Let it Ring

As I wrote about earlier, pushing the guitar into a sound space it doesn’t occupy natively (that is, the essence of strings pressed against a surface and amplified acoustically or electrically) has pushed me to find more creative ways to achieve not just ambience, but dynamic ambience of the kind we tend to expect from electronic instruments that use a variety of sequencers and other automated processes that allow the musician to operate between the boundaries of composition, experimentation and performance (and no, I’m not just referring to improvisation).

This has been one of those discoveries: letting the ebow rest on the strings (lapsteels are best) and running the sound through a variety of effects that either create unique sounds over time (delays, and stacks of delays, for example) or ones that can be manipulated; plus, when your hands are free, you can more directly adjust and manipulate effects without needing to keep the strings wringing with a pick or your fingers.

This is also a fantastic way to burn through 9 volt batteries on the ebow.

Check that One Off: Microsoft’s To-Do is on Mac

I’m just going to assume that this item was way at the bottom of Microsoft’s list; but since they bought Wunderlist, I started using it less and less and relying more on To-Do. Up until now, however, I could only do so on iOS and Windows. While it’s great that I have a Windows machine stationed at home and an iPhone always on me, my work flow has always been to focus on one device at a time, and that’s made working on my MacBook somewhat challenging while on the go. Yeah, I could access To-Do on a web browser, but I just prefer to have an app in the dock I can always zone in on; I hate juggling around a bunch of tabs–honestly, I was late to the tab game on web browsers and I probably always will be.

Wunderlist was essential for me when it came to granular, specific tasks. I do use a Bullet Journal for analog task management, but Wunderlist was great for getting more granular without interrupting a computing workflow. I was ready to transition to To-Do; it was free and it matched the “theme” of using a lot of Microsoft Office apps for the last few years, but not having it on Mac as a native app was always a bump in the road.

Here’s to productivity! Meanwhile, the open source advocate part of my brain is continually asking why I didn’t just roll my own NextCloud server running on an Ubuntu machine at home to manage all this stuff in the first place…yeaaaaah. I’ll get to that eventually….

Sometimes I Just Want to Abandon the Guitar

I started messing around with electronics very early on; I was quite fortunate enough to have a variety of instruments in the house, including some synths and electronic equipment, so I’ve always had contact and connection to electronic instruments and music. The truth is, though, electric guitarists are always somewhat connected to the concepts of electronic music to begin with when it comes to effects and processing. But there still some marked differences, enough to make me often think about quitting guitar altogether.

Now that may seem like a very melodramatic thing to say–and it is, I mean, I am somewhat of a melodramatic person to begin with. But there is a reason why it isn’t all that crazy or extreme–I do have some very good reasons for thinking about my decision to keep playing guitar in the future.

As I said, electronic instruments have always been “around,” and I have always loved the sounds of these instruments–but I’ve equally been in love with the possibilities of these instruments. The variety of combinations of different sounds gives a level of control over the sonic space in a very individualized way that I greatly desire (I do, after all, perform solo ambient guitar, with the instrument merely as a lens to access sounds I want to express). So, some might suggest, why not just do both?

Well, I could (and often do) use both. The problem, however, is what the result will end up being, and it always centers around a very serious question/consideration to make regarding my music: if electronic instruments will give me greater access to the music I make, then maybe I should just leave the guitar be. I can spend hours and hours crafting a guitar technique or tone to only scratch the surface of a tonality or musical approach that I could instead achieve in minutes on some kind of synth, getting past that barrier quicker and do more with the results.

But the problem, however, is that the process of building these sounds out on the guitar, even if they are sometimes trying to emulate processes and approaches on synthetic instruments, really pushes me to think of the guitar in a new way and produce some interesting results that I might not have otherwise come across if I just jumped straight into synths. And this, by the way, is something quite similar to what many other musicians do already. There’s a long history of guitar players thinking about solos from the perspective of, say, the saxophone, or the keyboard. Paul Gilbert has often talked about “thinking like a drummer” in his approach. So this isn’t anything new.

So yeah, I probably won’t give the guitar up, but goddamn do I find myself continually looking at electronic instruments and wondering, “what if?” And, I should say, it’s increasingly likely that electronic stuff will continue to find its way into my music, so maybe I will get the best of both worlds in the end anyway.

My Pedalboard(s) in 2019

I have a long and complicated history with guitar effects. I’ve been on various ends of the spectrum: from having quite literally no guitar effects while touring for a number of years (not even a footswitch for clean and dirty) to having elaborate pedal setups like the one above, to having everything exist virtually in a software environment.

