Research Note 002

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Tactility in instruments

Back in the 1990’s when I lived in Montreal I practiced guitar daily, sometimes for hours but usually for at least two hours. I’m working on getting back into that habit because it was so rewarding in ways I had not imagined at the time.

During today’s morning guitar warmup I started thinking about how tactile the guitar is and what happens when you lose some of that tactility or haptic feedback that comes with an instrument that resonates and indicates how it’s being played.

The warmup exercise is easy and can be done on any instrument but it’s particularly great on the guitar. I have to credit my former mentor and guitar instructor, Bill Coon for this exercise. The idea is to focus on your sound and your body as you play. Set a metronome to 80 bpm and play whole notes. Try to play exactly on the beat and breath regularly. Once you are comfortable play up and down the instrument’s range inclining and declining by one semitone. First play in quarter notes, then eighths, then 8th note triplets, 16th notes. I’ll post a quick video of me playing the exercise soon, it’s sounds much more complicated when written. An aside: maybe using the English language to describe a musical concept isn’t an appropriate channel. Perhaps we can talk about how Alan Kay, proposed that we learn using the most appropriate channel as his analysis of how to play tennis illustrated. See this video for reference.

As I play I notice that the string vibrates under my finger tips and give me a subtle indication of the timbre and quality of the sound through my body. While I was in LA for the Ableton Loop conference in November 2018, I tried out a new folding guitar. I was excited and ready to love it but was quickly disappointed with its two sets of strings, one for the neck and another for the strumming or picking hand. These detached strings made it so difficult to feel whether your fingers were in the right place or not and the sensation of playing a tactile instrument was completely lost. It seems like such a basic requirement for an instrument but so many instruments are launched that take away this tactility. How do we create a process that can not let you forget this?

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