Without giving too much way, during Michael Teager and my interview with Echoes’ host John Diliberto we happened upon the subject of my effects boxes, pedals, etc… (partially pictured above) – Where, for the first time, I really explained what I was trying to do out loud, or not in writing with all kinds of musicological references. Like for the first time, as I talked about it, I realized for me, all of my drone ambient work, and even the guitar work that I laid down on Convocation was really, for me, my own symphony… I jokingly called it the Matt Borghi Symphony Orchestra, or the Matt Borghi Municipal Band.
Anybody who has ever come talked to me after a performance knows that I’m less than enthusiastic to talk about gear. For me, gear is the necessary evil, the means to an end, and I get that people are into it, sometimes, I’m into it, but the focal point of the performance is the music not the tools that helped me make it. Tools are just objects, but when put in the hands of a craftsperson, those tools can create objects and experiences of beauty, so it’s with that in mind, that I really wanted to take a minute and talk about the guitar, the “ambient guitar” we took to calling it over the course of the Echoes interview.
I never really set out to be an ambient guitarist. If anything I wanted to write piano music like Claude Debussy, but since I couldn’t play piano, nor could I commit to the decades of musical training that was requisite for playing the piano pieces I so loved, I started trying to do with guitar. I started with classical guitar first, not enough sustain. I then began with steel string acoustic, my primary instrument (even now) and alternate tunings. That was closer. I was starting to get that music that was more awash in sound less with a tonal center – Fugues of a sort. Still not perfect, though. Michael Hedges was getting close, but he had lots of studio production, I thought. I did not. I bought an Alesis Nanoverb to record some Bach Minuets and needed a little room reverb, but then I turned up the plate reverb and everything was awash. If I could just get rid of the “attack” I might be on to something.
Years passed. I played, dabbled, experimented and failed much, but I was getting closer to the sound. Finally, I decided it had to be an electric guitar. I bought a Strat – “The Plank” I call it, possibly after the influence of listening to Neil Stephenson’s Snowcrash where one of the main characters, Y.T., is always riding her “plank” or futuristic skateboard… but also because the Strat is many things, many great things, but it also like playing a plank of wood, nothing like a full-bodied flat-top acoustic or archtop electric guitar pressing firmly against your torso, but it works good as an ambient guitar and it travels well, mostly. I can’t help but think about the story producer/composer George Martin relayed about Jeff Beck and his strat during the recording of the pivotal Blow by Blow:
“He brings a battered old Fender in and says, “This bloody thing is no good.” And I say, ‘Well, haven’t you got another one?” And he said, “No, it’s all I’ve got.” And then he proceeds to pick it up and make the most incredible, beautiful, heavenly sounds imaginable.”
I love that story, because in many ways I hate my strat, I want to play an acoustic, something with body, but on the other hand, I love it, because it does everything just right and responds to what I’m trying to do perfectly. This became even more profoundly true when I installed a Roland guitar synth on it. Then I chained it up with all kinds of different effects and processors, lots of reverbs… I’m always on the one for reverbs. There’s probably not a sound I can’t make with it now, but as a purist, I do loathe all the gadgetry, but I do get that symphonic sound… Well, I’ve jumped ahead. Damn. So it goes.
Anyway, after a lot of time, I did figure out how to get the sound, my sound, the microsymphony, all of the timbres and textures and nuance. It took time and more experimentation that I care to think back about. I won’t change it soon. It’s perfect. Travelling with it is a pain in the ass and I’m always afraid something’s going to break and render the whole thing useless. That will happen. That’s nature of performance, usual folks have Murphy’s Law, musicians, especially performers have Spinal Tap Law and it never, ever, never fails! I remember reading about this guitar player named George Lynch, he was big and a sideman with Don Dokken when I was a kid, he’s probably still working, he was good – Anyway, he talked about his toybox of effects and how he had to change things on the road, because the toybox wasn’t road-worthy. The Symphony in the Box or Travelling Space Station Module, as I’ve called it both, isn’t very road-worthy and I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t all condensed into a MacBook Pro at some point and then augmented with other live guitars and instrumentation, preferably acoustic. I like the sound of that. I’ve never recorded like that. I’ve tried, but it’s never come out very good. If at first you don’t succeed…