GUITARS | If you're into the modern effect-heavy guitar bands of contemporary rock and "alternative" (such as U2, the Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, Garbage, Feeder and Bloc Party just to mention a few), you may have noticed this peculiar kind of guitar playing. It sounds like certain guitar parts have notes that just seem to sustain forever, without even being picked in the first place. It's like the guitar was played with a bow almost, sounding a bit like a violin. At first you might think that it's just a synthesized effect of some sort, or the result of a heavy use of delay pedals, perhaps. But the key behind it is usually a nifty little handheld device called the E-Bow (where the 'E' can be spelled out either as 'electronic' or 'energy').

9V battery sold separately...
Rather than a pedal that you hook up to your FX chain, this particular guitar effect is instead held resting over the string with your picking hand, thus replacing your plectrum when used. Powered by a 9V battery, the EBow generates a magnetic drive field which makes the string vibrate, thus giving it a sustained tone.

Ideal for use with a passive neck humbucker

According to the short "Player's Guide" fact sheet that comes with the EBow, an electric guitar with a passive humbucking "bass" pickup (which is generally found in the neck position) is recommended. The reason being that -opposed to a single coil- a humbucker has a slightly larger playing area. The muddier neck pup is also good choice as it able to "tame" the extra high end frequencies that the EBow generates. So when using a thinner sounding single coil or a harsh, responsive active pickup, rolling some highs off with tone knob (or taking the volume down by a half, in the case of active pups) might be a good idea, again according to the enclosed fact sheet.

With the above taken into account, my old Greco (Japanese Gibson Les Paul copy) seemed like a good choice, with its thick Les Paul-y humbucking tone. So, with my brand new EBow finally in my mailbox, I made this little recording as I gave it an early test:

EBow on acoustic / hollow body guitar - possible?

As the EBow physically makes the strings vibrate, and therefore actually plays the guitar, it's bound to generate a certain amount of acoustic resonance. I was still quite amazed how much sound it makes the guitar generate even without any amplification involved, as you can hear in the video. Even though the EBow is made mainly for electric guitars, it could therefore theoretically also be used on an acoustic. Some people already do, actually, including Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour.

The bottom surface of the EBow has slots and groves making it easier to get in place, having it sitting securely over the string you want to it to play. Note however, that these groves are typically fitted for the slimmer electric guitar necks with narrower string spacing, rather than the wide profile necks most acoustic guitars come equipped with. If you strictly plan to use the EBow on a hollow body guitar, you might want to first make sure that your neck profile isn't too wide. Fender, for instance, has a few acoustic models that have the typical Stratocaster type necks and C shaped headstocks. Any of these ought to work as good as any electric guitar, fully compatible with this device.

My impression of the EBow so far

I found the EBow as its finest when played through a clean amp. As expected, the neck pickup of my Les Paul copy also gave it a sweeter, smoother tone than the harsher bridge humbucker did. When played through a dirty/overdriven amp, the EBow instead delivered mainly noise. The resulting sound, which is similar to that of microphonic feedback, could be useful if used to your advantage, however. In conjunction with -or as an alternative to- feedback pedals, perhaps.

In my opinion, the tricky part about using the EBow is to have it positioned dead straight over the string. You need some serious accuracy or else it won't work at all, and your guitar will be silent like the grave. There's often a bit of struggle to find the sweet spot where the EBow really makes the axe sing. This might be a contributing factor why EBows aren't used that frequently in live performances, but mainly as a studio equipment. Unless you've spent enough time with it to know exactly how to manoeuvre the EBow over the strings, its interaction with the guitar quickly becomes a very unreliable affair.

String buzz

I also had some problems with the string buzzing agains the bottom of the EBow itself. Maybe I held it too closely to the strings, not quite sure. This problem typically occurs when bending the string. String bending could also lead to another problem, namely that the string could easily pop out of the slot which it runs through, underneath the EBow. And if the string gets away from the EBow's energy field, it will eventually stop ringing and make the guitar go silent.

All of this has to be taken into account in order to get a nice EBow sound, which takes a bit of practice to get right, certainly. In a way, figuring out how to play with the EBow is quite similar to learning to play with a guitar slide in that respect. It's an art in itself.

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