Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Guitar/ Not Guitar... and No One Played Synthesizer...

I have always been obsessed with sound and making unusual noises using whatever tools I could find. Long before I owned a synthesizer my first introduction to "synthesis" was via stomp  box effects, especially delays. Those little colored stomp boxes on the floor in front of guitarists onstage that would make their instrument sounds like jet airplanes taking off (flangers),  doubled parts (choruses and pitch shifters), or perhaps my favorite, multi-part harmonies and spaced out swirling notes (delays).

All of this culminated years later when I did a series of shows and an album appropriated titled "Guitar/Not Guitar) where the idea was to pick up what looked like a conventional six string guitar on stage and have the sound the audience heard be anything but a traditional six strong guitar.  I used effects, a guitar synth, loopers, and even a midi guitar for parts of the set. A simple example of "guitar/not guitar" can be found here where I play Roland GR300 guitar synth into a delay and build the loop in real time. This was done in one take with no overdubs

But before I get to ahead of myself my exposure to doing this started years before I even knew what a guitar or delay was. As a good American teenager I listened to what is now considered "classic rock" radio stations and friend's record collections, etc and it was there I first heard the guitar pyrotechnics of Brian May from the band Queen.  Bloated AOR radio rock bands in a synth blog? you might ask? Well, yes there is a direct connection, please stay with me!

Casual fans might not be aware but Queen's first six albums (the initial ones with all their big rock hits) all had extensive studio wizardry with effects DIY amps, effects, innovative overdubbing, etc. In other words sound sculpting at it's most creative and finest. They were so proud of the work they put in they didn't want anyone to confuse the huge string and orchestral arrangements (done entirely on guitar) that they brazenly put the words "No One Played Synthesizer" on the credits of each of these records. Like their music or not, Brian May was always a true sound pioneer modifying his amps and literally building his main guitar from scratch to get it's wiring to do exactly what he wanted. He also used a series of delays to achieve his trademark sound and developed a way to reproduce his studio work live in real time on a single guitar. In this video he demonstrates one technique he uses combining two short delays one after another to make multiple notes play at once:


Seems simple enough (all the masters make difficult things seem simple) but with a little experimentation and practice you can try this at home with similar results. Now again, perhaps Radio Ga-Ga isn't everyone's cup of English tea (personally I liked their earlier "non synth" albums) but from a pure sound excursion level you can't argue with the technique and passionate drive to create new sounds. May's use of muted rhythm playing, echo, volume swells and more seeped into my teenage synthesist's brain and when combined with the other tools and artists I stumbled across better known for their guitar sound work (Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, etc) I was off and running in my journey to explore and create.

As a coda to this post I'll add that there is a classic lost video of an Extremely young Adrian Belew giving a class on "How to Play Electronic Guitar". In the 80s instructional VHS tapes were all the rage and most taught budding fanboys how to shred like their latest metal hero or plays the blues. Someone thought it was a good idea to get a true wizard of bizarre noises to do an instructional video showing how he made his guitar sound like Seagulls, Rhinos, Spaceships, and more.

I suppose outside of the more subtle influences if there ever was a genesis of Guitar/Not Guitar Belew's VHS tape would be it. I've always loved the title was ELECTRONIC guitar not Electric guitar. Truth in advertising folks.

Strum and pick on!

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