String theory … explaining guitar solos that cry and sing

String theory is far too complex for the likes of me.
Vibrating strings make up everything, the physicists, say,

Please don’t ask me to explain this string theory graphic.

when it comes
distant universes and higher dimensions. However, one physicist from England’s Oxford
University has just released a paper explaining a new kind of string theory:
the study of how lead guitarists make their instruments wail, cry and sing. 

Dr. David Grimes, who also just happens to be a guitarist, published the results of his study in the online science and medicine journal, PLOS ONE, this month. 
He writes, “Coupled
with the huge array of amplification, effects and distortion options, the
electric guitar can yield a vocal-like quality in lead playing, allusions to
which are often made in popular culture; in Dire Strait’s 1979 debut single
“Sultans of swing”, songwriter Mark Knopfler refers to a jazz guitarist as
being “strictly rhythm, he doesn’t want to make it cry or sing”.
Eric’s guitar gently wept (right) on George Harrison’s famous Beatles song
“Eric Clapton’s thick guitar tone
and use of vibrato is referred to by guitarists as the “woman tone”, which he
famously contributed to the Beatles’ classic, “While My guitar Gently Weeps”.
These are but some examples. An accomplished guitarist’s tone and vibrato can
be so intrinsic to that player that their idiosyncratic sound is as distinctive
as a vocalist’s to a trained ear.”
particular guitarist, in particular, who immediately springs my mind, has a
style so distinctive, you don’t even need that ‘trained ear’, as Dr. Grimes infers,
to know instantly who it is. I’m referring to Brian May of Queen, of course,
who just happens to be a doctor of astrophysics as well

Queen guitarist Dr. Brian May receiving his PhD in astomony

as a rock guitarist. Is
it just coincidences that has Dr. May creating such a unique guitar sound or is
he on the same wavelength as Dr. Grimes?

enough, Dr. May gets a mention in Dr. Grimes string theory paper. It’s at the
end of David’s introduction, part of which I quote here for your enlightenment.
“As the electric guitar has become ubiquitous in rock, pop, metal, jazz and
blues, it has developed a range of techniques which further distinguish it from
its musical forebears. String-bending and vibrato add much to a guitarist’s
palette, and as these techniques are heavily influenced by the physical
constraints of the guitar and strings used, the underlying mechanics are worthy
of analysis. Guitarists also use a wide variety of legato techniques
to articulate their playing; these include hammer-ons, where a fretted string
is picked and another one sounded by coming down sharply on it with the
fretting hand, resulting in a smoother sound that would result from merely
picking both notes. The opposite technique is a pull-off, where a picked note
is released and a lower one sounded. A fusion of both these techniques
practically unique to the guitar is tapping, where both fretting and picking
hands are used to ‘articulate’ a flurry of notes. This is a staple of

The colorful Frank Zappa

lead guitar playing, popularised by guitar virtuoso Edward Van Halen in the
late 1970s. For these techniques, the fretting force required to ‘sound’ a note
with or without picking becomes an important limiting factor and influences a
player’s choice of string and guitar set-up. Unlike more traditional
instruments, there is also wide scope for modification and extension of tonal
range by using external hardware. One example of this is the vibrato system or
“whammy-bar” which many guitars opt for; these are mechanical systems for
adding extra vibrato and come in a variety of designs. Rather misleadingly,
they are sometimes referred to as tremolo bars, which is an unfortunate
misnomer as tremolo is modulation of volume rather than pitch. Such units
dramatically increase the sonic scope of the instrument and have been employed
by famous players such as Dave Gilmour, Brian May, Steve Vai, John Petrucci,
Frank Zappa and Joe Satriani, amongst others.”

Dr. Grimes’s paper goes even
further, offering up equations demonstrating how bending strings, tapping,

Bend that string, brother

vibrato and the whammy bar changes the pitch of notes.

“In this work,” he says, “models
for these processes are derived and the implications for guitar and string
design discussed. The string-bending model is experimentally validated using a
variety of strings and vibrato dynamics are simulated. The implications of
these findings on the configuration and design of guitars is also discussed.”
The good doctor confirmed his
equations experimentally by putting nails through one of his own guitars to
measure the effect of string bending. That’s dedication for you. I hope it wasn’t
a pre-CBS Fender Stat.
For more information on Dr.
Grimes’ String Theory, his diagrams and equations, visit:


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