Now that the majority of my music requires effects by default, I haven’t been merely content with slapping together a board like the kind you’d expect for ambient music, and by combining actual effects pedals and the Line 6 Helix, I’m currently straddling both sides of the hardware and software spectrum.

The Helix does the heavy lifting of amp modeling, but I also make use of delay, pitch and modulation effects on board, as well as its looper. Using two of its FX loops, my physical pedal board is split into two sections: a preamp section including a tuner, EarthQuaker Devices Tentacle, and the sinister DOD Carcossa fuzz (and sinister barely scratches the surface of the depths of grit and filth it can muster–in fact, it’s borderline too much!). The second section comes after amplification in the Helix but operates on a path separate from the Helix’s looper; this allows me to run two loops simultaneously and intedependently of one another. I can then play chords, solos, or whatever I want over them; I’ll admit this last function is a little complicated. As of right now, choosing to play over both loops still requires me to play through one of the two post-amplification paths and while for now it’s serviceable, it can get a little muddled with so much going on–especially when I drown the post-loop in copious amounts of modulation, delays and reverb. I’ll explore some future signal routing options in the future, but for now, it’s working great.

So here’s how to think of this kind of setup–mind you the Helix stands in for what would otherwise be an amp. It is true that there are additional, virtual “stomps” in the Helix, but it’s essentially for amplification, an additional set of delay and reverb and a looper. I’ll go into more granular detail on each pedal on the boards in the future, but here’s a rough sketch:

Guitar > FX Loop 1 (Octave Up > Distortion) > Pre Amp >
Path A > Looper > Delay > Reverb
Path B > Looper > Phase Shifter > Delay 1 > Delay 2 > Reverb
Power Amp > Speakers

Since I change up a lot of the details, I don’t want to be too specific, but here are some staples so far. I can route the guitar through either Path A or Path B with the click of a footswitch (turning on both in the future would be cool!) and I almost always have at least one digital reverb which can be set to max, or what I call a “Wash” to drown out all of the dry signal and just create a pad-like lather of sound–which sounds unbelievable when that lather is made up of some nice grit coming out of the Carcossa or any other mean fuzz/distortion pedal. I almost always use Line 6’s own Particle Verb for this effect. That reverb is magic and I may just have to get one of their modeling pedals to have a dedicated version of this on its own.

Milking a Loop for All it’s Worth

The challenge, which really is the best word for it, of solo ambient guitar music is making the most sound come out of one person. Sure, that seems obvious, but other instruments really have an easier time with this–especially of the electronic variety. Since the ambient genre is firmly connected to the electronic genre, we can never really talk about one without the other. This is what’s forced me to consider the techniques electronic musicians employ to get the most out of looped sequences and apply it to the guitar: taking a loop, or two (or three) and running it through a variety of effects (once that effect pitch and time are the best) seems to be a great way to get the most mileage out of a simple loop–a musical sequence.

Tone down the volume on something like this and play some guitar solos over it: challenge met!

…oh, and I promise to avoid filming things in portrait mode.

In Between

I’ve been a little hesitant to break this guitar out–or any microtonal stuff really–for a few months now…well maybe a little longer than a few months considering I played in a band for 4 years that hardly used any microtones.

I have a lot of reasons for avoiding–some deeper philosophical perspectives that attempt to fuse music theory with semiotics–but that’s a bunch of rambling for another time. For now, I just wanted to get back into these sounds and combine them with some of the more interesting, abstract delay and reverb techniques I’ve been using live and at home with other guitars and instruments.

There’s always the challenge in Just Intonation of trying to use multiple tonal centers, and you naturally want to gravitate toward a single one, a single key, but man, when it works, there’s nothing else that sounds like this.

January 2019 Updates: Live Performances and Recording Projects

I’m moving into 2019 with some exciting recording and performances updates. This year I wanted to commit myself to growing as much as I can artistically and that begins with regular performance dates and some exciting new personal recording projects.

Last week I got things rolling with an incredible evening at The Footlight here in Ridgewood, Queens with New Firmament and Damien Olsen. This was a great way to start off the new year musically and I’m looking forward to performing future dates with these guys. My next scheduled show will be a solo performance at The Pine Box Rock Shop in Brooklyn at the end of March. RSVP here for more info. I’m currently looking to fill a date in this February as well; more on that as it develops.

