to the fret board. The open space between the frets lets the player bend the strings very effectively, free of fingerboard friction. With practice, you can develop techniques ranging from subtle inflections to extreme pitch bending. The idea for scalloped frets may be derived from the sitar and/or from several Chinese lutes, in which the frets are raised in a way that allows similar techniques. However, most of the guitarists doing this – with at least one notable exception – come from the rock world and are not known as students of Indian or Chinese music. Well known names include Yngwie Malmstein, Steve Vai, and (here’s the India-influenced one) John McLaughlin. In some cases, scalloping is not done between all of the guitar’s frets, but only for several of the highest ones. This allows normal playing over most of the neck, with the special techniques available in the upper reaches. Mastering the playing technique for this new fret board topography requires some effort, because it’s easy to inadvertently press the strings too hard into the spaces between the frets even when no stretching is intended, throwing off the intonation. Yuri made a guitar for John Schmersal of the band Enon with a neck that was only scalloped underneath the plain strings. The wound strings could be played with the normal frets, to avoid outof-tune chords. For the plain strings, often used for solos, the scalloped neck allowed Schmersal to play bendy notes. 64



THE SPRINGTIME Built in 2008 for Mauro Pawlowski.

THE TWISTER Built in 2009 for John Schmersal.


Several of Yuri’s guitars feature multiple pickups, often rotated 90 degrees, with multiple outputs. Rotating the pickup allows it to fit long-ways under just one string rather than crossing under all six. This way you can have a pickup, with its own separate output, configured to monitor the individual string only. With lesser rotations the pickup can be positioned under two or three strings. The original reason for doing this was to solve a practical problem. Yuri had one song that he couldn’t play and sing at the same time, since the text was not in sync with the rhythmic patterns of the guitar. Instead of practicing, he chose another option. He built a three-string instrument for his bass player with one bass string and two guitar strings. Under the bass string he positioned one pickup rotated 90 degrees. Under the two guitar strings he positioned a second rotated pickup. Both pickups went to separate outputs and amps, resulting in a stereo sound, giving the impression two people were playing, while it was actually one person strumming two sections. Later on Yuri made a variant with three pickups and outputs. One is for the bass string, tuned to A. One is for the three wound strings tuned to E B E and grouped very close together, so that the middle finger can press all three. The third is for a tripled unison section of plain strings tuned to B- B B+ to get the chorus sound described earlier. By amplifying or distorting one section heavily while leaving another other more dry, the instrument gives the impression of a bass player, a rhythm guitarist and a solo guitarist. To explore more alternate tuning possibilities he employed a headstock with more than 6 tuning machines.

For a description of the chorusing effect of detuned unison strings see page 41. 65

“HOW DID YOU GET THAT SOUND?” Hidden away inside your guitar is a world of sounds, tone qualities, timbres, and effects that you’ll never find with conventional playing techniques. Some of these sounds are beautiful, some comical; some are edgy, exotic, subtle, raucous, mellifluous or strange. These are the sounds you can bring out with the prepared guitar techniques described in this book. The focus here is not on electronic effects; it’s on things you can do with your guitar to alter the ways the strings vibrate or the soundboard projects. Most of these interventions are easily put in place and just as easily removed, while a few of them involve permanent modifications that can take an old guitar to turn it into something quite new. Whatever type of guitar you play, this book will show you new and unexpected ways to play it.

This book comes with audio samples for the featured guitar preparations. These can be found and heard for free at and sets/nice-noise.

Experimental Musical Instruments PO Box 421, Pt. Reyes Station, CA 94946 USA 72

Nice Noise Preview - Bart Hopkin & Yuri Landman