If a spaceship full of the ghosts of aliens hovered overhead and scored silent films using their noncorporeal, extraterrestrial guitars, this would be the result.
I’d been hearing praise for Fred Frith’s album Guitar Solos for over a decade. I think I was actually afraid to listen–afraid that it wouldn’t live up to the hype.
I finally got around to listening to it just last night, and I must say that despite every good thing I had heard about Frith’s album over the years, I was completely unprepared for the man’s sonic genius. My preconceived notions of the guitar and its role in music were completely useless to me here.
Rare Case of a Major Label Doing Something Cool
In 1974, Virgin Records had been impressed with Frith’s guitar work in the band Henry Cow. They offered him a chance to record a solo album, allowing Frith to do whatever he wanted. Rather than play it safe, Fred decided he wanted to do something radically inventive and new, something he’d never done before.
In preparation for recording the album, Frith added a downward-facing pickup over the nut of his guitar, which might seem like a simple enough gesture–but actually it allowed Frith to pick on either side of the note he fretted, producing different tones and alien-sounding timbres. He divided the strings using a capo, which basically made his guitar into a two-headed mutant.
Then he took it into the studio and improvised for four days. Bam.
Despite the weird sounds that saturate this 1974 release, Frith only sparsely used distortion and echo delay–about once each on the entire record. Beyond that, what you hear is Frith improvising on a specially-prepared guitar. On the final track, “No Birds”, Frith tuned TWO of these prepared guitars to a single note, split them with capos, and laid them on a table top. Both guitars had stereo outputs and extra pickups, and by using volume pedals Frith managed to make them sound like an orchestra. And I’m not being figurative here. Really, you need to hear “No Birds”; you will not believe the sounds that this guy managed to create.
If you’ve ever wanted an album that’ll make you seriously question all that is good and true, look no further. Guitar Solos totally asploded this reviewer’s mind. It’ll asplode yours too.