A Guitarist Rocks Out on Guitars Made from Shovels, Cigar Boxes, Oil Cans & Whisky Barrels

When Keith Richards felt he’d gone as far as he could go with the six-string guitar, he took one string off and played five, a trick he learned from Ry Cooder. These days, the trend is to go in the opposite direction, up to seven or eight strings for highly technical progressive metal compositions and downtuned “djent.” Traditionalists may balk at this. A five-string, after all, is a modification easily accomplished with a pair of wire-cutters. But oddly shaped eight-string guitars seem like weirdly rococo extravagances next to your average Stratocaster, Tele, or Les Paul.

Ideas we have about what a guitar should be, however, come mostly from the marketing and public relations machinery around big brand guitars and big name guitarists. The truth is, there is no Platonic ideal of the guitar, since no one is quite sure where the guitar came from.




It’s most easily recognized ancestors are the oud and the lute, which themselves have ancient heritages that stretch into prehistory. The six-string arrived rather late on the scene. In the renaissance, guitars had eight strings, tuned in four “courses,” or pairs, like the modern 12-string, and baroque guitars had 10 strings in five courses.

Closer in time to us, “the jazz guitarist George Van Eps had a seven-string guitar built for him by Epiphone Guitars in the late 1930s,” notes one brief history, “and a signature Gretsch seven-string in the late 60s and early 70s…. Several others began using seven-string guitars after Van Eps.” Russian folk guitars had seven strings before the arrival of six-string Spanish classical instruments (two hundred years before the arrival of Korn).

Meanwhile, in the hills, hollars, and deltas of the U.S. south, folk and blues musicians built guitars out of whatever was at hand, and fit as many, or as few, strings as needed. From these instruments came the powerfully simple, timeless licks Keef spent his career emulating. Guitarist Justin Johnson has cultivated an online presence not only with his slick electric slide playing, but also with his tributes to odd, old-time, homemade guitars. At the top, he plays a three-string shovel guitar, doing Keith two better.

Further up, some “Porch Swing Slidin’” with a six-string cigar box-style guitar engraved with a portrait of Robert Johnson. Above, hear a stirring rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on an oil can and a slide solo on a whiskey barrel guitar. Finally, Johnson rocks out Ray Charles on a three string cigar box guitar, made mostly out of ordinary items you might find around the shed.

You might not be able to pluck out Renaissance airs or complicated, sweep-picked arpeggios on some of these instruments, but where would even the most complex progressive rock and metal be without the raw power of the blues driving the evolution of the guitar? Finally, below, see Johnson play a handmade one-string Diddley Bow (and see the making of the instrument as well). Originally a West African instrument, it may have been the very first guitar.

Related Content: 

Keith Richards Demonstrates His Famous 5-String Technique (Used on Classic Stones Songs Like “Start Me Up,” “Honky Tonk Women” & More)

Meet Brushy One String, the One String Guitar Player Who Will Blow Your Mind

The History of the Guitar: See the Evolution of the Guitar in 7 Instruments

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Cartoonist Lynda Barry Teaches You How to Make a Visual Daily Diary

Cartoonist and educator Lynda Barry is a favorite here at Open Culture.

We’re always excited to share exercises from her books and intel on her classes at the University of Wisconsin, but nothing beats the warmth and humor of her live instruction… even when it’s delivered virtually.

Last week, she took to Instagram to inform the fourteen lucky U of W students enrolled in her fall Making Comics class to prepare for a new way of keeping their required daily diaries, using a technique she calls “sister images.”

Those of us at home can play along, above.




Grab a composition book, or two blank sheets of paper, and a black felt tip pen. (Eventually you’ll need a timer, but not today.)

Rather than describe the ten-minute writing and drawing exercise in advance, we encourage you to jump right in, confident that teacher Barry would approve.

There are plenty of resources out there for those who want to learn how to outlinescript, and storyboard comics.

Barry aims to tap a deeper vein of creativity with exercises that help students embrace the unknown.

The sister diary’s purpose, she says, is to “let our hands lead the way in terms of figuring out our stories.”

Whether or not you seek to make comics, it’s an engaging way to document your life. You can also implement the sister diary technique for discovering more about characters in your fictional work.

You’ll also pick up some bonus tips on drawing backgrounds, using all caps, allotting enough space within a panel for full body renderings, and staying in the moment should you find yourself at a temporary loss.


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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday

Take an Intellectual Odyssey with a Free MIT Course on Douglas Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

In 1979, mathematician Kurt Gödel, artist M.C. Escher, and composer J.S. Bach walked into a book title, and you may well know the rest. Douglas R. Hofstadter won a Pulitzer Prize for Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, his first book, thenceforth (and henceforth) known as GEB. The extraordinary work is not a treatise on mathematics, art, or music, but an essay on cognition through an exploration of all three — and of formal systems, recursion, self-reference, artificial intelligence, etc. Its publisher settled on the pithy description, “a metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll.”

