The Biggest Slide Guitar/Instrument Ever Made?

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This year I was invited to submit an idea for the Geelong After Dark arts festival.

My crazy idea was to create something that demonstrated the motion and vibration that brings all music alive, and I needed to think BIG but at the same time, go back to basics.

My idea is to build a 5 – 6 metre long, 4 stringed instrument that can be played with a slide bar…Like a giant Lap Steel Bass Guitar really.

I presented this idea to my partner, musician and visual artist Nina Grant and our artistic designer, engineer-minded friend Mike Patton and they came back to me with a whole bunch of ideas and improvements on my rough vision and big thumbs up.

They came up with a visual concept that would make the whole idea come together and give it a powerful message and sensory impact: If you take the concept of an Over-head Projector and add shadow puppetry, collage and water elements, you start to get a hint of the ‘old school’ analogue feel of what they had in mind. Every aspect of the show was to be performed live. The sound and the visual.

It would have been easier to make it all on laptops or used pre-recorded video, but where’s the entertainment in that?

Mike Patton’s skill set includes sculpture, metal working, carpentry, mechanics, set design, art direction and those skills now kicked into high gear…He can make things happen and he has a big shed for us to work in. Those are huge assets for the team.

Check out the music video for my single “Dead Man’s Garden”…Mike was the Art Director. It’s beautiful.

Once the idea was approved and our application to Geelong After Dark was accepted, Mike started building prototypes in his shed and the next time I went out there, there was an 8m length of timber with some wire stretched over a wok! We tested all sorts of different types of wires (Fencing wire, balustrade wire, piano wire) until we settled on the best sound and feel…piano wire. Just the core wire…not wound.

fullsizeoutput_25d9Next we started to look at ways to amplify the sound out of it.  We pulled some pickups out of an old bass to test our theories and also used the contact pickup from a stomp box underneath the Wok bridge to amplify the timber and steel body sounds.

A curved steel bridge was made to fit on the wok and then tested for strength with strings attached.fullsizeoutput_25fd

Still…Mike and I agreed that we needed to make our own magnetic pickups for it…just because we wanted to learn about it really, and were enjoying the challenge of hand-making every element of it that was possible. We started experimenting with and researching the science of the magnetic pick-up, until we came up with a design that would serve us on this unique instrument.

Hand-making the first bunch of 8 pickups was a steep learning curve. It took me a week of evenings putting the parts together, winding copper wire around the magnets about 6000 times each and then setting them in resin.

Unfortunately, only 1 out of the 8 worked when we hooked them up to the instrument! It turns out this was thanks to me not understanding that a multimeter picks up on the human body’s electrical current…and I was holding the wires in my hands whilst testing them…so I thought they were alright…but they weren’t…DOH!  That little rookie error lost us a week.2019-04-07 11.41.38

Thankfully Mike was able to manufacture a small wire spinning device that looked like this:fullsizeoutput_25fa

From the lessons learned from the first run I was able to respin the copper for next 8 pickups in one night..and they worked this time…and were more powerful.  Better looking too, after Mike finished them off by setting them in resin using a silicone mold made from a Kaffir Lime…so cool

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Mike then started working on building a workstation for the art performance to be staged.  The idea was to have multiple layers of media that had a strong light shining through them from above with a camera mounted underneath that would see the light shining through the layers and portray an image to the mega-screen. The layers could be moved around and brought in and out of focus by changing the proximity to either the light source or the camera. Bloody genius!

Here are Mike and Nina discussing the details during the early stages of the build:

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Another challenge for Mike was to design and build the tuning heads for the Behemoth.

What he came up with was awesome! He cut a gas bottle up into curved pieces that he then welded into this unique tuning apparatus.  The idea being; as you turn the bolt heads, the nut with a hook on the string moves up or down the thread..tightening or loosening the string. Simples.

I just love the fact that I have to tune it with a spanner.

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The curved lines of the tuning head echo the lines of the wok.

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Mike also had some cool ideas for decorations and embellishments…and legs of course.

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Finally the time had come to put it all together and test this Behemoth.

We had a big day of putting it all back together and wiring it all up for sound…then the first proper play while Nina and Mike worked on the “Magic Lantern” Art Station and started to develop the visual element of the show.

Here’s a time-lapse  of the day:

There were problems of course. Little things needed fixing, small adjustments and refinements…but the concept worked. It sounded AMAZING!

As the player of the instrument I had some interesting challenges.