On the recording front, I’ve decided to take up Chords of Orion’s exciting Ambient Guitar workshop. Over the course of the next 6 weeks I will be working on a new EP of ambient guitar music and will be documenting the process on YouTube. I was thrilled to come across this project as I’ve been toying around with different production methods and workflow processes. This is a great opportunity to follow a set of guidelines to produce some new music that I’ll be bringing to the stage throughout the year. You can watch the first video of this process here:

You can also download my improv session using this very patch here:

Looking forward to a new and expansive year of music. Stay tuned.

ej

The End of 2018: Collaborations, Gaming Tributes, Guitars, Synths and More

2018 is winding down with some new developments and directions. The beginning of all of this is the start of an on going series of tracks I’m referring to (for now) as “Gaming Tributes.” These are completely original songs inspired by the spirit of various games I’ve enjoyed over the years. They owe their sonic DNA to both the OSTs which accompany them, but also to the overall essence and nature of the game they’re dedicated to. I am aiming to release these on or around anniversaries of various release dates. You can listen to and download the first two dedicated to Mass Effect and Half-Life 2:

These tributes are a way of expressing myself musically that’s not inherently tied to a representation of myself and doesn’t carry the burden of being “my” music, even though these are original compositions. Over the years I’ve struggled to really “find my voice” and to create music that’s authentic in some way. Creating these tributes allows me to act on a different source of inspiration, try out new approaches to music, and increase my knowledge and skills—especially where it concerns electronic music. It’s my way of rediscovering a sense of joy and fun in music while also paying respects to games and composers that have had a lasting effect on me. I’m excited to continue growing this series.

I am also collaborating on a project I’m very excited to see grow. While my Gaming Tribute series is a celebration of various games that speak to a core component of my life, this new project is a celebration of my roots as a guitarist. Though I’ve traversed a great deal of sonic territory and will continue to do so, my roots as a rock guitarist are strong and I’m thrilled to have partnered with someone with a musical vision that allows me to embrace the power chord in a refreshing and exciting way. This is an iron that will be in the fire for some time, so there’s some time yet before the project appears in the wild, but I can’t wait until it does.

With my Half-Life 2 tribute piece finished, I’m currently working on the next addition to this series. After this I’m dedicating time to an even greater project firmly rooted in the idea of “Gaming Tributes.” This is a larger, more ambitious project which builds on much of what I’m doing in the Gaming Tributes, but takes it in a slightly different direction, embracing the “Ambient Guitar” as a fully independent and realized instrument.

ej

Identifying the Post-Guitar

post-guitar:
      guitar-centered music which actively interrogates expectations of the instrument.


post-guitar 1 builds off a framework I’ve been utilizing for a while now and is inspired from countless other works which would certainly fit into the same category. The term stems from my need to create a language to better fit the nature of the work I was doing. Ambient, experimental, abstract—all these fit on the surface, but I found them lacking in addressing how the process felt; I wasn’t merely playing and writing with lap steel, fretless and microtonal guitars; I was running them through various processes and using expanded techniques that would embellish the instrument, utilizing the many years spent learning and playing the guitar in more traditional spaces as a foundation to build something different.

This is the process of taking everything I know as a guitar player who can instinctively work with the instrument in a variety of musical spaces to move forward in a direction that interrogates the role of the instrument and the music we collectively expect it to create.

In the same way that post-rock and post-metal take their respective ensembles and point them in a direction which subverts expectations and attempts to reject the overly simulated aspect of “genre,” I found my process to also be fitting of the “post” designation—though I am by far the first to do this as it concerns the guitar. It seemed clear to me that this is music that takes place after our culture has designated a time and place for the guitar—not just in terms of its role in more popular music, but even in that of what we know as “guitar player’s” music. Guitar-centered music is far from unique, either in genres where it is more dominant (rock and metal for example) or in the works of artists often referred to as “solo guitarists,” the list of which would be entirely too long.

The world has not been without its experimental guitarists either, many of which I’ve been fortunate enough to know and communicate with, largely thanks to the Unfretted community: Neil Haverstick, Michael Atonal Vick, Elliot Sharp, Jon Catler, who I was fortunate enough to study under for a time, and many, many others who also fit the role of taking the guitar both in terms of its physical identity and its musical implementation into a “post” period. The ambient genre has also known many to push the guitar into fascinating places, Robert Rich and Steve Roach immediately come to mind. In sketching the “post-guitar” the landscape is filled with these artists and their work.

