Oxford Scientist Explains the Physics of Playing Electric Guitar Solos

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.

via Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty

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.

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  • brainhurt_and_fear says:

    Dr Grimes accu­rate­ly explains what a pre-bend is–bending the string before strik­ing with the pick–then does not exe­cute a pre-bend.

    At 1:28 he clear­ly strikes the string as he bends it, caus­ing the audi­ble ascen­sion of pitch (it’s quick, but it isn’t ‘pre’).

    A prop­er­ly exe­cut­ed pre-bend is one where we only hear the already-bent note and its descent to the unbent state.

  • Jim Veihdeffer says:

    How does Van Halen man­age to toss his lit cig­a­rette out at the start (0:24) and then have one mag­i­cal­ly appears in the upper headstock/tuning area at 0:47…yet there does­n’t seem to be any break in his per­for­mance.

    Did his off­stage tuner light one for him dur­ing the video cut­away and insert it in the gui­tar?

  • Jesse Wade Atkins says:

    Send more details

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