Electricity can do strange things.
When it was added to the guitar, some years ago, it opened up new possibilities for players of the old box o’ six strings.
The following sonic scientists, using varying proportions of technique and effects, set out to discover just what these possibilities were.
The result? Guitars that don’t sound like guitars!
10. Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago”
This is a rare occasion—Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck playing guitar together in the Yardbirds. Before the solo kicks in, the two guitar heroes, in tandem, unleash 15 seconds of controlled feedback that sounds like an air-raid siren. Think context: this was the 1960s, before everyone started using signal processing.
09. Johnny Marr “How Soon is Now?”
What is that pulsing sound in the Smiths' coolest song? Marr cranking the tremolo setting on his Fender Twin to make his one-chord riff sound like an automated machine. Actually, the effect was studio enhanced: he re-recorded the part with five twins.
08. Eddie Van Halen, “Eruption”
Again, it’s the context, man. In 1978, Eddie’s fingerboard tapping and whammy-bar divebombs were like the shape of video-game soundtracks for years to come. Then, of course, every guitarist in L.A. jumped on the bandwagon, and before long things got much more sophisticated than Space Invaders.
07. Paul Gilbert, “Solo” from Live Extreme, Vol. 1
Some players use effects as tools. Paul Gilbert uses tools as effects. One pick wasn’t enough to get the tremelo-picking sound he wanted. The solution? A cordless drill, on whose bit were mounted three picks. This produces overtones that make it sound as if he’s playing in unison with himself, if that makes sense.
06. Tom Morello, “Revolver”
The intro sounds like R2D2 on a bad trip, while the start of the solo calls to mind a factory treadmill. It just goes to show that if you give a man a DigiTech Whammy pedal, an Ibanez Talman with a sturdy toggle switch and few Allen wrenches, he can make all the same noises as a turntablist—and then some.
05. Buckethead, “Dead Man Walking”
From Praxis Transmutation, this is the next level of video-game soundtracks played by electric guitar. The masked man’s hyper-frenetic tapping here out-blips a computer in heat.
04. Jimi Hendrix, “The Star Spangled Banner”
Jimi performed this at the height of the Vietnam War, and his revolutionary use of feedback and tremolo bar was the perfect musical correlative to “bombs bursting in air.” When you first listened to this, did your mom come into the room and ask if the stereo was broken?
03. Steve Vai, “Next Stop Earth”
From his solo-debut, Flex-Able, this gem finds Vai imitating the inflections of a human voice via finger slides, micro-bends and a wah pedal. Can you tell he used to play with Zappa?
02. Fred Frith, “Should Old Arthur”
On his 1974 album, Guitar Solos, this former member of obscure prog-rockers Henry Cow pioneered the concept of “preparing” guitars: tuning them to unorthodox pitches, attaching alligator clips to the strings, and playing them by any means other than picking. This particular track sounds like a drunken ghost talking.
01. Adrian Belew, “Elephant Talk”
When Belew joined Robert Fripp’s reformed King Crimson for 1981’s Discipline, he stunned guitarists by harnessing the effects in his rack to sound like a herd of animals. In this case, an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff running into a Deluxe Electric Mistress flanger helps transform a guitar into a roaring elephant.