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Unnatural Axe (Part 1)

Article from Making Music, October 1987

Don't be normal all your life, there are other ways to play. Jon Lewin pokes about in the doings of the alternative guitarist. We make weird noises, we develop strange techniques, we get Sue Williams to do the illustration.

Plug your guitar in. Don't play it, but turn your amp up as loud as you can, and sit down with the guitar on your lap, strings facing upwards.

Now spend three minutes drumming your fingers on the body of the guitar — do it softly for a passable imitation of distant thunder — and listening to the sounds swell up and fade away. It's quite an interesting noise. But is it music?

As soon as we start to learn the 'conventional' way of playing, we start to limit ourselves.

While we're smugly taking pride in our knowledge of the 'right' way of doing things, of our mastery of established techniques, we're ignoring a huge variety of sounds our chosen instrument can make if treated with a little more imagination. There is no 'correct' way of playing the guitar. Nor is there any real definition of music, other than interesting noise. You can make music in absolutely any way you like, and if you enjoy it, that's enough. If you've ever felt stuck with your guitar, try changing your approach — be unorthodox, and you may rediscover your excitement, and even a few interesting noises on top.

So how do you break out the 'trap' of the barre chord and the blues scale? Apart from reading and inwardly digesting the two accompanying interviews, you have to steal. But this isn't a matter of copying licks off records — the object of your pilfering should be the ideas behind the whacky noises and strange behaviour. In most cases, it's the unconventional guitarist's attitude that's important rather than his/her technique. Let's play history lessons for a while.

In 1936 jazz guitarist Charlie Christian thought. "I'm not loud enough." He turned up the primitive pickup on his Gibson ES150 and transformed everybody's conception of the capabilities of the guitar, changing it from a barely amplified acoustic into a loud electric instrument, able to compete with saxophones as a solo instrument. If he hadn't turned his matching ES150 amp up, would anyone else have invented lead guitar solos?

Probably, but that's not the point. As ex-Gang Of Four guitar hero Andy Gill says, it's not so much what you do, as where — and when — you do it. Charlie Christian's clear precise jazz figures aren't unconventional by today's standards, but in their time, they revolutionised the development of the electric guitar.

Yesterday's Rebel is usually condemned to be tomorrow's Boring Old Fart — but that doesn't mean it's bad to steal from past heroes. Following up Andy's point about context, try playing jazz solos outside of jazz songs, something Steve Howe did most effectively on Propaganda's remix album. The juxtaposition of two radically varied kinds of music has the effect of making you listen to both differently. This type of cross-fertilisation works both ways — the idea of heavy metal guitar in a jazz frame sounds bizarre, but have you listened to Allan Holdsworth recently? Innovators are unconventional by definition.

Since the 1950s, nonconformism and technology have gone hand-in-hand. The new larger amplifiers of the early 1960s gave Townshend, Beck, and Page the opportunity of discovering feedback. Entwistle had the first ever Marshall 4x12, and The Who's 'Anyway, Anywhere' was recorded partly as a vehicle for Townshend's whistling, howling guitar break.

The Who's attitude to their instruments is another important pointer for the budding experimenter: violence is the ultimate demonstration to your guitar that it is not only something that is played with one hand on the frets and the other holding a plectrum. Don't treat your instrument with so much respect. Don't be sentimental, it's just a plank with wires: hit it occasionally. Let it know who's in charge.

There is a famous film of Hendrix (at Monterey) setting fire to his Strat — before that, he rubs it against a mike stand, smashes it against his amplifier, generally abuses it mightily. Not only is this one of the most exhilarating pieces of rock film I've seen, it also sounds exciting.

It's this principle of disregard for your instrument that explains Sonic Youth's attitude: you can adapt the wood and wires in what ever way your music demands. Highly respected composer John Cage regularly climbed inside his piano; Sonic Youth use screwdrivers and drumsticks on their guitars. Fred Frith, the great British avant gardist, attached bulldog clips to the strings, and added a pickup to the headstock. You do what you have to.

Sonic Youth also explore different tunings. At the most basic level, this can mean a simple open tuning, and playing chords up and down the neck with a barre. But try alternatives. Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü finds accidentally discovered detunings an inspiration to his writing; Lou Reed would tune his guitar to a single note and leave it feeding back on stage. Glenn Branca's rock 'Symphony No. 1' (ROIR Tapes), which Lee and Thurston from Sonic Youth both played on, is a piece for multiple guitars tuned to E major. The first movement is an E — one chord, ebbing and flowing, swelling and howling. Replayed at the ear-damaging volume it was recorded at, it is hugely exciting.

Next month I'll be talking to Derek Bailey, Britain's most respected avant garde jazz guitarist, and discussing some more influential nonconformists.

Recommended: Charlie Christian: Live Sessions At Minton's Playhouse (Muridisc)
Gang Of Four: Live At The Palace (Mercury)
Sonic Youth: Sister (Blast First)
The Who: The Singles LP (Polydor)
Jimi Hendrix: Live At Monterey (Polydor)
Fred Frith: Guitar Solos (Virgin)
Propaganda: 'Murder Of Love' from Secret Wish LP (ZTT)


1) Play a scale, but jump about over several octaves using the full fretboard. Skip from a middle E (2nd fret D string) to a low F# (2nd fret E string), then up to a high G# (4th fret top E), back down to a middle A (2nd fret A string)... and so on. This is a Derek Bailey device.

2) Hook a paperclip loosely over the top strings and pretend the guitar is a sitar. Use fretted notes and drone strings.

3) Rub a moderately smooth metallic object back and forth across the strings. The vibrations it sets up are what Steve Hillage called glissando guitar. Record this very loud and use it as a backing track.

4) Play an E major scale, substituting harmonics for the A, B, and both Es. Try using harmonics in other scales. Mr Bailey again.

