Unorthodox Guitar Techniques
Published on 07 May 2020
Is that Blues scale feeling a little stale?
Is your usual ‘bag of tricks’ leaving you somewhat uninspired?
Well, we think you need to try thinking outside the box a little!
We’ve gathered together a small group of some really rather left-of-centre ideas here. These examples give you whole new worlds of guitar-based activity to explore! Some of them require special equipment, but even those that do are either every-day items (allen key) or inexpensive (drumstick). So, get a load of these maverick techniques and inject some fresh art into your playing!
Playing with a Violin Bow
Yes, we’ve seen Jimmy Page do this before. Some of us may also have experienced Sigur Ros doing the same, to equally magnificent effect. However, the one that has impressed us the most is this busker from Manchester, who was a quite stunning control over this most musical of techniques. Unorthodox it may be, but it’s entirely sensible and we think it sounds beautiful, especially in the hands of this fine musician.
As you’d expect, it works best on the low or high E strings, since a guitar’s fingerboard is nothing like as curved as a violin of cello. Chords work reasonably well, but then we didn’t ned to say that because we already know you’re going to rush of and try this! Violin bows are available for very little cash, so the experiment need not cost you much!
Pulling strings away from guitar neck (DIY Whammy effect)
This technique is kind of like taking a mistake to it’s somewhat illogical conclusion. Do you ever find that, when you’re playing with particular gusto, you can sometimes grab at the high E or B strings and sort of pull them away from the neck altogether? It’s a little embarrassing when you’re in the throes of a face-melting solo, but you could always take a leaf out of Radiohead’s book! Lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood determinedly grabs his guitar string and pulls it far clear of the fingerboard before continuing to play the string!
Greenwood’s technique very much fits in with Radiohead’s angular Rock, and the sound is not unlike the ‘plus octave’ settings on a Digitech Whammy pedal. Give it a try! Depending on the key you play in, this can actually sound very musically ‘correct’, though we suspect that may not be high on the agendas of anyone interested in trying this!
Drop a Knife onto Your Guitar Strings
Do be careful with knives, friends. Whilst being careful with them, try them out on your guitar! The obvious thing to do is use them as a makeshift slide, but we’d just as soon use an actual slide for that job, you know? No, be like Johnny Marr and drop the knife handle onto the strings! Yes, see if you can hear it here on the famous Smiths tune This Charming Man:
Did you hear the sound? At the end of the chorus? We kind of did...anyway, here’s what Mr Marr himself has to say about it...
“I'll try any trick. With the Smiths, I'd take this really loud Telecaster of mine, lay it on top of a Fender Twin Reverb with the vibrato on, and tune it to an open chord. Then I'd drop a knife with a metal handle on it, hitting random strings. I used it on "This Charming Man", buried beneath about 15 tracks of guitar ... it was the first record where I used those highlife -sounding runs in 3rds. I'm tuned up to F# and I finger it in G, so it comes out in A. There are about 15 tracks of guitar. People thought the main guitar part was a Rickenbacker, but it's really a '54 Tele. There are three tracks of acoustic, a backwards guitar with a really long reverb, and the effect of dropping knives on the guitar – that comes in at the end of the chorus.”
Satch’s ‘Lizard Down the Throat’ technique
At the other and of the Rock guitar spectrum from Johnny Marr is shred genius Joe Satriani. Many of his otherworldly shrieks and splats require nothing more than a Floyd-equipped guitar, a ton of gain and masses of technique.
This particular one is almost more about getting the technique wrong, though. Yes, the idea behind the ‘lizard down the throat’ is to select a note, play it and then simultaneously depress the whammy bar and move your fretting hand up the neck, all the time trying to maintain the same pitch. This is, of course, impossible, and the resulting 'failed' sound is the famous lizard down the throat! We reckon it’s more like an angry cartoon dog, but however your ears make sense of it, it’s a very cool noise that not enough people employ! You can hear it in our accompanying video at around 1m48.
Raid the Toolbox
We mentioned earlier about using a knife as a slide, and how it’s probably better to just use a proper metal bottleneck. Well, Tom Morello took the idea of the ‘alternative slide’ and applied to his right-hand technique instead. During rehearsals, he happened to scratch his strings with the allen key he’d just been using to lock down his tremolo nut, and a very interesting sound came out...half an hour later, a new song and a new approach to guitar playing had been invented.
All of the tablatures for this song get it dead wrong, as usual! Watch the above video and you’ll see he is playing those pitches away from the neck completely, up by the pickups! It’ll take a little bit of practice, but once you have it, it’s a whole new realm of notes to add to your arsenal. Simple and really, really effective.
Get the Laptop Out
We’ve gone back to Radiohead’s mad scientist, Jonny Greenwood, for perhaps the most polarising of techniques in our list. This will either rock your world or make you sneer with disgust. For this live performance, Greenwood has incorporated a laptop into his guitar set up. It’s running a piece of software called Max MSP (available as Max for Live with Ableton and similar to Native Instruments’ Reaktor, though not the same), and the patch he is playing was programmed by him. It’s a pretty random sounding sample and re-trigger algorithm and it means that whatever he’s playing gets chopped up and stuttered back out as off-kilter groupings of sampled notes.
You can hear it on Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief record, but in a much less blatant and forceful way. We’ve decided to share this fan-footage because it’s important to really see this sound in action! Whether you like it or not, it’s inventive, next-level stuff!
Play Guitar With a Drumstick
This is without a doubt our favourite selection today. How could using a simple drumstick and reverb turn your guitar into a haunted choir? You have to hear this...
This video says it all really, so there isn’t much further need for comment from us! Suffice to say that there are a lot of musical situations where this sound could be really effective. It’s so simple, so easy to practice and is all about individual expression. Give it a go!
Hopefully we have shown here today that, with a little invention, you can completely transform not only your guitar sound, but your very approach to the instrument. Altering how we hold it, touch it (or not, as it sometimes is here...) and changing our expectations about how it’s going to sound can lead to some worthwhile breakthroughs. New concepts are only an idea away! We can’t wait to hear what you come up with!
Thanks for reading