So you wanna be a rock star!
Oops, wrong article. Let's try that again.
So you wanna explore the sonic mayhem that can be whipped up by flinging the vibrations from six metal-wrapped strings affixed to a piece of wood through a cranked amplifier.
Now we're talking. If you're interested in doing something with your guitar beyond the scope of the already-accomplished and the drop-dead boring, you'll need to start thinking outside the box. Flashing the pentatonic just ain't gonna cut it. That's where getting creative with the guitar's sonic possibilities comes in.
Your playing scenario may not be especially extreme, but if your explorations have only taken you to feedback howls while you wait for the drummer to signal the final sting at the end of each song, read on. You might pick up a few new ideas for soloing, writing parts, and end-of-song hot-dogging that'll turn heads your way.
I'm drawing on my own experience here, so you should know about my sonic surroundings and how they've influenced the playing I'm going to describe. I play in a wacky little improv combo called Flesh Test, which features guitar, bass, drums, and violin. We never rehearse and we don't have any songs. We just get onstage and go berserk at piercing volume for 45 minutes. We play downtown in New York City, where some people actually find this entertaining.
The bassist and the violinist know what they're doing-they studied microtonal music and ear training at Boston Conservatory, yada yada. The drummer is a polyrhythmic pounder who also happens to know the guitar, and music theory, inside and out. So, I knew my work was cut out for me from day one. Here's how I've handled my guitar playing in this the scene.
Step One: Volume & Crrrrunch
I knew I had to be loud. And heavy. After all, I had to compete with both the violinist-who blasts through a super-loud amp and further thickens his tone with distortion, harmonizing, and delay-and the drummer who's just plain loud. I bought a Boss Metal Zone pedal to beef up the already delicious crunch from my Marshall head and set everything like this. With this setup I got monster tone and heavenly feedback-but oy, the noise! Which brings us to Step Two.
Step Two: Looz the Noiz
Anyone seeking to pile effects and mega-distortion onto a signal is best off using some noise suppression. (The best noise gate for the price, in my humble opinion is the Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor pedal.) Plug it in after the Metal Zone and before delay, chorus, tremolo, or any other pedal effects. I set up my pedal board like this, using an MXR power amp to boost the signal from my guitar.
Unlike pricey rack de-noisers, pedals like the NS-2 manage to stifle all noise and hum without weakening your tone one iota. To set the controls, start with both threshold and decay turned all the way down. Turn on the effect you need to de-noise and start turning the threshold dial up until the noise is gone. This may be all you'll need to do, but if your sound doesn't trail off naturally, turn the decay knob clockwise until it does. Ahhhmuch better! Now I've got both demonic power and exquisite silence at my command, perfect for sounds like this, which is the introduction to "Nemo," a cut off the Flesh Test's Response To Hornblas (Hornblas being the demon of musical dischord, of course.) Nasty!
Slide Past the Rules
But what to do with all this power? Well, you could play power chords but, hey, it's been done. With so much signal and drive, the strings react to everything. What about taking a metal slide and banging it on the strings? Hold the slide in your right hand between your thumb and middle finger and press it flat against four to five strings in the area between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge-right over the pickups. Lift the slide up and press it down again in a different area. Try slanting the slide to further mess with the pitches. Play some chords with the left hand at the same time, if you want. I used this technique (if you want to call it that) with some delay piled on top of it for the intro to "777."
Another neat and unorthodox slide technique is to take the round end of a metal slide and tap it lightly against the strings, right near the bridge this time, where the strings are really tight. Use a clean sound and it'll sound like pizzicato violin or Chinese water torture, depending on your point of view. Try tapping on just one string at a time, or catching several with the edge of the slide.
Of course, if you must, you can use the slide to play notes and melodies (gasp!). But to dress it up, try using a volume pedal to hide your attack on the strings. Pull the volume pedal all the way back to mute your sound when you hit the strings, then crank it immediately forward. This gives you a horn-like tone that sounds like this. If you don't have a volume pedal, try to create volume swells with your right-hand pinky on your guitar's volume pot. This takes some coordination, but hell, you're a guitar player.
And definitely don't forget the glories of feedback. Instead of carefully damping all the strings that aren't involved in the slide solo, like your guitar teacher taught you, let one or two of them feed back. Mix this in with your solo and you can actually get two notes going at once. There you have it: Tibetan throat singing for guitar.
Be sure to tune in next time to learn how to make your guitar sound like a sitar by using your whammy bar backwards. In the meantime, go stretch your ears with recordings by anarchistic guitarists like Elliott Sharp (sonic composition), Dave Tronzo (amazing horn-like slide), and Fred Frith (sticks, combs, cymbals, and furniture). After all, the point of picking up a guitar in the first place is to, as Sharp puts it, "break into your own voice.
Debra Devi is the lead singer/guitarist for the rock band Devi. [www.devi-rock.com]