In the early 70’s I was fascinated by Indo-Jazz fusion. I loved the idea of melding the sympathetic strings with a chordal instrument, and John McLaughlin had just such in his group Shakti.
I also really liked reverberation on a guitar produced by using an echo plate or spring unit, so I set out to design an instrument which would allow me to have all these sounds in one.
At the time there were or course no digital echoes, and Springs or Plates cost thousands of pounds and were very unwieldy.
One day I sat in front of a Lawrence Audio electro-acoustic piano that had a long pick-up that covered every string. When I put the loud-damper pedal down and played the saxophone into the piano, what came out from the Fender Amp was a heavenly sound, complex, fringed with tuned harmonics, I was hooked.
I had to create that sound
The first had a conventional 6 string neck, and 26 sympathetic strings in two octaves, chromatic, tuned with a key, like a zither. Therein lay a problem, as fine tuning is quite arduous using a small key.
To further complicate the equation, I wound my own balanced pick-ups , using rubber magnets ( a big mistake) and incorporated a 100 watt stereo amplifier into the back of the body. Two Bose speakers were – in my imagination – going to drive the sympathetic strings into oblivion. What I had not realised was the direct acoustic coupling between the speakers and the strings created a perfect condition for feedback, and I found the adjustment of the volume of the amp was critical.
In the photo you can see me playing with a battery powered amp, which is being driven by the harp-pickup ( at this stage I called it variously Harp-Guitar, or Zither -Guitar) and the sound is amazing. In the end I realised I didn’t need to have a speaker on board unless I wanted infinite uncontrollable sustain.
This prototype created a really weird event one night on the Welsh hills at an impromptu festival on an old sacred site. The instrument picked up a radio station and the strings gave the muffled speech an unworldly quality, which resulted in several inebriated friends swearing they had heard aliens, or ancestors or Atlanteans talking to them in the night.
Later Steve Hillage came over to Sandridge where Ant and I were scoring Tarka and had a go, and boy did he make it sing, until smoke started pouring from the amplifier and the electric overdrive was no more. The instrument found its way to New York.
In 1976 I helped Tony Andrews with some speaker ideas and made the body of this instrument at his workshop at Ridge Farm. It accompanied me to Australia and in 1991 I completed it.
It comprises two ‘wings’ each with 13 strings tuned as needed using zither pegs and violin fine tuners. The strings are usually in some familiar harmonic relationship, but I have also experimented with micro tunings for both sides. The central neck is a conventional wide necked 12 string guitar, with pick ups on all three ranks of strings. It features a built in active EQ, compression/limiting and a line output.
In practice the instrument can be played like a conventional guitar, the side wings producing the harmonic reverberation I had dreamt of with a decay time of about 10 seconds.
Alternatively the sides can be played like a Hammer dulcimer or in many other percussive ways, with hands, fingers, metal objects and so on, to produce a huge variety of tones.
I found that orienting the sound box to the wind outdoors at the correct angle produced a strong and endlessly varying chordal effect, which I liken to a fractal melody, where fragments of tune continually appear out of the lingering background drone.
This formed the backing for the CD of glissando pieces I created with Daevid Allen called 22 Meanings.
The instrument has been used in experimental pieces and on the album Migration as a melodic and a drone instrument. The massive construction of the instrument makes it very stable, which is fortunate, but the weight encouraged me to make a universal mount for it allowing it to be positioned easily at any angle. This is extremely convenient for live performance.
You can hear the my Angel Guitar here