Quote from the book Love and Murder in the Time of Covid by Qiu Xiaolong.
i am playing the guitar
i am being played by the guitar
Deciding to do anything deeply, one opens a path through which that very thing one wants to work with also works on us. It changes us physically–the mouth (armature) of a trumpet player or the callus on the finger of a string player are obvious examples–and it also changes us mentally.
This is true for any relationship we have.
In Brazilian Portuguese an acoustic guitar is called violão, while the electric guitar is called guitarra. The Portuguese guitar is a very different instrument. The rest of the world calls it a Portuguese guitar, but in Portugal it’s simply a guitar. So a different word was used for what the Spanish call a guitar.
What I find interesting is that the guitar is female in all romance languages and even in German, which tends to try to be different. (the moon is male in German and the sun female. Craziness!!) But while it’s a guitarra (female) it is o violão (male). I supposed this shows that all languages develop around what feels good saying, not around what actually makes sense – as shown by aluminum or critter in American English – and perhaps people found that o violão and a guitarra sounded better. Or perhaps these genders really don’t mean anything… they are simply a way to make language more complicated. It’s something that English has solved beautifully.
My guitar with a piece of sponge underneath the strings. The sponge shortens the sound and renders it almost oud-like. Hence the title of this post, the name a friend gave a track I recorded with it. (is the Oud masculine in Spanish??)
This last phase of recording Rain Poems has been about altering the guitar sound a little bit. Prepared guitar. Making the sound a little less pristine, less clear, less of that singing quality, and with more fuzz, a more percussive sound. Home-made wine. Moonshine. Kitchen food, not restaurant food. I used a cloth, woven through the strings and this sponge. I used a piece of paper, woven through the strings, on an album a few years ago. I bet nobody recognized it as a guitar sound. 😁
I often like limiting my palette because I have found that a small palette can inspire new ideas within those borders. There is so much one can discover through working with only a pencil. I suppose this is akin to having a tradition that limits what one is allowed to do. I don’t follow a tradition but perhaps I am creating my own for each album? There is an enormous difference between being told what we can and can’t do and choosing to draw our own lines within which we choose to work.
I have arrived at a point where I no longer want to use an electric guitar, or even a steel string guitar. I also haven’t used a synthesizer in a long time. I may use other instruments at some future time but right now I am loving everything about the Flamenco guitar. And, to be clear, by that I mean the instrument, not the tradition.
My black back of guitar stuff always contains glue and acrylic powder, nail silks, strings and a wire cutter, an assortment of files, an extra saddle, IEMs, and a green piece of foam that was cut to a little longer than the width of the strings and about an inch wide. I have used the foam, shoved under the guitar strings, to practice in hotel rooms late at night as it dampens the strings nicely.
Yesterday I put the foam under the strings and right up against the bridge. This created a short, slightly percussive and mellow sound. Rest strokes didn’t sound great but free strokes sounded quite evocative of an oud. And so another piece was born. Now up to 16 tracks and about 55 minutes of music. A lot of great guitar sounds.
I am happy to report that my ears have been fine although I have been using IEMs, with foam tips, every day for more than an hour at a time. I am wondering whether the silicone tips I was using for a while were the cause of my allergy/infection.
1. Listen to the birds
“That’s where all the music comes from. Birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. And watch hummingbirds. They fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren’t going anywhere.”
2. Your guitar is not really a guitar
“Your guitar is a divining rod. Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over. A guitar is also a fishing rod. If you’re good, you’ll land a big one.”
3. Practice in front of a bush
“Wait until the moon is out, then go outside, eat a multi-grained bread and play your guitar to a bush. If the bush doesn’t shake, eat another piece of bread.”
5. If you’re guilty of thinking, you’re out
“If your brain is part of the process, you’re missing it. You should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. If you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing.”
8. Don’t wipe the sweat off your instrument
“You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.”
9. Keep your guitar in a dark place
“When you’re not playing your guitar, cover it and keep it in a dark place. If you don’t play your guitar for more than a day, be sure you put a saucer of water in with it.”
Captain Beefheart’s 10 commandments of guitar playing
Hey, some of those are pretty good.
After spending a couple of hours recording, and feeling that I wasn’t getting anywhere, I took a break and wove a small piece of cloth through the strings of the guitar, over, under, over, etc.
Prepared guitar. The cloth muted the sound in a very interesting and organic way and within half an hour I had a new piece recorded, using a rain rhythm I had created last year. Jon wrote that it reminded him of the Opium album recordings. I’ll take that. My partner says it’s her new favorite.
Lesson: sometimes a small change of sound can inspire something new.
I also learned that with the relatively close mic position – about a foot distance – I have always preferred I don’t have to worry so much about background noises. I even started using the trusty Neumann M149 a while ago. It picks up more ambient sound than the laser-focused Earthworks mic but it’s fine. Classical guitarists usually record with the microphone several feet away and that, I’m sure, would be problematic.