You’ve heard it before. A power ballad from the 1970s or 1980s is playing and there, smack in the middle, is a face-melting guitar solo that seems to go all over the place before blowing your mind with sheer awesomeness. Think Jimi Hendrix. Think Eric Clapton. And especially think Eddie Van Halen. Unlike the piano, which can only play discrete notes, the guitar can, in the hands of someone like Sir Eddie, bend notes. It’s a quality that recalls the human voice, and it’s most likely what has made the electric guitar the go-to instrument for popular music over the past 50 years.
Enter Dr. David Grimes of Oxford University. While by day he might be working out mathematical models of oxygen distribution to help improve cancer treatment, by night he, too, likes to shred on his electric guitar. So, at some point along the line, he decided to apply a little scientific rigor to the instrument he loves. “I wanted to understand what it was about these guitar techniques that allows you to manipulate pitch,” he said in an interview.
In the name of science, Grimes was forced to make some pretty brutal sacrifices. “I took one of my oldest guitars down to the engineering lab at Dublin City University to one of the people I knew there and explained that I wanted to strip it down to do this experiment. We had to accurately bend the strings to different extents and measure the frequency produced. He was a musician too and looked at me with abject horror. But we both knew it needed to be done – We put some nails into my guitar for science.’
Grimes ended up writing an academic paper on the topic called “String Theory – The Physics of String-Bending and Other Electric Guitar Techniques.” “It turns out it’s actually reasonably straightforward,’ said Grimes. “It’s an experiment a decent physics undergraduate could do, and a cool way of studying some basic physics principles. It’s also potentially useful to string manufacturers and digital instrument modellers.”
You can read Grime’s paper here or, if your idea of fun does not include wading through a lot of complex equations, you can watch the brief video presentation above on his research. And below is a ridiculously sweet guitar solo from Van Halen. While you watch ponder the totally awesome physics involved.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring one new drawing of a vice president with an octopus on his head daily. The Veeptopus store is here.