Acoustic guitars, a floorful of pedals and an improvisatory philosophy
When we play the guitar, we don’t often think about its position in the world or how it communicates in a philosophical sense – it’s more about how to best nail the next lick. However, for psychedelic acoustic-looping philosopher Michael Garfield, the player’s relationship with the guitar is more than just audible: it’s spiritual too.
In his essay on Exaptation of the Guitar, Michael says, “When I pick up my guitar and play, I’m agreeing that this is an instrument, that this is a guitar, that I play the guitar, and that I play the guitar in some specific way. That this is what it’s ‘for.’ There are an infinite number of ways for the universe to express itself through the functional relationship between a human being and a guitar.”
This message is something which Michael carries throughout his playing and compositional style, which is, at times, a transcendent exploration of what one man can achieve with an acoustic guitar, an eBow and a few stompboxes. Michael probably puts it better though.
“I play percussive, touchstyle, guitar looping freestyle cyberballadry,” he explains. “A combination of etudes, loopscapes, and anthems all woven together by the common theme and expansive vision of boundary-less technique, and celestial communication through the interference pattern of acoustic tradition and electronic adventure.” Phew.
In more tangible terms, Michael is currently based in Austin, Texas, and hopes to have made his mark on the city at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival. So far, however, his gigs have been mostly positioned in the weird and the wonderful category. “I just moved here and I’ve angled into the scene in kind of a weird fashion,” he says. “I’ve been doing more shows with electronic acts and DJs than with other acoustic musicians. But there is something for everyone here; there are more niches than there are acts. Pretty much everything is a venue: food trucks, ice cream parlours… I’m playing a Chinese Restaurant for one of my gigs at South by Southwest!”
All it took was one album to spark Michael’s curiosity in all things looping. “It all started back in high school with Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds’ Live at Luther College EP,” he says. “I learned from them that it was possible to make a complete musical arrangement on acoustic guitar; that if you did it well, that was all you really need.”
Since then, a number of more leftfield players have also influenced Michael’s music, including Andreas Kapsalis, Stanley Jordan and even Emmett Chapman, the inventor of the Chapman Stick. It’s not just music either: Michael also cites hard science fiction, yoga and walks in the forest as inspirations. Of course, this makes total sense when you listen to the glitched-out grooves which populate his compositions, simultaneously calm yet very much switched-on.
Michael’s primary guitar is a Martin D35 from 2001, which he’s fitted with some new electronics. He explains, “I have an L.R. Baggs Anthem pickup in it, which is the best-sounding pickup (mic and piezo blend) I’ve ever heard, and is perfect for looping percussion on the body of the instrument.”
Unfortunately, after fitting the Anthem, the Martin needed a neck reset, so Michael has currently settled for a Revival RG-26, which will have to do for now. “It’s small and light, with super low action,” he says. “Strangely, it doesn’t sound too great, but it doesn’t have to with a magnetic pickup in it.”
Michael uses each of his pedals for a specific reason but all are crucial for the otherworldly sounds he creates. Let’s let him explain…
“My pedalboard, at this point, is almost more of an instrument than my guitar,” he laughs. “You could plug a saxophone into it and the music would come out sounding more similar than if you kept the guitar and took away the gear…”
Below is Michael’s signal chain, replete with explanations of what he’s using and why:
- L.R. Baggs M1A active soundhole pickup (magnetic pickup that works beautifully with an eBow);
- L.R. Baggs Venue D.I. (used as a preamp and EQ);
- Boss PS-5 Pitch Shifter (for bass and synth tones);
- Boss SL-20 Slicer (which generates awesome rhythms, although the interface is awful);
- Boss DD-20 Gigadelay (for doing techno- and Jimi-scapes);
- Dunlop Crybaby Wah (the problem pedal in my rig, for feedback, but indispensable);
- SourceAudio HotHand Wah Filter (for fluttering gestural wizardry & acoustic dubstep jokes)
…and the keystone that brings it all together:
- Boss RC-50 Loop Station (which I tempo sync with MIDI to the Slicer and use in multi-track looping mode to do cross-fades)
These effects not only see use in live performances of Michael’s compositions, but also in his spontaneous live improvisations. “I dedicate some of every show, and sometimes the entire show, to roaming improvisations that perform an intuitive reading of the venue’s and audience’s energy, and that’s pretty unpredictable,” he explains. “On any given gig it could go from twinkling folksy stuff, to ambient electronica, to jagged Reznor-esque acoustic techno, to something approximating Sigur Rós, all in 20 minutes.”
Witnessing a Michael Garfield gig sounds like one hell of an experience, but actually playing one as the man himself sounds terrifying. “I think my whole career would be a horror story for most guitarists,” Michael laughs. “Constantly improvising with new gear on stage is a total tightrope act. I bring everyone on the trip with me – we’re all there watching and listening to something come together from the nexus of artist, audience, and venue. It’s like making love: when it’s good, it’s so good, but when it goes wrong, hopefully we’re all able to laugh about it.”