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.

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.

New Release – Dust: One

Dust

_3 years ago I finished the two tracks that would end up being featured as Complex Silence 31. Earlier that year I had released three other works (Apparitions, Turbulent Serenity & The Distant).

These projects were all a part of a new musical direction I had discovered. Though it was a radical departure from the shred-based metal and rock music I had done previously, I can see hints of this form in some of my earliest music.

Complex Silence 31 came about right when I hit a few serious changes in my life—some more difficult than others. As a result, I took a break from publishing music—though I never stopped writing music. I explored some new areas of sound, wrote and recorded a few things, but never found the ability to commit to a finalized project. Toward the end of 2013 I also rejoined IKILLYA and started playing metal again, touring the United States and a few other countries.

While working on the new IKILLYA album, I realized that I owed it to myself to pick up where I left off 3 years ago: Exploring ambient soundscapes, drones, noise and music theory through just intonation.

This return comes in the form of Dust: One, a drone piece based on a single justly intonated chord, mixing both sine waves and sustained strings on lap steel guitar. Dust comes out of several writing sessions I’ve had over the past couple of months, and my decision to release this piece of music first was intentional.

If I was going back to this realm of ambience, of utilizing sound as a means of occupying space and time, it had to be a drone. Though it’s not something that everyone can relate to, drones have a powerful amount of art and philosophy inherent in their structure. It’s a form with ancient and primitive origins alongside spiritual implications.

I took a chord that I was working with for another piece, one that I found particular interesting, and used this to set the scene for Dust: One. Previous works of mine did maintain a singular focus on a chord, harmony or slight melodic movement, but with Dust I wanted to only focus on this chord—I wanted no variation in pitch from the origin. Filters and modulations I ended up using do blur the lines a bit, but they are tethered to the tones of this four-note chord.

While my work shares a lot in common with electronic music, I make very little use of electronic instruments. Previous works have used some synths, but these have never been the focus. This is due to a couple of reasons: Firstly, my native instrument, for better or for worse, is the guitar, and secondly, I’ve dedicated this area of musical life to solely using Just Intonation. Finding tunable synths can be a bit of a challenge, and it’s much easier for me to use a fretless guitar, lap steel guitar or specially fretted guitar to achieve this. Even with tunable synths, however, you are largely committed to using a traditional keyboard or piano scroll, which heavily favors equal temperament in terms of how its layout.

While I make use of Custom Scale Editor in order to generate reliable reference pitches, dealing with physical instruments, even ones specifically designed for Just Intonation, create margins of error you just have to accept. Even using an ebow on an open string can result in small discrepancies in pitch. The world of electronic music, however, has the capability to overcome this issue with mathematical precision.

For Dust, given its concept, I knew I had to have something a bit more reliable than what I used in the past. In order to do this, I generated a few sine waves tuned to the specific frequencies of the chord that makes up One. I did this twice, taking up two different octaves. I also added a bit of static to thicken everything up and give the notes something to breathe through. I added a number of filters and modulations that I felt best suited the nature of the chord, and each tone within the chord. The result is some slight variance, but one that is firmly rooted in pure tonality.

I wasn’t satisfied with a purely digital experience, however; that’s not who I am as a musician. Using my lap steel and an ebow, I recorded drones of each note, added some processing and blended this in with the sine waves and static. The droning strings actually start and end the piece with about a 15 second lead in and fade out time respectively.

In the past I chose song titles based on words and phrases I thought sounded interesting, or loosely described the process by which a piece was created.

With Dust there’s some similarity here. The title represents “what’s left over,” after you remove meter, melody, arrangement, composition, and all structural elements. As such, this piece is musical “dust.” It is what is left over, what has degraded—by natural forces. Also, during my 3-year hiatus from ambient music, I intended to start a number of experimental projects, most of which fell through for a number of reasons. Dust is an echo of these dead projects (some of which may be rebuilt). It is not a sign of defeat, or even loss: It stands as the resonance of musical passion and love.

Dust: One can be thought of as a mediation of all that could’ve been, but in an indifferent, cosmic way. It stands as a remnant.

Drone music is a versatile music. It can be listened to in the background of daily life—similar to how Brian Eno once described the purpose and function of the ambient genre—but it can also be active. Dust is what I like to refer to as a “compound drone,” as there are a number of different elements that go into its structure—though they are all oriented in the same direction. Because of this, listening to it over a period of time can create different experiences. While mixing and reviewing this piece, there are several distinct emotions and sounds that would surface. This occurs at the very point where internal consciousness meets external stimulation: How much of my experience was illusory, or the actual objective experience of these tones occupying physical space through sound waves? There’s no answer to this. It’s an endless question, but one that can only be experienced through this form of music.


 

Dust: One is currently available on my Bandcamp page, and will be uploaded to my Soundcloud shortly.