Ebow Techniques on Fretless Guitar

The Ebow Player’s guide advises the following:

The EBow is usually played close to the bass pickup using the basic grip.

The standard thought is that, through some magnetic voodoo, the neck/bass pickup of the guitar and the ebow work together to excite the string so much that it emulates amp feedback. As the manual advises, and as most ebow users are familiar, you often have to dial back the volume and tone on the guitar (the tone in fact is nearly rolled all the way off) in order to get a usable sound.

While you can position the device over the bridge pickup, the higher tension of the string in this location makes it harder for the ebow to drive it. In either case, however, I’ve always found the sound the ebow creates when it’s positioned over any pickup is often so hot, it loses a lot of nuance and usability–and if you’re using active electronics or single coil pickups, it’s an even greater challenge; it becomes, at best, a one-trick pony. It creates that “ebow sound.”

Given the fretless guitar’s challenge with sustain, ebows and sustainers are standard tools of the trade. I’ve personally avoided sustainer pickups because I wanted to focus on developing techniques for more “natural” sustain, and because I find the ebow to be a nice alternative to the pick; it’s a different “mode” of engaging a string, as opposed to the sustainer pickup existing with the pick and blending the two together in a way that can, I believe, create a crutch for the player.

Over the years I realized that positioning it directly over the pickups wasn’t cutting it from my perspective of alternative to the pick (and fingers). The signal was not only too hot, but when I started playing ambient and drone music, I was usually frustrated that sustained open strings often made the note jump to a harmonic node. I’d want a D sustained for a significant period of time, and it would jump or flip to an A or an octave above the fundamental–a cool effect, no doubt, when you want to emulate amp feedback, but frustrating when you’re trying to just generate a tone. This happened regardless of whether I was on the normal or harmonic modes of the device.

I found that I could cut down on this by positioning the ebow closer to the actual node it was jumping too. In my head, I felt that exciting the string in this area would keep it from “locking in,” so to speak. Play a 12th fret harmonic on the lowest string of any stringed instrument you have and you’ll observe that the string essentially vibrates in two sections, with that harmonic location standing still.

This worked 90% of the time. The string remained on the fundamental more often (though it would sometimes jump to the third harmonic). There was another effect of this. By positioning the ebow farther away from the pickups and closer to the nut (positioning it over the finger/fretboard, nearly in the middle of the string’s length) the sound was significantly more mellow and malleable through additional effects processing and fretting/fingering. The result was a sound that sometimes sounded like a horn or wind instrument, or even a bowed string instrument like a cello or violin.

I could also leave the volume and tone controls open a lot more, and active electronics became more usable with the device. Furthermore, the “grip” of the ebow in this position allowed me to use my thumb to pluck the lower strings, providing a drone to sit underneath the lead tone. The softer tone of the ebow sound and of the nature of striking a string in the middle of its length makes these two blend together. I can even finger/fret bass lines on these and have them come through even with the sustaining ebow. It also leaves room to manipulate the string near the pickups, using a slide or steel to change the pitch from the bridge, as opposed to the finger/fretboard.

The signal is still quite hot and is always a challenge to deal with, as you’ll hear in the example below. There are some changes to the fundamental design of the ebow I would love to see to make it a more flexible device, but for now, it makes for a significantly more flexible tone on fretless and fretted guitars a like. I personally find it to be more evocative on the fretless since it can transform the sound into something way beyond what the guitar can normally do.

There’s an accompanying synth drone underneath the guitar in this demo. This allows the droning sound of the guitar to appear to “emerge” from the background, not indicating where it’s starting or ending point it is. I’ll admit it gets a little heavy on the eq side of things, especially with the 4 second delay time on the guitar itself, but it’s an interesting experiment none-the-less. It will be fun to try and get this down to a more exact science in future recording projects.

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