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Maverick Wright
Maverick Wright

Prepared Guitar Techniques: An Illustrated Manual by Peter Yates and Matthew Elgart



Prepared Guitar Techniques: How to Alter the Sound of Your Guitar with Objects




If you are looking for a way to expand your sonic palette and explore new musical possibilities with your guitar, you might want to try preparing it. A prepared guitar is a guitar that has had its sound altered by placing various objects on or between the strings, or by modifying the body or pickups of the instrument. This technique can produce sounds that are dark, brooding, compelling, expansive, alien, or anything in between.




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Preparing your guitar can also open up new avenues for improvisation and composition, as you can create new textures, rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and noises that are unique to your instrument. You can also use prepared guitar in different musical styles and contexts, from experimental music to rock, jazz, folk, ambient, and more.


In this article, we will explore the history, materials, methods, styles, and applications of prepared guitar techniques. We will also provide some tips on how to prepare your guitar safely and effectively. By the end of this article, you will have a better understanding of what prepared guitar is, how to do it, and why you might want to try it.


The History of Prepared Guitar




The idea of altering the sound of an instrument by using external objects is not new. One of the earliest examples is the prepared piano , which was invented by American composer John Cage in the 1930s. Cage placed various objects such as screws, bolts, rubber bands, coins, erasers, and pieces of wood inside the piano to change its timbre and pitch. He used this technique to create music that was unpredictable, complex, and expressive.


The concept of prepared piano inspired some guitarists to experiment with similar techniques on their instruments. One of the pioneers was Norwegian composer and guitarist Bjørn Fongaard (1919-1980), who started to prepare his guitar in the mid-1960s. He initially constructed a quarter tone guitar with a modified fretboard , but soon abandoned it in favor of using various objects such as nails, screws, springs, paper clips, rubber bands, coins, plastic tubes, magnets, and more. He used these objects to create new sounds and scales on his guitar.


Another influential figure was British guitarist Keith Rowe , who developed his own style of prepared guitar in the late 1960s. He was influenced by Jackson Pollock's painting method and Cage's prepared piano. He placed his guitar flat on a table and manipulated the strings , body , and pickups in unorthodox ways to produce sounds that were dark , brooding , compelling , expansive , and alien . He used objects such as a library card , rubber eraser , springs , hand-held electric fans , alligator clips , and common office supplies . He also used electronic devices such as radios , contact microphones , pedals , and feedback . He was one of the founders of AMM , a pioneering group of free improvisers.


A third innovator was Fred Frith , who released a solo album called Guitar Solos in 1974. The album consisted of eight tracks of unaccompanied and improvised music played on prepared guitars. He used a modified 1936 Gibson K-11 , which he added an extra pickup over the strings at the nut , enabling him to amplify sound from both sides of the fretted note. He then split the fretboard in two with a capo , effectively giving him two guitars , each amplified separately , that he could play independently with each hand. He also attached various objects to the strings , such as alligator clips , wire insulation , bottle caps , guitar picks , split shot fishing sinkers , foam pieces , bamboo , nuts and bolts , and more. He created a wide range of sounds and effects with his prepared guitar.


The Materials and Methods of Prepared Guitar




As you can see from the examples above, there are many ways to prepare your guitar and many objects you can use. The choice of materials and methods depends on your personal preference, musical goals, and available resources. However, there are some general guidelines and principles that can help you prepare your guitar effectively and safely.


First, you need to decide what kind of sound you want to achieve with your prepared guitar. Do you want to create new timbres, harmonics, percussions, microtones, noises, or a combination of these? Do you want to alter the pitch, volume, sustain, or decay of the notes? Do you want to create rhythmic patterns, melodic motifs, harmonic progressions, or soundscapes? Do you want to use your prepared guitar in a solo or ensemble setting?


Second, you need to choose the objects that will help you create the desired sound. You can use almost anything that can fit on or between the strings, or that can modify the body or pickups of the guitar. Some common objects are:


  • Alligator clips: These can be attached to the strings to create new harmonics, percussions, microtones, and noises. They can also be used to connect the strings to other objects or devices.



  • Wire insulation: This can be wrapped around the strings to dampen or mute them, creating a softer or more percussive sound.



  • Bottle caps: These can be placed between the strings and the neck or body to create a false bridge, altering the pitch and timbre of the notes.



  • Guitar picks: These can be inserted between the strings to create a buzzing or rattling effect.



  • Split shot fishing sinkers: These can be attached to the strings to add weight and tension, changing the pitch and sustain of the notes.



  • Foam pieces: These can be placed under the strings to mute them partially or completely, creating a staccato or muted sound.



  • Bamboo: This can be woven through two or more adjacent strings to create a sitar-like sound.



  • Nuts and bolts: These can be placed on or between the strings to create metallic sounds and noises.



Third, you need to apply the objects to your guitar carefully and securely. You don't want them to fall off or move around while you are playing. You also don't want them to damage your guitar or hurt yourself. Here are some tips on how to apply the objects safely:


  • Use objects that are not too heavy, sharp, sticky, or corrosive.



  • Use objects that are easy to remove and clean.



  • Use objects that are compatible with your guitar's material and construction.



  • Use objects that do not interfere with your playing technique or comfort.



