It’s not often that we review guitars in SOS, but the Aum guitar, brainchild of Gareth Whittock, is such a radical departure from what we have come to recognise as a guitar that I thought it warranted a closer look. Gareth, who is now based in France, builds the instruments to order — you pay 50 percent up front and the rest upon completion of the build. The buyer can specify the type of (sustainably sourced) wood used and other small details too. But what actually is an Aum guitar?
You’ll notice from the photo that the instrument has a set of four strings sitting alongside two longer bass strings. While there are inlaid brass fret markers there are no actual frets, and if you just plug into an amp and strum the guitar you’ll hear virtually nothing. The reason for that is that the Aum guitar is designed specifically to be played using an eBow (which is not included). In place of pickups, it has two large sensor coils with no magnets — the magnetic drive from the eBow is what produces the electrical output. These sensor coils run from near the bridge to around half way along the neck, which means that you don’t get any violent ‘hot spots’ near the pickups as you do when using an eBow with a conventional electric guitar.
...the Aum guitar is designed specifically to be played using an eBow...
I’ve been experimenting with fretless guitar and eBow for a while now and I really like the results, but the Aum guitar is designed to be played very differently. The action is higher than that of a normal guitar — almost like one that’s been set up for slide playing — and rather than press the strings onto the fingerboard, which you can do if you really must, the idea is that you just touch the strings fairly lightly above the fret markers, rather like playing a Chinese Erhu. The strings themselves are made from harpsichord string material, which has the right magnetic properties to make all this work, and although all the strings are playable, you can get most of what you need from the middle two of the four strings, using the outer strings as guides for the eBow.
The sounds that can be coaxed out of an Aum guitar are very evocative and can get close to the sound of some eastern wind instruments.
Vibrato is achieved by pressing the string down towards the fingerboard, sitar style, rather than the more usual guitar techniques. To get the notes to take off quickly, the eBow needs to be positioned roughly an octave above the note your are playing and it also helps if your fingertips have built up a little hardness from regular guitar playing. That said, I had no problem getting it to work despite playing far less then usual during the Covid lockdown period!
The bottom two strings handle bass duties and I find are best used as drones, and that’s particularly effective if they’re captured in a looper pedal, as you can then improvise over them with the other strings. As standard, the bass strings are tuned to octaves of E and the main four strings are the same as the top four strings on a regular guitar, though of course you can retune them to whatever you like.
It does take a while to get used to this instrument, but the sounds that can be coaxed out of an Aum guitar are very evocative and can get close to the sound of some eastern wind instruments. Using the harmonic switch on an eBow makes it possible to create almost shakuhachi‑like phrases. Add a bit of reverb and the overall vibe is very trippy, as Gareth’s YouTube videos ably demonstrate (https://aumguitars.co.uk/?page_id=21).
In summary, the Aum guitar is a uniquely quirky instrument, which is beautifully made and can produce sounds that you’re unlikely to hear from any other type of guitar. If you are an experimental guitar player, it is well worth a closer look.