Keyboard players have access to just about any sound imaginable. But guitars, no matter how much you distort them, tend to sound pretty much like guitars unless you do something radical with pedals, like feeding them through a slow‑attack effect or a shimmery reverb. However, there’s something about the organic way in which a guitar note evolves that keyboards can’t really replicate. Combine that with the way the timbre changes with playing intensity, or when changing from pick to fingers, and you have a form of expression that is very hard to recreate artificially.
That said, those of us who play guitar but want to explore new sounds can push the boundaries a little by using an EBow. For those unfamiliar with the device, it is a small plastic‑cased gadget, powered by a 9V battery, and when it’s hovered over a guitar string, it causes it to vibrate. It does this by picking up the sound from the string, amplifying it, then feeding it back onto the string using an electromagnetic transducer that works a bit like a pickup in reverse. The outcome is indefinite sustain, and an attack time that can be varied depending on how close the device is to the string and where on the string you place it. You can change the harmonic content of the sound by moving to different positions along the length of the string, though if you move too close to the currently active pickup, you can be met by a dramatically increased volume level.
There’s also the possibility of creating atmospheric squeals and buzzes by allowing the string to vibrate against the underside of the EBow. You can use an EBow with an acoustic guitar too so there’s plenty to experiment with. The key thing is that by moving away from the traditional ‘sharp attack followed by decay’ sound of a guitar, you can create a whole new set of synth‑like sounds that can be shaped in lots of ways using filters and effects.
On its own the sound from the EBow can be a bit sterile, but it leaps into life when treated with a bit of reverb and/or delay.
The way the EBow is built means that it can only excite one string at a time, though you can slide it sideways to move between strings to create arpeggios. I don’t find its largely monophonic nature a limitation in the studio though, as chords can be built up by recording parts onto different tracks. On its own the sound from the EBow can be a bit sterile, but it leaps into life when treated with a bit of reverb and/or delay. Add some octave shifts and rotary speaker simulation and you have a decent organ substitute; add shimmer reverb plus a touch of chorus and you have strings.
One of my more successful lockdown experiments was to convert an old Epiphone Les Paul Junior into a fretless guitar, specifically so I could play it using an EBow without the limitations imposed by chromatic frets. It took about 10 minutes to remove the old frets, half an hour to replace them with slivers of plastic cut from a plant pot marker, and five more minutes to run superglue either side of them to hold them in place. When the glue had hardened, I sanded the whole fingerboard using abrasive paper fixed to the edge of a long spirit level so the plastic fret markers could be seen but not felt. I restrung the guitar, recut the nut, and in a little over an hour I was playing with my new toy.
I found that the range of sounds I could create using my EBow was now much wider thanks to the ability to slide between notes. Isn’t pitching on a fretless guitar a bit tricky, you might ask? Actually it’s not as hard as you might think when you’ve got visual frets to guide you, as long as you are only playing single lines — just don’t ask me to play chords on it! If the pitching isn’t quite tight enough, a slow application of Auto‑Tune will usually get you out of trouble. Depending on the playing style and the added effects, the result can sound like strings, an etherial Eastern flute, or a haunting voice.