LessonFace with Duane Denison: Sonic Exploration and Guitar Preparation

by Duane Denison
Posted May 1, 2014 at 12:24pm

Duane Denison, long-time educator and world-renowned guitarist of the Jesus Lizard, Tomahawk and the Unsemble, is now scheduling live online one-on-one and group lessons at Lessonface Below, Denison shares some simple guitar preparations.

Today's lesson is something a little different. We're not going to do chords, notes or theory.

We're going to concentrate instead on what we'll call sonic exploration. In particular, we're going to come at it from the angle of what's become known as prepared guitar.

The concept of “preparing” instruments comes from the composer John Cage, back in the 1950s. He began by writing a series of pieces for piano. He would take a grand piano and put objects — found objects, hardware, various apparatus, in between, on, over and under the strings, producing all sorts of interesting sonic and percussive effects and changing the sound of the instrument without relying on electronics or other things like that.

It wasn't long after that that people began applying the preparations to other instruments, one of them being the guitar. Being a stringed instrument, it lends itself well to preparing. So for today, I'm just going to show you a couple of basic things you can do, things that I've done over the years, and we'll see what you think.

Twist Tie Guitar Preparation

First we're going to do a guitar preparation with a basic twist tie. I'm using a plastic one, but you can use the ones that have the metal wire running through them. What I find works is to thread it between the strings.

Typically, I do an over-under technique, where I start under the bottom string, the sixth, go over the fifth, under the fourth, over the third, under the second and over the first. So you're really weaving it between the strings. Then what happens is anything from there down is affected by the preparation.

Play it and you get a metallic, percussive clanging sound. Kind of cool, right? You can really go wild with it if you turn up your volume and add some percussive effects.

Keep in mind that anything you play above the twist tie sounds relatively normal, whereas anything under it sounds, well, not normal. So at that point, the guitar becomes part of the percussive section, instead of a melodic lead instrument. And that's kind of a nice place to be, sometimes, for a change of pace.

Snare Guitar Preparation

This next thing I'm going to do I call the snare guitar. We're not going to put anything on or around the strings for this one, but manipulate them manually. This was shown to me years ago by a flamenco guitarist named Juan Serrano, who used to give me lessons when I was in high school in Detroit. It made quite an impression on me, and I've used it in recordings a few times over the years.

Here's how it works: You're basically just creating a snare, usually on the bottom two strings, though you can really do it on any two.

Start with your right hand and put your fingernail underneath the sixth string. Grab onto the fifth string, the adjacent string above it, with your nail, then flip the top, low string over, while keeping your finger wedged in the middle. Now pull down to your desired fret. We're going to go to the seventh fret. Then you have to hold on to it, with a finger of your left hand. Hold on tight, because if you move, you'll lose the snare.

Now the strings are basically wound around each other, and we've created a snare.

You can play it muted or play it open for it to rattle, and be a bit brighter. While you have it held, you can move your fingers around a little bit on that string and get a change of pitch. That's kind of neat, isn't it? While you're holding it, you also can get the fourth and third and create a snare there at the same time. Now I can do something a little more choppy and alternate between the two.

It's a very earthy and primitive sort of thing. I'm playing clean, through an amp. With effects and distortion, there's no telling where you might go.

You also can do this on the top strings, but that sounds kind of like a mistake. If fact, people might think it's a mistake anyway. I've played this in jam sessions and had people ask me if there was something wrong with my guitar. You can tell them, “No, I'm playing snare guitar, and it was shown to me by Duane Denison.”

Let's do another setup with this. I'm going to start with the third and fourth, pull the third string around the fourth one and pull down to the fifth fret and hold it there. At the same time, I'm going to wrap around here, and then go to the eighth fret here. So now, the little finger is now on the other side.

It never sounds the same way twice. It's an interesting thing. Same thing with the twist tie — you don't have to thread it the same way. You can go over under, or under over — or whatever. There's an element of chance to it that I think conceptually is interesting. The fact that it's not precise or perfect, and it's not going to be the same every time, is what makes it interesting, and like, well, life itself. So have fun with it!

Duane Denison of the Jesus Lizard, Tomahawk and the Unsemble, is a renowned guitarist, one of Spin magazine's “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time," and a longtime educator who is now teaching live lessons over high-performance video conference via Lessonface.

Denison first came to public notice through his work with Chicago-based alternative rock band the Jesus Lizard, whose albums Goat and Liar made Rolling Stone's "Top 100 Albums of the Nineties" list. He has since gone on to perform and record with a variety of bands and artists, including Tomahawk, the Unsemble, Hank Williams III, Beverley Knight and numerous others.

He holds a bachelor's degree in music from Eastern Michigan University and has studied guitar with Juan Serrano and Paul Warren, among others. Denison began performing with local rock outfits at age 15 and within a few years was teaching guitar.

Limited enrollment is open for live online group guitar class with Denison in Modern Rock Guitar, which starts June 26. Learn more here.