Prepare Your Guitar: Mutes, Capos, and Other Devices Open up a Wonderland of New Sound
by Giacomo Fiore
In 1940, dancer Syvilla Fort asked American composer John Cage, a colleague of hers at the Cornish School in Seattle, to provide music for a choreography. Since the performance space was too small to fit Cage’s typical array of percussion instruments at the time, the composer turned to the grand piano in the room, inserting pieces of weather stripping among the strings to change its timbre into a range of percussive effects. Thus, the so-called “prepared piano” was born—in the following decade, Cage developed different kinds of preparation schemes, several unique to the more than two-dozen pieces he composed for the instrument.
By the 1960s, the idea of using foreign objects to alter the timbre of an instrument in a non-permanent fashion spilled over to the guitar world, mainly thanks to the efforts of composers such as Bjørn Fongaard (Norway, 1919–1980) and improvisers like Keith Rowe (b. 1940, of AMM fame). Though both of these early examples belong in the avant-garde and experimental fields, respectively, over time preparations of various kinds have become more common, gradually entering the mainstream.
Oh Capo My Capo
Before considering some of the more esoteric modifications, there is a simple preparation that almost every guitarist, classical or otherwise, is likely to have used at some point. The capo (or capotasto), though used most often for harmonic or playability considerations, has the added effect of altering the instrument’s resonance in a remarkable way. The tone of a capo’d guitar is lighter, clearer, somehow reminiscent of shorter-scale, shallower-bodied instruments like the ukulele, requinto, and mandolin.
A brilliant example of the use of the capo as a compositional device is Bryan Johanson’s Magic Serenade. In this piece, a capo is placed between the sixth and seventh fret, resulting in two sounding lengths for each string. The portion of string between the seventh fret and the bridge is played conventionally, whereas the length from nut to fret six is plucked occasionally by the left hand alone to produce mysterious-sounding bi-tones.
William Kanengiser performs Magic Serenade.
The Sound of Distant Lands
Several composers have turned to preparations to evoke the timbre of non-Western instruments. A popular piece in the ensemble literature, Leo Brouwer’s Cuban Landscape with Rumba (Ricordi, 1985) fuses Afro-Cuban rhythmic invention with repeating structures influenced by US minimalism. For the first half of the piece, all four guitars employ different kinds of mutes, including strips of paper, cardboard violin mutes, and pairs of matchsticks, which result in an alteration of the timbre (and to some extent, the pitch) of the prescribed notes, yielding a driving, percussive sonority.
Quatuor Fandango’s recording of Cuban Landscape with Rumba
In No. 5 of his “Seven Little Secrets” on Mysterious Habits (GSP, 1995), Dušan Bogdanovic references the sound of Southeast Asian gamelans (percussion ensembles) by coupling adjacent strings with staples, placed close to the bridge. Once again, the preparation affects both tone and intonation, evoking the characteristic “mistuned” sound of these orchestras of idiophones in combination with Bogdanovic’s typically polyphonic writing.
More recently, I was directly involved with the creation of a prepared guitar piece when I commissioned Kenji Oh, a composition graduate from the San Francisco Conservatory (where I teach music history), for a new guitar piece. Originally from Japan, Oh had been incorporating the aesthetic principle of sawari (loosely translated as “obstacle”), a feature exemplified in the relative high noise/tone ratio of many traditional Japanese musical instruments. For example the biwa, a kind of short-necked lute, features a wide nut and tall frets that are designed to produce an inevitably buzzing tone alongside each played “note,” for expressive purposes.
Oh had taken to building little “sawari units” to use in his composition for strings; not surprisingly, he devised one for our guitar piece, consisting of a combination of a rubber band, plus thin strips of paper (to cut down resonance), as well as three connected paper clips, left to vibrate against the guitar soundboard each time a string is plucked. In addition, the guitar undergoes a rather extreme scordatura: low to high, the strings are tuned Bb–Bb–Eb–F–Bb–Bb, with the low pair of B-flats an octave apart (thus requiring both low and high E string to be detuned by a tritone). The very low tension of the strings allows for wide, expressive vibrato, while also bringing the guitar’s tone much closer to its distant Japanese cousin.
Inspired by the Kabuki play of the same name, and featuring a range of extended techniques beyond the preparations, the five-movement Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura (2014) proved to be a challenging, but ultimately rewarding adventure away from the conventional side of guitar-playing.
Fiore performs a movement of Oh’s Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura.
Don’t Fear the Weaver
Those who have invested in a concert guitar may feel reticent to affix any kind of object—some of them downright threatening, like screws or alligator clips—to their prized instrument. Though most preparations are perfectly safe if done carefully, the more squeamish (or ham-fisted) may want to choose a less expensive instrument for their first steps in prepared guitar land, or alternatively stick to more forgiving preparation materials.
Paper, inert putty, and pipe cleaners are all safe for your guitar’s finish, while also yielding dramatic timbral results: Try affixing a pipe cleaner to a string, and then moving it to different positions to hear the difference. Small variations in the density, weight, and placement of the object are all going to affect the resulting tone in surprising ways.
However, this wide variation also enables one to forgo metal preparations, and obtain similar results with an alternative approach.
Even without guidance, a pocketful of change’s worth of hardware store materials and an exploring attitude is all that is needed to embark on a journey beyond your instrument’s familiar sound, one that may well offer sweeping vistas onto refreshing and unexpected soundscapes.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.
The issue also features Roland Dyens, Manuel Molina, a special focus on guitar education, news, reviews (CDs, sheet music, and live concerts), and much more.