  • Use objects that do not affect your guitar's tuning or intonation too much.



  • Use objects that do not cause unwanted feedback or noise.



The Musical Styles and Applications of Prepared Guitar




Once you have prepared your guitar, you can start playing it and exploring its new sounds. You can use your prepared guitar in different musical styles and applications, depending on your preference and purpose. Here are some examples of how you can use your prepared guitar:


  • You can create new timbres and harmonics with your prepared guitar. You can play notes that are normally not available on a standard guitar, such as quarter tones, microtones, overtones, and undertones. You can also play chords that are more complex and rich in sound quality.



  • You can create noise effects with your prepared guitar. You can use feedback, distortion, modulation, delay, reverb, and other effects pedals to enhance or transform the sounds of your prepared guitar. You can also use radios, contact microphones, or other electronic devices to introduce external sounds or signals to your guitar.



  • You can improvise with your prepared guitar. You can use your prepared guitar as a source of inspiration and exploration, as you discover new sounds and combinations that are possible with your instrument. You can also use your prepared guitar to interact with other musicians or sound sources, creating spontaneous and dynamic musical dialogues.



  • You can compose with your prepared guitar. You can use your prepared guitar as a tool for composition, as you create musical structures and forms based on the sounds and effects of your instrument. You can also use your prepared guitar to record and produce music, using multitrack recording, looping, sampling, editing, and mixing techniques.



There are many examples of music that use prepared guitar techniques in different ways. Some of them are:


  • John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano , which inspired many guitarists to prepare their instruments.



  • Bjørn Fongaard's Elektrofoni , which consists of 72 pieces for quarter tone guitar and various preparations.



  • Keith Rowe's solo albums such as A Dimension of Perfectly Ordinary Reality , which showcase his tabletop guitar style.



  • Fred Frith's Guitar Solos , which is considered a landmark album of prepared guitar music.



  • Glenn Branca's symphonies for multiple electric guitars , some of which are prepared with metal rods or tuning forks.



  • Sonic Youth's albums such as Daydream Nation , which feature guitars prepared with drumsticks, screwdrivers, coins, and more.



  • Tom Waits' albums such as Swordfishtrombones , which include guitars prepared with various objects and effects.



  • Jonny Greenwood's soundtrack for There Will Be Blood , which uses guitars prepared with alligator clips and viola bows.



Conclusion: The Benefits and Challenges of Prepared Guitar




Preparing your guitar can be a rewarding and enjoyable experience, as you can create new sounds and music that are unique to your instrument. You can also challenge yourself to expand your musical vocabulary and expression, as you experiment with different materials and methods of preparation. You can also use your prepared guitar in different musical styles and applications, from experimental music to rock, jazz, folk, ambient, and more.


However, preparing your guitar also comes with some challenges and drawbacks. You need to be careful not to damage your guitar or hurt yourself when applying or removing the objects. You also need to be aware of the tuning and intonation issues that may arise from preparing your guitar. You also need to be prepared for the unpredictability and instability of some of the sounds and effects that you may create. You also need to be respectful of the musical context and audience that you are playing for, as some people may not appreciate or understand your prepared guitar sounds.


Ultimately, preparing your guitar is a personal choice that depends on your musical goals and preferences. There is no right or wrong way to do it, as long as you are safe and creative. If you are interested in trying it out, we encourage you to do some research on the history and examples of prepared guitar music, and to experiment with different objects and techniques on your own guitar. You may be surprised by what you can discover and create with your prepared guitar.


FAQs: Five Common Questions and Answers About Prepared Guitar




  • What is a prepared guitar?



A prepared guitar is a guitar that has had its sound altered by placing various objects on or between the strings, or by modifying the body or pickups of the instrument.


  • Why prepare a guitar?



To prepare a guitar is to expand its sonic palette and explore new musical possibilities with it. Preparing a guitar can produce sounds that are different from a standard guitar, such as new timbres, harmonics, percussions, microtones, noises, etc.


  • How to prepare a guitar?



To prepare a guitar, you need to choose and apply objects that will help you create the desired sound. You can use almost anything that can fit on or between the strings, or that can modify the body or pickups of the guitar. Some common objects are alligator clips, wire insulation, bottle caps, guitar picks, split shot fishing sinkers, foam pieces, bamboo, nuts and bolts, etc. You also need to apply the objects carefully and securely, to avoid damaging your guitar or yourself.


  • How to play a prepared guitar?



To play a prepared guitar, you need to use your fingers, nails, picks, bows, slides, or other tools to pluck, strike, tap, scrape, slide, or rub the strings or objects on your guitar. You can also use feedback, distortion, modulation, delay, reverb, and other effects pedals to enhance or transform the sounds of your prepared guitar. You can also use radios, contact microphones, or other electronic devices to introduce external sounds or signals to your guitar.


  • Where to find examples of prepared guitar music?



There are many examples of music that use prepared guitar techniques in different ways. Some of them are John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano , Bjørn Fongaard's Elektrofoni , Keith Rowe's solo albums , Fred Frith's Guitar Solos , Glenn Branca's symphonies for multiple electric guitars , Sonic Youth's albums , Tom Waits' albums , and Jonny Greenwood's soundtrack for There Will Be Blood .


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