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Forget About Being a “Guitar Player” & Just Express Yourself

This column originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.

By Alex Henry Foster

It’s always very humbling for me to be invited to share about gear, especially as it offers me the incredible opportunity to commune how I perceive the contribution of whatever instrument I use to give life to my musical creations, or what I may envision in terms of creative shapes and forms.

Let me start by saying that I am not a guitar player, nor do I pretend to be one. On the contrary, that total freedom is the sole reason I can use guitars in all sorts of unorthodox ways. It offers me the limitless possibilities to dwell on a moment without having to remind myself that I’m supposed to be playing either chords or notes. These don’t mean anything to me, I leave that to the other musicians. For me, it’s about what serves the emotions, not about what is used and how it is used. It’s the sonic textures that I’m obsessed with, the waves of feedback, the fragile balance between the power of electricity and the vulnerability of the emotion. I wouldn’t be able to play a chord if my life depended on it, and why would I? The world doesn’t need another badly-executed “Stairway to Heaven,” trust me. I might have discreetly tried it in the past, though…

The most difficult part in sonic textures is to find your own voice; what moves you. Otherwise, it’s only chaos and noises. Not that I don’t like it, but it’s a pretty limited language when you want to convey a larger palette of colours in your songs. I’ve used several guitars and used to play with two Fender Jazzmasters (the Jazzmaster HH and Jazzmaster Troy Van Leeuwen signature) and this was great for a time. I tried the Rickenbacker Model 620 and it sounded terrible, just like every custom Duesenberg Starplayer TV we have. Don’t get me wrong, they are awesome guitars, but I wasn’t able to hear it — that little thing I am probably the only one to hear. And the more I wanted to explore that language, the more frustrating it became. That is, until I discovered the Eastwood Warren Ellis signature guitars. The real fun was about to begin…

I had the chance to talk with Warren, who happened to rehearse with the Bad Seeds next door to where I was in London a few years ago. I was intrigued by the sound I could hear, a blend of violin and distortion, which seemed to perfectly flow within the feedback and to sonically undulate like a stream of pure controlled energy, in a subtle yet singular personality. It sounded great in the context of Nick Cave’s music, of course. But it’s once I used it within my own context that I discovered a new dimension to those guitars. Blended with my Orange Thunderverb 200 head and my Earthquaker Devices pedals setup, it was a distinct dialect all of a sudden. The pickup on the Eastwood Warren Ellis Mandostang was vibrating dissimilarly depending on how I interacted with my amps and effects, unlocking a whole new spectrum of sounds. I couldn’t believe how something so small could be so versatile for someone who had no idea what it was initially created for.

That discovery led me to the Eastwood Warren Ellis Tenor and Tenor Baritone, which I started using with sliders by pure accident as I was trying to reproduce a certain wave sound processed through a reverse delay. Although it wasn’t what I was looking for, the tone that came out was so uplifting to me that I started exploring that combination of four strings and slider a whole lot more. I ended up alternating the slider on both the neck and the bridge pickups. I don’t care how a slider should be used, as long as I can hear the wavelengths I am looking for. No matter if I used the brass or glass sliders, it has always been about the sound, without fail. From a smooth and silky sound, to a higher grinding tone and a sharp squealing noise, as long as it serves the song and its emotions, the rest is for scholars to say I was wrong. And since I am no guitar player, I can do pretty much whatever I want with whatever gear of mine, right?!

I don’t know if this was instructive for anyone who wants to be the next guitar hero, but I guess the point I’m trying to make is this: As long as it suits the language with which you want to express yourself and connect with people, the rest doesn’t really matter. The more you explore, the more that voice of yours will enrich its vocabulary and colours for others to hear and see. Dwell on the sounds and have fun!

My Rig

Pedalboard:
• Earthquaker Devices Afterneath V3
• Earthquaker Devices Avalanche Run V2
• Earthquaker Devices Sea Machine V3
• Earthquaker Devices Aqueduct
• Homebrew Electronics Power Screamer
• Homebrew Electronics Uno Mos

Guitars:
• Eastwood Warren Ellis Tenor
• Eastwood Warren Ellis Tenor Baritone
• Eastwood Warren Ellis Mandostang
• Eastwood Airline Lap Steel Pro
• Fender Jazzmaster Troy Van Leeuwen
• Fender Jazzmaster HH
• Fender Jaguar Vintera ‘60s Modi ed HH

Amps:
• Orange Thunderverb 200 Head
• Mack Amps 1x12 Cabinet


Alex Henry Foster is a Montreal-based singer, musician, writer, and activist who fronts the Juno-nominated alternative band Your Favorite Enemies. His solo debut LP, Windows in the Sky, was released in 2018 on Hopeful Tragedy Records, and he recently released Standing Under Bright Lights, a triple LP and DVD from his sold-out concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival. www.alexhenryfoster.com.

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