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  • Former Guitars and Cocolinas
  • Neil Feather (bio)

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Since 1972 I have created an ensemble of instruments that fall roughly into six families, according to the principle they are designed to explore. These principles are mainly the following: inverse pitch relationships, rotary motion, magnetism, mechanical phase relationships, string physics and sonic transduction. The instruments are electroacoustic or electromagnetic and use strings and/or small motors for vibration. They are utilitarian, finely adjustable, ergonomic devices that respond to experimentation and technique with a rich spectrum of sound.

This statement focuses on the "former guitar" family and its newest member, the Cocolina (Fig. 14). The former guitar family was begun in 1980, when I successfully decontextualized a Silver-tone electric guitar. The first few former guitars were converted guitars. The subsequent former guitars were made from scratch using guitar parts, hardware, aluminum and high-density plastics.

Former guitars have two strings that share tension through a "head" that pivots under the control of a long whammy bar. This configuration causes one string to tighten as the other is loosened, creating a tonal center. The ratio of the strings' diameter determines the interval at rest (equal length and tension).

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Fig. 14.

Guitaint and two Cocolinas, 2007. Their lengths are 33, 33 and 25 inches, respectively.

Photo © Neil Feather

Former guitars also have a movable "bridge" that acts as a big fret for hammer-on and other techniques specific to the instrument. Grooves have been filed into the bridge to facilitate a faux-bowing technique of rubbing the string across the bridge. Pickups are mounted on both sides of the bridge so that all of the string can sound. The movable bridge creates an adjustable ratio between the string length above the bridge and the string length below it. These two lengths change but always have the same sum. This tonal constant, along with the symmetry created by shared string tension, mechanically enforces a symmetry that rotates on two axes. This set up was designed to imitate the pitch dynamic of my earlier instrument the Nondo. The Nondo is a steel sheet that is strung lengthwise by two strings into a rocking curve. The string tension is created by the weight of the heavy flexible sheet. The Nondo is played by tilting so that round metal bars roll along the widely spaced strings. The Nondo's pitch distribution is controlled by physical balance.

Former guitars are the most versatile of my instruments and are most often used in the context of free improvisation. The former guitar is also the instrument of choice of the dozen or so players who have seriously pursued playing my instruments and have been involved in my ensembles, which feature only unique instruments. They add to the sound palette originated by certain modern (table-top) guitar innovators, facilitating string stunts without the intention to create 12-tone music. Former guitars have something in common with an obscure single-string-and-lever instrument that some early Foley artists used to make a boing sound. A direct influence is the Crychord, which is part of the Harry Partch orchestra, if not actually designed by Partch. Former guitars are excellent for producing boings, glissandos, caterwauling and other sounds spelled out in Don Martin cartoons.

My latest instrument is the Cocolina. It is the second former guitar design intended for multiple production. My tendency is to overbuild my instruments; instead, I designed the Cocolina to be light, simple, economical and open ended. Compared to the first former guitar production model, the Guitaint, it is half the weight (4 lbs) and requires half the cost and half the number of parts. Its design is rectilinear, as opposed to the curvaceousness of the other former guitars. It also features a mounting bar from an electric panel that allows prongs or tines or springs to be mounted near the pickups. These additions expand and enhance the musical possibilities.

The Cocolina is my new favorite ax. It has a full former guitar sound and produces bonus sounds as well, including one of my best boings yet. It is meant to...


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