Making stuff is neat. Making and fixing stuff and generally being able to navigate the physical world of stuff making and stuff fixing makes me pretty happy. Art is rewarding. Installing a bathroom sink offers plenty of satisfaction. Changing a tire has benefits.
But making something that someone else then uses to make art is another level.
I've built and modified a number of guitars and guitar-like instruments.
Most just for show. A couple for a little bit of play. One pepper-themed model sits behind glass in the Tabasco Sauce Museum.
But for our upcoming Halloween production of Twisted & Tortured, Julia and I are keen on creating a great deal of original music that is to be composed specifically to evoke an eery, dark feeling as well as taking full advantage of our custom 10 channel surround-sound system. So that meant a lot of drippy, echoed, droney, and reverberated groans and growls punctuated by a few staccato minor key notes. When making stuff in the art realm, we all sort of make rules to follow. We confine ourselves. Set up boundaries. Music follows several structure rules about tempo and key. Paintings work within a chosen pallet of colors. For this instrument, I set a few rules to follow: One: Natural Sounds
As much as possible, I wanted the effect of echo and reverb to be somewhat normally aspired. That is, not from a guitar pedal or digitally added down the line, but instead from the natural resonance of the instrument. Two: Not just noise. I also wanted real, playable, notes in a limited “palette.” I've made a few “rustic” diddly bows, which are basically single string electric guitars not specifically tuned to anything and played by kind of “finding your way” around the string with a slide. They're fun, but a little clumsy. Three: Sexy Finally, I wanted this thing to look pretty cool and be themed to the show itself.
1. THE NATURAL REVERB A. Classic instrument techniques
For the echo and reverb I employed a few common techniques inspired from acoustic violins, cigar
box guitars, and “avant-garde noisemaker instruments.” Like classic violins, I crafted a solidly constructed, hollow body that fits nice and tight at the edges, has a slightly thicker and more rigid backplate, and a few round sound holes to keep the waves “bouncing” inside for a while longer. Note: longer f-holes, such as on violins, produce crisp, louder instruments. Since ours will be electric, we don't need the acoustic volume and prefer the vibrations to remain inside longer. B. Folk instrument technology From cigar box guitar design I borrowed a big, empty box design and internal springs stretched from end-to-end to capture and, duh, reverberate the sound. C. The Music of the Odd From strange noise-makers, I took the concept of a reverb tank (basically two springs stretched between transducers) to get the sound really wet. 2. Come play with us. Forever. And Ever. To help create a more “playable” instrument, the neck length and distance from the nut to the bridge are inspired by the viola. And to help ensure that the “palette” was limited, we decided on keeping it simple with only two main strings.
3. If looks could kill. Finally, since I wasn't going to tackle carving wood into complicated splines and curves, the basic
coffin shape served nicely for both acoustic and theme reasons. One of the artists we discuss during this production is Odilon, whose mother was New Orleans Creole and a major influence upon his work. And so, the coffin shape and (hopefully) tastefully balanced combination of an aging classical instrument and weathered “NAW-lins” voodoo art brings this Odilon (as it is now known) thematically right into place. IT'S DONE. SO IS IT DONE-DONE? Then, when basically mostly finished, I sat in the middle of the studio floor (now destroyed with mess as it often is between shows) and experimented with the instrument and a variety of output configurations.
OUTPUT CONFIGURATION #1: THE TRANSDUCER WILL SEDUCE YA First, with the internal “reverb tank” as the sole output to the amps without any pickups or microphones. That picked up all the drone-like vibes from the body, creating long, drenched tones that poured out of the speakers. At first, it was difficult to tell that no real “notes” were coming through the speakers because this thing is actually pretty loud acoustically alone.
OUTPUT CONFIGURATION #2: PICKUP ARTIST
Then I soldered up a magnetic guitar pickup and sticky-tape mounted that under the strings. I ran that out through a separate jack, so I now had one channel of just very wet reverb and one channel that sounded like a dry electric guitar.
