A prepared guitar is a guitar which has had its timbre altered by placing various objects on or between the instrument's strings, including other extended techniques. This practice is sometimes called tabletop guitar, because many prepared guitarists do not hold the instrument in the usual manner, but instead place the guitar on a table in order to manipulate it.
Though rarely classified as a "preparation", but more as an extended technique
, the slide guitar
technique, used since at least the early 1900s, deserves mention here. Playing a guitar with a metal or glass slide subtly, but fundamentally, changes the character of the instrument: for example, one can play a true glissando
with a slide, but this is otherwise impossible to such a degree on a fretted
instrument. A glissando can be achieved through string bending, but few guitarists can achieve bends of more than two and a half tones in magnitude.
However, with prepared guitars one of the key goals in preparing the instrument is changing its timbre – the fundamental quality of the sound. This is typically achieved by placing objects on or under the strings. The objects can have a tone of their own, like for instance a pencil spring, but can also cause strange string resonance effects or behave like a seesaw and create echoing effects after being struck and swinging like a balance.
The method of actually preparing the guitar was developed in the late 1960s by Keith Rowe
, in imitation of John Cage
's prepared piano
. Rowe developed various prepared guitar techniques: placing the guitar flat on a table and manipulating the strings, body and pickups in unorthodox ways to produce sounds described as dark, brooding, compelling, expansive and alien. He has been known to employ objects such as a library card, rubber eraser, springs, hand-held electric fans, alligator clips, and common office supplies in playing the guitar.
Another pioneer was Fred Frith
. In 1974 he released a solo album
called Guitar Solos
. The album comprises eight tracks of unaccompanied and improvised
music played on prepared guitars by Frith.
The album was recorded using a modified 1936 Gibson K-11
. Frith added an extra pickup
over the strings at the nut
, enabling him to amplify sound from both sides of the fretted
note. He then split the fretboard
in two with a capo
, effectively giving him two guitars, each amplified separately, that he could play independently with each hand. To split the sounds further he attached alligator clips
at various positions on the strings. The net result was a guitar with multiple sound sources that could be channeled to a mixer
and distributed across the stereo soundscape
Other prepared guitarists
In the 1980s Glenn Branca
, Sonic Youth
and other experimental art rockers
also utilized prepared guitars, as have classical guitarists such as the Elgart/Yates Duo, who have also written a pamphlet on the subject: Prepared Guitar Techniques
More recent composers for the prepared guitar include Nikita Koshkin
, using cork, matches and foam mutes; Phillipe Drogoz using wire and knitting needles; and Stephen Funk Pearson, using Bic pens placed underneath the strings at the 12th fret.
Custom made instruments
Fred Frith was one of the first guitarists to work with self-made instruments, such as one made of an old door with tuning pegs, strings and pickups on it.
Beginning in the 1970s, guitarist and luthier Hans Reichel made some unusual guitars with third bridge-like qualities.
Bradford Reed (pencilina), Glenn Branca, Fred Frith and the band Neptune also made other individually different types of experimental third bridge guitars.
Famous prepared guitar players
in alphabetic order:
- Prepared Guitar Techniques - Matthew Elgart/Peter Yates (Elgart/Yates Guitar Duo) ISBN 0-939297-88-4, California Guitar Archives, 1990