Performing post-guitar music is then anything that would involve an implementation, execution and perspective of the instrument which subverts cultural expectations; this can involve complex audio processing chains that expand the temporal and sonic spaces the guitar is normally capable of, experimental intonation and temperaments that allow the guitar to move beyond cultural standards of tonality—although, sticking to standard 12-tone frameworks might also result in uniquely post-guitar music as it takes the instrument along with its associated tuning system into new realities; the instrument can also be modified or constructed in a way that radically alters what sounds it can produce and in this way shares much in common with “prepared-guitar” music. Overall the goal is to craft new dimensions of sound and music with the guitar as the primary instrument. In some cases, the guitar might take on the appearance of synths, orchestral instruments or even the human voice—but so long as a first glance manages to either obfuscate the fact that a guitar is involved or launch the sound of the guitar in a way one is not expecting, we are in the realm of the post-guitar.

post-guitar 1 is a way for me to categorize this work organically, respecting the legacy it builds from; it also provides a basis to understand and explore future works. Different techniques and processing arrangements were used to create these five improvised pieces, each of which were a single track with minimal editing done after the recording; there is no multi-tracking here. Some of the “techniques” include the use a cello bow in conjunction with an e-bow, striking lap steel strings with drum sticks, guitar tunings and e-bow grips that allow for simultaneous drone and melody playing at once, etc. All of these explore new sonic space which have not yet been solidly outlined for and expected of the guitar; this is the first in what will be a series of on-going releases.

 

Musical Developments—the endless endeavor

I’ve started work on a new collection of material focused on heavy guitar tones. This is alongside my current work creating ambient/experimental music. Somehow I’ll need to find a way to balance these two drastically opposite worlds out, and maybe along the way there might be an opportunity for some thematic convergence—but I’m not counting on it; these are galaxies apart.

After leaving my last musical venture behind, I aimlessly wrote some music in this “genre.” It was genuinely aimless; with a 7-string guitar in hand, I laid down a number of “riffs,” melodies and the like. Some of it was interesting, but nothing that pushed me yet into the mode of fully writing this stuff out into complete pieces. A lot of that reluctance stems from a great uncertainty as to the purpose of such music. Was I just emulating a band? Was I just making musical vehicles that transport my technique? I’ve come to understand the role of guitar-focused music for the guitarist, but there already exist an abundant wealth of great music like that out there—what could I possibly create in this space that would ever hold a candle to landmark works?

I drove myself insane with these questions and so I ignored them; the 7-string went in the closet and I focused on fretless, experimental guitar stuff. After doing some sorting of my personal files I came to the realization that I had over a dozen of these aimless riffs and melodies—complete with titles that showed the seriousness of my intent, such as (bullshit.mp3, morebullshit.mp3, andevenmorebullshit.mp3, whateverthefuckthisis.mp3, idunno.mp3). I could, of course, just leave this stuff in the digital dust bin which contains countless similar files (and similar file names—though there was a time when I seemed to be more inspired to come up with “cool-sounding” titles, or just more ignorant). But these small recordings stood out, especially given the context of me having left my last musical project behind and being largely unsatisfied with that album being potentially the final statement I would make using these kinds of musical themes. The thought of that makes me squint.

I put these together into a nearly 20-minute collection of chord progressions, melodies and developmental ideas and immediately got to work charting out the first “song.” As it stands, I’m quite satisfied with the results. This marks the first time in about half-a-decade that I’ve produced music like this (especially since the last musical project involved other people who would take up the responsibility of writing and performing the other parts) and I’m feeling motivated to continue the process.

This of course complicates things as, A. my literary theory studies are keeping me more than occupied and busy, and B. I have a serious body of ambient/experimental music I’m woefully behind on. So here I go, trying to climb this mountain of responsibility and creative endeavors.

This material represents a lot of different interests and passions of mine—a lot of which focus on guitar technique and all that associated stuff. There are a lot of technical challenges since I’m writing beyond what my current capabilities are—something I’ve always striven for—so a lot of time will go into woodshedding specifically for this material. There’s also all the nonsense associated with drums/drum programming and what the hell I’m going to do there; I’ll figure that out at a later date. Right now the material has to be written.

I’m also planning on exploring ways to code this music with meaning. Instrumental music of this sort really struggles to move beyond its form—and as an observer of form I find it enticing to submit my creative energies to their models—but even with lyrical music we can see the same formulaic response (especially in metal as a whole). Overall I want this to be something more than a bunch of loud music showcasing guitar gymnastics. Figuring this out will be a priority of mine in writing this material.

Back to the real grind.

ej