OUTPUT CONFIGURATION #3: SLIPPERY WHEN WET The third configuration was running the guitar pickup into one end of the reverb tank springs so that the dry guitar would ring a bit through the same channel as the direct-to-springs signal. That was neat. But still a bit too “strange electric guitar” instead of “something... else.”
OUTPUT CONFIGURATION #4: PIEZO. SCHLIMAZEL! HASENPFEFFER INCORPORATED! Finally, I mounted a piezo disk under the bridge. Piezos are kind of like very simple speakers without cones. Put a bit of current through them, and they buzz (they are the noisemakers in your smoke detectors and microwaves, etc) but they also work in reverse... vibrate them and they create a bit of current. So they are often used as pickups for acoustic guitars, or sound effect triggers when attached to drums, etc. Using piezo disks instead of magnetic pickups means that we'll be amplifying the sound vibrations of the instrument structure rather than the vibration of the metal strings like an electric guitar does. I secured one of these inside the body, directly under the bridge, and ran that into the input side of the reverb tank.
MO STRINGS, MO PROBLEMS
FINALLY, feeling that the two strings were limited (as, I suppose, I wanted... like an idiot) I then designed and mounted a little side arm from the body in solid wood. This arm is basically a long diddly bow type neck to hold a long metal string, from which you can “find your way” to a variety of notes and strange vibrations. Directly parallel to that long string, I securely mounted a steel rod held only at the base. Both of these have their own set of piezo disks running to the reverb tank as well. All the strings (and metal rod) can be plucked, strummed, thwacked, slapped, and even played with a viola bow. (Or a violin bow. Or any bow. We won't tell.) Making this thing was neat.
Creating a relatively unique instrument, experimenting with it, and tweaking it to a satisfying state was very enjoyable. Watching Julia play it... someone who has a much better, classically trained, understanding of music and the nuances behind how it works... is deeply gratifying. Also, weirdly satisfying will be for nobody to even notice the original music and soundscapes
created by this purpose-built instrument, played through a system carefully configured for an art space which has been cautiously designed to enhance intimate and unique storytelling. Because when the ingredients of a well crafted “experience” come together just right, those immersed within that experience need only take notice of the final result. The gestalt of the thing without any one aspect pulling too much focus from any other. Nothing too sweet or too tart. Nothing too bright or too dark. Everything working together to build the artistically softened arcs and valleys of good storytelling... Almost as though it's been run through an internal reverb tank of a strange new instrument. EVERY PROJECT SEEMS TO HAVE IT'S “ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?” SAGA MOMENTS: Right? It's not just me? PAINT: I love Rustoleum “Hammer Finish” paints.
The stuff doesn't need primer, it dries hard to a kind of “orange peel” finish that hides little blemishes, and it's like old school oil-based paints that cure to an indestructible toughness. I use them all the time. And this time they just didn't ever fully dry. The instrument was sticky for days. Gummy even. So I wound up stripping it off with a heat gun. And then I got extreme and just torched the thing. And so... a portion of this instrument has a cool, torched wood finish. MORE LIKE TRANS-DON'T-YA: After fully tested, played, partially assembled, tested, played, and then fully assembled with glue... the transducer on the input side of the reverb
tank failed. So no input, no output... other than the vibrations that the springs in the reverb tank pick up and pass along. SO... it was all opened back up and the three pickups were disconnected from the reverb springs and soldered directly to the cord jack. So while this might change in the future (riiiiight... i'm not opening it up again) for now the pickup signal exits the instrument dry along with the very wet spring reverb passing along the internal vibrations. FILMING, PHOTOS, PHONES, AND GRAVITY: With the few photos and vid I have to share (which were taken from facebook messages that I sent to Julia) you can see that I work MESSY. I also try to snap photos and video with one hand (when I remember) while assembling something with the other. You see where this is going. Phone went down. Everything lost. So now you three people who are reading this don't get to see the hyper detail in which I captured the process of building this instrument. All-in-all, still a good time. It's a little tricky to “play” but very fun to “play around with.” Drop by for a show sometime and give it a whirl.