Whither Zither
by Peter Berryman

December 1997

Looping in public

Lou and I recently played at a small folk festival in Minnesota, on the brooding old campus of what used to be the state orphanage in Owatonna. As we schlepped into the former dining hall where the evening concert was being held, we were delightfully buffeted by intricate guitar riffs bouncing off the haunted old walls. This beautiful music sounded like it was coming from an acoustic guitar duet but we could only see one person playing. We watched his fingering, but we still couldn't figure out what was going on. Our eyeballs and earbones disagreed with one another.

Since then I have become e-mail pals with Steve Cloutier, the creator of such fascinating sounds, and have asked him to demystify himself. It turns out he uses some digital electronic wizardry to augment his fabulous picking. This is somewhat unusual considering Steve is a professional guitar designer and builder, and an outspoken defender of the acoustic guitar sound. He elaborated, and kindly agreed to let me reprint his comments:

"I'm not in love with technology, but if there is something out there that will help me achieve the sound that I want or help get a song across, I will use it. I always try to remember that such tools are also very easy to misuse.

"My interest in electronics is mostly to help maintain the acoustic sound and maybe make it a little bigger. Probably the most interesting component in my present set-up is called a JamMan made by Lexicon. This unit allows you to record yourself while playing live and then immediately play along with yourself.

"You control it hands-free with a simple two button foot pedal. The 'tap' button starts the unit recording and when it is tapped again, plays back your recorded sounds from the beginning and keeps it repeating. The other 'reset' button stops the playback. You can add another layer at anytime by hitting the tap button again.

"Since the phrases or chords that you sample (record) keep coming around like a loop, the material you choose should be geared to that concept. There are many styles of music that make use of repeating chord progressions. An example would be a 'round' such as a 50's style C-Am-F-G progression. In my own music, I always try to minimize the repetition aspect of my looped music. I do this sometimes by stopping the loop and continuing to play a live new part and maybe even looping the new phrases. Sometimes my looping song will start very simply and sparsely. I'll slowly add a new part after every couple of loops until I have an 'orchestra' of lush guitar layers.

"Another added benefit to looping I've discovered is that my improvisation has improved 100%. You have instant accompaniment any time you want.

"When looping in concert, there is also the potential for what I call a 'train wreck'. This is where things don't go according to plan and quickly turn into garbage...Clean and accurate playing is important whenever hitting that tap button. I found that looping in public is a little scary but at the same time, intoxicating.

"By the way, the use of looping devices [isn't] limited to just guitar. I know a guy that puts the output of his P.A. system through one so that he can sing harmonies with himself..."

Steve has put together a nice web site, some of it very funny, with a number of links. One takes you to a page describing his guitars, which are beautiful in sound and appearance. Have a look at the cloutier guitars site or send e-mail to Steve at for more info.

The contact willies

Incidentally, If you're ever driving through Owatonna, you should stop in and visit the small museum dedicated to the orphanage, containing artifacts, documents, and photographs from this bygone institution. It's a bittersweet glimpse of a life unfamiliar to most of us. A guest book is provided which features comments from many visitors who grew up in this place, and reading through their reminiscences is spellbinding.

The kind of willies you get from looking at ancient objects like these can also be triggered by music. Sometimes I wonder if such goosebumps are intrinsic to certain words and melodies, or if they're due to a personal memory triggered by the song. I can think of a number of songs that give me this frisson because they were sung to me as a kid, like "Good Bye Old Paint" and "Down In The Valley". Sometimes a new song will remind me of an old song, and I'll get the contact willies that way. But I think there are also melodies and word sounds that are more conducive to these feelings because they are derived from evocative non-musical melodies or sounds.

In an example of word associations, Shenandoah is a thrilling word partly because the -oah ending sounds like the wind, and the wind can give you the willies. You could call this an emotionally augmented onomatopoeia. (And speaking of word sounds, isn't onomatopoeia an ugly word for what it means?)

In an example of melody associations, people often use a descending minor third to call their two-syllabled kids in for dinner. Going down the minor-third interval from "so" to "mi" (G to E in the key of C) sounds far away and yearning to my ear. Is it because as a kid my mom called me in to dinner with this interval? Do people in other neighborhoods, other nations, call their kids this way? Is this progression intrinsically beckoning, or is it beckoning only because of tradition? Has the interval changed over the years? Did they call the children to dinner at the orphanage with a descending minor third?

These questions nibble at your confidence when writing music. Will a melody you have written be universally exciting? Or will it mean something only to you because it's based on the particular peep of your first love's budgie?

More questions next episode. As always, love to hear from you.
©PB, 12/1/97


Whither Zither #3©1997 PBerryman