5) Record a rhythm track using your guitar purely as a percussion instrument; strum the dampened strings, bounce a drum stick on the open strings, tap the body...

6 — well we did say unorthodox. Play yer favourite chord halfway up the neck (works much better if it's not a barre-chord), then pluck the strings on the far side of your left hand, ie: between your left hand and the nut. What was a nice E7 or similar at the blunt end will turn into a bizarre koto-like noise at the other. The intonation will be unpredictable as well, as the frets are incorrectly spaced for playing backwards.


Andy Gill was the guitar player in the Gang Of Four, one of the most innovative (and best) bands of the last decade. His playing combined funk rhythm work, harmonics, feedback, and general strange noises in an intelligent and accessible rock framework. He's recently released 'Dispossession' (Survival Records), his first solo single.

"I remember when I was 15 or 16 raving to people about the kind of noises a loud guitar made — clickings and raspings which seemed terribly expressive, varied, immediate. You get bits of that in Hendrix, where everything was so turned up, the guitar would play itself, or you'd hear his sleeve rubbing the strings.

"'Anthrax' is a very early example where the guitar is just being noise." 'Love Like Anthrax' was one of the tracks on the Gang Of Four's 1977 debut single. "The idea to do that comes partly from playing live — you learn from the audience how effective things like noise can be. During 'Anthrax', I was either really near, or putting the guitar on top of the amp, and playing with parametrics, switches. It used to start with a low rumbling — boosting bottom, cutting top to avoid microphone feedback — which gradually built. Once you've done that, it's not a big step to using noise arhythmically.

"People perhaps think that there's something childish or adolescent about making Noise, and that they should be playing Van Halen solos in order to be musical and sophisticated. I think to do something as fundamentally basic as just making a noise involves a kind of sophistication of ideas...

"Removing things like melody, harmony, chords, syncopation, and playing something completely atonal and off the beat, but passionately, is a way of drawing attention to what the music's about, what it's made of. You're breaking things down to their essential form, stripping away the extra musical elements. I think if you do something confidently enough and upfront enough, people will appreciate it and get the point."

The main modification Andy has made to his guitars (a Strat with Kahler trem and a now defunct Burns) is the addition of an on/off switch. "You push it in, and it cuts off the sound — makes the guitar stutter. That's my contribution to guitar technology." Other noises were the product of his Carlsbro amps, MXR pitch transposer, Ibanez effects rack, Roland graphic, Quark tremolo, and sheer high volume. "I like playing loud, but it got a bit much at times — Rolling Stone said we were the loudest band in America, except for The Who. Volume is important to the guitar on stage. It sounds better and more exciting to play along with."

Any advice, Andy?

"There's certainly nothing wrong with copping a few things from other people... The point is to find ways of creating a new thing, sounds which enable you to get across the point you're trying to make.

"It's not so much the way you play the guitar, it's the context in which you put it, the kind of music you're making. You can't do what I was doing in another situation — it has to be a certain kind of musical framework for it to work. Get involved in the songwriting. Find someone who's like minded to help you. Just try."


Sonic Youth have a reputation for luthieran oddness, though their music is still conventionally powerful and frequently melodic. When the band visited the UK recently to promote their stunning (my word) LP 'Sister', I spoke to guitarists Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore, and bassist Kim.

Lee: "Thurston and I both know how to play conventional rock songs. But when we moved to New York, everyone was experimenting with different kinds of sounds, looking at the guitar not as something to learn a C chord on, but as an instrument with an electronic pickup and strings that you could modify to suit your needs.

"Thurston and I started out messing around with strange tunings, which is established practice for stringed instruments, so it feels natural to work that way. Lots of blues players used to tune the strings to a resonant chord; the Velvet Underground worked with tunings, The Edge, Johnny Marr..."

Thurston: "And we've worked with composers like Glenn Branca or Rhys Chatham, who have mined that area. For instance, Lamonte Young would do piano pieces with the piano tuned to a chord or to 'just' intonation as opposed to even tempered scale."

"We use 16 different guitars at the moment. We have pairs in the same tuning for each song, or in complimentary tunings, and they're strung to suit the tunings — sometimes with bass strings. We've got one guitar with only bass strings that is just used for harmonics, as the frets are all chewed up. We experimented having it refretted to a different scale, but that didn't work so well. There's another that's tuned to four F sharps and two octaves. Detuning high strings gives a really mellow sound."

Lee: "Most of the guitars are just junky, not the kind of thing that power chords sound good on. That's why Thurston ended up sticking a drumstick in the guitar underneath the strings, like a second bridge halfway up the neck giving you new sets of harmonics and noises. Because they're metal, screwdrivers are more resonant than drumsticks. There's a whole science of string vibration — there are certain nodal points where the overtones are especially great. I put the screwdriver just behind the ninth fret, which is a major divisional point on the string. Play above it and you get these ringing bell-like sounds. You can do it on the twelfth, but it works better on the ninth as the node is slightly off the fret so you can get the bar in exactly the right place.

"It's just another technique to generate different sounds. We like guitars that have separate bridge/tailpieces, so you can play the strings behind the bridge. It's not as good to play between the nut and the machineheads as the strings aren't as long there."

Thurston: "Our music is not a conscious attempt to avoid straight guitar playing. We've found a way of working, of making sounds we like. We don't have any great reason for doing it... We do use conventional rock structure, but it's approached from a different direction..."

Kim: "The songs are pretty much all structured, but there is some room for spontaneous combustion. We don't really improvise, though we did have a couple of songs that were left open.

Series - "Unnatural Axe"

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Oct 1987


Tuition / Technique


Unnatural Axe

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2

Feature by Jon Lewin

Previous article in this issue:

> Chord of the Month

Next article in this issue:

> Trust Me

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