  • There were no fret markings or reliable points of reference.
  • The distances between notes at the low end are enormous so it’s very hard to move quickly between them.
  • The end of the strings on the right hand side of the bridge, sympathetically resonate when the strings of the left side are played…and they are not easy to control.
  • I had to learn, and devise new playing techniques, unique to this instrument.

The amazing thing about this project to me, has been the unexpected results.  My original vision was a giant slide guitar, but this instrument has turned out to be so much more.

When I first took to it with a violin bow I could not believe the ease with which I was able to get a good sound out of the strings. After a bit of trial and error, I discovered that if I just pinched the string between my thumb and index finger, anywhere along the length of the string I could play a note. And it sounded lovely.  Suddenly the whole thing opened up. It could be a bowed string instrument too? NO WAY!

With my RC 300 Loop Station hooked up to it I could now layer up the sounds just like the layers of the visual art. I could create a basic rhythm tracks by playing on the body and strings with drum sticks or mallets, then lay down a bass line or drone, build a bed of strings with counter-rhythms and simple melody and then improvise over the top of that. Hours of fun ensued.

Meanwhile, Geelong After Dark 2019 is approaching rapidly (10 days out) and I’ve only  actually seriously played this thing for, maybe four hours total. We’re having press shots and full dress rehearsals and I’m still only just scratching the surface of what can be done with this amazing sound sculpture device.

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Over the next week and a half I got out to the shed as often as I possibly could, and just played, and experimented with different tunings, playing techniques, styles of music and technical .  We added lighting and neatened the whole thing up a bit more.

Meanwhile…Nina and Mike had been furiously working the whole time on their amazing “Magic Lantern” concept for the art and it was in the first full dress rehearsal that we finally saw all the elements come together. We strung the screen up between a couple of trees at Mikes place and pulled the Behemoth outside to give it all a test run.

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The amount of work that Mike has done on this project is staggering…I love working with a ‘doer’.  I’m of a similar temperament and I found it gratifying to be able to work in a collaboration that moved at a good pace.

Finally the day of the gig arrived and we set about the mammoth task of transporting a 6 metre long, approx 100kg, delicate instrument, 30 kms to the event site.  We were nervous.  Rain was forecast, as we wrapped the whole thing in pallet wrap and tied it to the roof of Mikes’ 4×4.

We loaded the trailer with the Magic Lantern (and the projector platform…that’s another story) and headed to the centre of Geelong.

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It rained a little at one stage, but we were prepared.

The show was visually and sonically compelling. It carried a positive message. The feedback we received was just so wonderful and wondrous. Things like:

” One of the best things that I have ever heard was Tim Hulsman playing the BIGGEST SLIDE GUITAR IN THE WORLD! He stroked it…..danced along it….vibrated a cool blue bottle along the thick strings and whacked the BEJESUS OUTTA IT! It was truly a UNIQUE experience and an impressive display! All of this was happening while there was some cool projections happening in the background. It was my highlight of Geelong After Dark.

“That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen”

“You guys built this thing? That’s crazy!”

“The sound is so incredible. You’ve got to do more with this thing.”

“The visual show really got me…the way it evolved like that with the music, and then there was this face that just emerged at the end…I was blown away.”

“Have you got any CDs?”    Ha Ha! Not on the very first performance sorry.

I got to chat with heaps of interested and awestruck people and my personal highlight was the kids and adults who lined up to have a play on The Behemoth, during the intervals.

The night was a huge success as far as we were concerned.

Video by Robert Carbone

So while The Behemoth may, or may not be, “The Longest Slide Guitar/Instrument In The World”, (I’m sure someone out there has or will build something bigger, that’s kind of irrelevant to me, though good marketing fodder) the instrument speaks for itself and now has a strong artistic pull on me (and Mike too) so I foresee us spending a lot more time getting to know it and learning to tame, or ride, the beast.

Right now all three of us feel contented and excited about the possibilities that this whole process has presented us with.

I’ll tell you what though…next time, we’re getting a truck and some strong men to help move the bloody thing!

Stay tuned. There’s much more to come.

Video by me… (on a tripod)

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Photo by Sean Bell

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11 Photos by Robert Carbone

2 Comments

  • Sue lovelace says:

    Just outstanding, brilliant and super talented all three of you. Big thumbs up xxxx

    • Tim Hulsman says:

      Thank you Sue,
      I feel blessed to be working with two people who are willing to take risks creatively.
      I’ve just got to learn how to ride this beast properly now. That was like jumping straight from a kids scooter onto a Triumph Rocket III…:-)

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