Danielle O'Hallisey

electronic guitar, scoring for visual media

New Toys and the Band of Plenty

I call myself an electronic guitarist, an affectation intended to convey my fascination with a world of sound beyond that produced by my instrument alone or even by that instrument in tandem with the well-known world of audio effects like distortion, compression and delay.  My setup includes—depending on the demands of the music and the venue—the Moog über-sustaining guitar, Roland VG-99 (sort of) synth, a monophonic guitar synth from Electro-Harmonix, four utterly dissimilar Midi controllers (five if you include the VG’s unreliable Midi output), computer with Ableton Live and mad numbers of plug-ins and custom hacks; lots and lots of ways to mangle the output of my guitar into a bold new world of music madness.  It never gets old to me, and can absorb relatively lengthy chunks of time as I look for, say, a way to map the envelope of my signal to the input of an analog effect, routed tortuously through a string of converters, software, and Midi-to-CV devices. 

So it probably will be a bit of a surprise when I say that I have a fairly stodgy policy on the acquisition of “new toys” these days.  Not that I won’t buy something new, or at least while away my time looking; but I had a realization awhile back that left me with my first and so‑far only “Rule of Acquisition”:

A new piece of kit will, on average, absorb 100 hours of your valuable time before it becomes an asset to your sound.

“Blasphemy!” you say.  Alright, remember that I’m not talking about going out and swapping one fuzz tone for another, or picking up a new compressor.  That’s fairly stock stuff these days and if you’ve owned one, you will already know what you need to do to integrate a different one into your setup.  I’m talking about that VG business, or Midi controllers that can produce a pop or a squeak right out of the box but need you to download, install, connect and suss out a piece of editing software before they can make you sound like Moby, or anything requiring you to learn new gestures, methods, or techniques to really put it to full use.

The origin of this *wisdom* was a collaboration a couple of years ago, when I got the opportunity to work with a guy I’d known a long while and had always loved his writing.  His business acumen was well-known in worlds other than music and as he had come into his own, he had decided to devote a fairly substantial portion of his financial resources to building a great studio, outfitted with the very best and—in many cases—esoteric equipment.

It was in that band that I first laid my hands on the Roland VG-99, and wow, did that ever change my outlook on my instrument.  Not only does the thing create dozens of weird synthetic sounds, it also turns any guitar into, roughly, any other guitar (read more about that on the Roland website or listen to any of the reviews on YouTube to see what I mean).  Imagine then, showing up for band practice and having someone hand you a pristine PRS guitar hooked up to one of these things, and saying, “This is yours to use in this band!”  Yeah, heaven, right?

Unfortunately though, you have to figure the thing out.  Which means tweaking the programs, mangling the sounds, messing things up a bit then recovering from the corner you’ve painted yourself into.  And if you’re playing any demanding part on a guitar you’ll need to practice with that instrument more than once a week (at least I do!) so your fingers find their way around the neck with familiar comfort.  Soon I realized that I needed to haul it home every week (the VG) and plug it into my own guitar to start learning the controls.  Then I knew I was in love and bought my own so I could fully customize the sounds.  The learning curve was steep and long on that one.  It wasn’t until I had some minor leg surgery and spent a full week in my studio, turning knobs and really getting to know my way around the thing, that I came away ready to perform on it; calling up a nylon-string guitar with synth pad overlay at a moment’s notice when called for, switching to a perfect knockoff of the Jimi Hendrix Little Wing tone, mid‑tune.

Success, victory, game over, right?  Well my friend and collaborator had the bug.  One week we’d show up and a brand new V-Drum kit would be sitting there, needing to be cared for, learned about, programmed, massaged, memorized; the next week there’d be a massively powerful synth with a million sounds and twice as many ways to control them.  Vocoders, plug-ins, new guitars, basses and effects and, and… we were living in a utopic world of music-mania with the one and only simple, teensy problem that… we never got anything done!! 

Yeah that’s it; I’m complaining about being in the position of having too much food in my mouth when the rest of the world was starving.  But (to milk that metaphor) imagine if you kept having someone else cramming the food between your teeth but you never had the time to chew.  We’d made some great music with acoustic guitars, a piano and this writer’s intriguing lyrics and voice.  And now we were swimming in a pool filled with new toys but no water.

This did not end well.  No more about that, sorry, I don’t want to go into it.  But I learned that my own insatiable want for the implements of noise needed to be reined in.  Not only because of my more‑limited financial resources once I’d moved on from the “band of plenty.”  More importantly, because in order to make music I needed to focus on the music more than the sound, the sound more than the equipment.  And ultimately that stuff only flows when the technical has had enough time to become second nature, and the musical nature of the people in the band is free and standing front and center.

Next time, “Electronic Guitar; What’s Up With That?”

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