Tap into Chaos – Premier Guitar

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How does a guitarist emulate the sonic polyrhythms of Zambian Kalumbu or Kalahari N! Laud (probably the ancestors of Brazilian berimbau) or the cascading atonal lines and shattering clusters of pianist Cecil Taylor?

As a 17-year-old science geek attending a summer scholarship in 1968 as a science assistant, I flourished with a late-night DJ gig on WRCT, the campus station. My ear focused on much more than guitar music (although my newly acquired Hagström III was my main passion). I was trying to translate my limited chops into creating sounds that aren’t normally produced by a guitarist approach, but still rely on the uniqueness of the instrument as a resonant body.

My experiences included the use of slides, springs and other objects, but because I had studied piano as a child (under duress), I imagined that I could apply the piano technique in pairs. hands on guitar. Ignoring the virtuoso interpretations of two-handed standards by Italian innovator Vittorio Camardese or even Tal Farlow’s use of a well-placed thumb or index finger on his right hand, I started typing a bit at random .

As I built strength and ease for the left hand, the tapping gained clarity and purpose. The strings produced a rich twang and dancing overtones. By focusing on tapping on specific areas of an open low E, I found that I could emphasize the melodic potential of the harmonic series which, in its upper parts, produced untempered intervals, in outside the normal western concept of intonation. By adding a wah in the signal path, the mobile filter could focus more on these melodies as well as add rhythmic modulation that brought me closer to my initial inspirations.

As I added more fingers of my right hand to the technique, it became more pianistic with tapping spread across the key. Big jumps, fleet lines and clusters all became simple as I found myself playing in unpredictable realms. In 1977, these techniques were fully integrated into my approach to the guitar. In 1985, after learning the work of Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal geometry of nature, I began to compare the different actions of an impromptu journey to states of flux, strange attractors and chaotic. In addition to using these techniques in my solo work and ensemble improvisations, I began to devise methods for noting them. My first attempt, made in the composition “Holologo”, was published in Guitarist revised in 1986.

In 2003, for his Extreme guitar project, classical guitarist Marco Cappelli had a custom-built guitar built to his specifications that included two sets of resonant strings in addition to a normal neck. He commissioned a number of songwriters to create songs, and the resulting album was released on Mode.

My score for Marco, “Amygdala”, uses open D minor tuning (DADFAD) and a variety of tapping approaches as well as other extended techniques. Marco wanted to be able to play the piece on a regular guitar, so I wrote a modified score with extra staff for right hand activities.

You can download the sheet music here.

In 2008 Marco recorded this live performance of “Amygdala”.

In measure 4 (Ex. 1), the fretting hand maintains the two-note ostinato while the picking hand (using the index finger) first taps an upward slide, followed in bars 5 and 6 by a series of Slows leading to quarter notes on the 4th and 6th strings, which move freely up and down the string. Depending on the strength of your attack, you will hear different upper partials, ringing harmonics, open strings.


In Ex. 2, we start to zoom in on the harmonic chart for measure 8, with the two indexes used to type in a pitch and then drag it into a held note. In bar 9, the fretting hand brushes the open strings, followed by the index finger of the picking hand brushing the strings with the other hand held gently on the strings at the 6th fret to produce the indicated harmonics.

In bar 10, the two majors alternate, starting with the boxes indicated: 12, 9 and 7 for the fretting hand; 19, 19 and 12 for the picking hand. By varying the intensity of the tap to generate different harmonics, the fingers slowly move from the bridge to the nut.


We are in a flow state at measure 14 in Ex. 3. Both hands focus solely on the D octave and producing harmonics. Once in measure 15, the picking hand continues to tap the overtones of the open 4th string while the other hand taps and slides the written melody, which serves as the source material for the variations. Feel free to let the notes find your fingers! Let the gesture carry you.


In bar 17 (Ex. 4), both hands clap and slide forcefully – target notes are open as desired or whim. It could be likened to a chaotic state. It should still be rhythmic and groovy and should speed up during the section to a new tempo of 140 bpm in bar 18.


Returning to the theory of chaos, in Ex. 5 we enter the realm of the strange attractor in bar 18 where two fingers of each hand forcefully tap the open strings shown near the bridge (sul ponticello) to produce a nasal percussive sound. The position of the fingers can be moved slightly up and down on the strings to generate changing arrays of harmonics.


Return to a state of flux with Ex. 6. Each of the modules can be repeated for as long as they want and the player can move freely between the modules. The groove should be maintained, but the tempo can go up or down within a range of 120-140 bpm. Open strings may be allowed to sound. Varying the dynamics will vary the harmonics, but should remain within the range of strong. The effect will be a change in the direction of where the “one” is and the harmonic spectrum of the passage. The player can feel free to switch from stopped strings to open strings, while still maintaining the patterns and groove.


In Ex. 7, the penultimate measure 30, the noteheads indicate the pitch variability. All notes can be used. With practice, the player can generate patterns based on visual sequences on the sideline … or just randomness. Don’t be afraid to go wild because you might be surprised at the results. We could think of this section as a perfect balance between chaos and flow.



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