Guitarists typically fall into one of two categories: pick or fingers. Oh sure, occasionally players from one camp will dabble in the other, or they might combine both options into one hybrid picking style, or maybe they’ll use both hands on the neck at the same time, Stanley Jordan-style. But as far as guitar goes, pick or fingers are really your only two choices when it comes to sounding the note on the guitar.
Or are they?
Some innovative players have been known to jettison both pick and fingers (well maybe not fingers – ouch!) in favor of less conventional methods of note generation. Perhaps the most famous is Jimmy Page’s use of the cello bow. Page may not have been the first to take horsehair to nickel, and he definitely wasn’t the last, but he was certainly the most iconic. Page’s use of the bow can be heard most notably on “Dazed and Confused,” where it lends an eerie, mournful tone to the already morose descending melody.
Never one to let Pagey hog the limelight, Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel went one better, using an entire violin against the guitar strings during his unaccompanied solo moment in This is Spinal Tap.
Some players like to play in a more conventional way but with a pick substitute. Brian May of Queen and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top use a British sixpence and an old Mexican five peso coin, respectively, in place of a pick. Both players feel that the coin lends a unique tonal property to their playing that would be unattainable via conventional means.
And Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ed King is said to have played his “Sweet Home Alabama” solo using a seashell instead of a pick.
Mr. Big’s Paul Gilbert and Billy Sheehan have been known to attach conventional guitar picks to power drills for super-fast picking, most notably on “Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy” from 1991’s Lean Into It, but there’s a certain occupational hazard inherent in this method, as Gilbert told Metal Sludge in 2004: “I was alone, onstage, playing my solo in front of 15,000 people. I had long permed heavy metal hair. The drill was spinning. Suddenly they met! And a tangle ensued. Like Excalibur could not be pulled from the stone, the drill could not be untangled from my hair. My roadie got the scissors, but I protested. “HAIR IS TOO IMPORTANT,” I screamed. Suddenly I was surrounded by the entire Rush and Mr. Big crew all with various plans to remove the drill and pointing flashlights at my head.”
But as an alternative note generation device, all of the above methods make plenty of sense. Where’s the fun in that? For something really out there, you need to look to Mattias “Ia” Eklundh. This Swedish virtuoso has made a whole career out of unconventional approaches to the guitar. One of his trademark moves is to lower his volume pedal, depress his whammy bar, whack a harmonic, then raise both the volume pedal and whammy bar at once for a wild but totally organic pitch shift effect. Nice trick, but pretty standard compared to what he does with a chopstick on “Chopstick Boogie.” Listen:
That’s not even the most out-there trick under Eklundh’s belt. Quite literally. He has been known to wear a holster belt decked out with 12 – ahem – electronic marital aids with motors running at different pitches. The motors interact with the magnetic field of his guitar’s pickup, outputting a musical tone to the amp. You can hear this effect on Eklundh’s song “Apparatus.” Former David Bowie/Tin Machine guitarist and current solo artist Reeves Gabrels was doing the same thing back in the ’80s, although at one point he was banned from doing so during an appearance on BBC’s Top of the Pops, so he used a chocolate eclair instead.
The same motor-tone-through-the-pickups technique was exploited in a slightly more family-friendly manner by Eddie Van Halen on “Poundcake” from Van Halen’s 1991 album For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Eddie opens the track by placing a power drill next to his pickups, and later he incorporates the actual note of the power drill into the melody of the “Poundcake” solo. For live shows Eddie even customized a drill with his trademark red, black and white paint scheme.
This is a selection, but there are plenty of other such tricks dotted throughout the last 50 years or so of rock history: Sonic Youth banging on their guitars with drumsticks; Bumblefoot pressing a thimble to his guitar strings to play high notes way past the end of the fretboard; Steve Vai slithering harmonics with his tongue; the classic “mic stand as slide” trick. What alternative note generation devices have you discovered?