GEB attempted to reveal the mind at work; the minds of extraordinary individuals, for sure, but also all human minds, which behave in similarly unfathomable ways. One might also describe the book as operating in the spirit — and the practice — of Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, a novel Hesse wrote in response to the data-driven machinations of fascism and their threat to an intellectual tradition he held particularly dear. An alternate title (and key phrase in the book) Magister Ludi, puns on both “game” and “school,” and alludes to the importance of play and free association in the life of the mind.




Hesse’s esoteric game, writes his biographer Ralph Freedman, consists of “contemplation, the secrets of the Chinese I Ching and Western mathematics and music” and seems similar enough to Hofstadter’s approach and that of the instructors of MIT’s open course, Gödel, Escher, Bach: A Mental Space Odyssey. Offered through the High School Studies Program as a non-credit enrichment course, it promises “an intellectual vacation” through “Zen Buddhism, Logic, Metamathematics, Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence, Recursion, Complex Systems, Consciousness, Music and Art.”

Students will not study directly the work of Gödel, Escher, and Bach but rather “find their spirits aboard our mental ship,” the course description notes, through contemplations of canons, fugues, strange loops, and tangled hierarchies. How do meaning and form arise in systems like math and music? What is the relationship of figure to ground in art? “Can recursion explain creativity,” as one of the course notes asks. Hofstadter himself has pursued the question beyond the entrenchment of AI research in big data and brute force machine learning. For all his daunting erudition and challenging syntheses, we must remember that he is playing a highly intellectual game, one that replicates his own experience of thinking.

Hofstadter suggests that before we can understand intelligence, we must first understand creativity. It may reveal its secrets in comparative analyses of the highest forms of intellectual play, where we see the clever formal rules that govern the mind’s operations; the blind alleys that explain its failures and limitations; and the possibility of ever actually reproducing workings in a machine. Watch the lectures above, grab a copy of Hofstadter’s book, and find course notes, readings, and other resources for the fascinating course Gödel, Escher, Bach: A Mental Space Odyssey archived here. The course will be added to our list, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Related Content: 

How a Bach Canon Works. Brilliant.

Mathematics Made Visible: The Extraordinary Mathematical Art of M.C. Escher

The Mirroring Mind: An Espresso-Fueled Interpretation of Douglas Hofstadter’s Groundbreaking Ideas

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Pulp Tarot: A New Tarot Deck Inspired by Midcentury Pulp Illustrations

Graphic artist Todd Alcott has endeared himself to Open Culture readers by retrofitting midcentury pulp paperback covers and illustrations with classic lyrics from the likes of David BowiePrinceBob Dylan, and Talking Heads.

Although he’s dabbled in the abstractions that once graced the covers of psychology, philosophy, and science texts, his overarching attraction to the visual language of science fiction and illicit romance speak to the premium he places on narrative.




And with hundreds of “mid-century mashups” to his name, he’s become quite a master of bending existing narratives to his own purposes.

Recently, Alcott turned his attention to the creation of the Pulp Tarot deck he is funding on Kickstarter.

A self-described “clear-eyed skeptic as far as paranormal things” go, Alcott was drawn to the “simplicity and strangeness” of Pamela Colman Smith’s “bewitching” Tarot imagery:

Maybe because they were simply the first ones I saw, I don’t know, but there is something about the narrative thread that runs through them, the way they delineate the development of the soul, with all the choices and crises a soul encounters on its way to fulfillment, that really struck a chord with me. You lay out enough Tarot spreads and they eventually coalesce around a handful of cards that really seem to define you. I don’t know how it happens, but it does, every time: there are cards that come up for you so often that you think, “Yep, that’s me,” and then there are others that turn up so rarely that, when they do come up, you have to look them up in the little booklet because you’ve never seen them before.

One such card for Alcott is the Page of Swords. In the early 90s, curious to know what the Tarot would have to say about the young woman he’d started dating, he shuffled and cut his Rider-Waite-Smith deck “until something inside said “now” and he flipped over the Page of Swords:

I looked it up in the booklet, which said that the Page of Swords was a secret-keeper, like a spy. I thought about that for a moment; the woman I was seeing was nothing like a spy, and had no spy-like attributes. I shrugged and began the process again, shuffling and cutting and shuffling and cutting, until, again, something inside said “now,” and turned up the card again. It was the Page of Swords, again. My heart leaped, I put the deck back in its box and quietly freaked out for a while. The next day, I asked the young lady if the Page of Swords meant anything to her, and she said “Oh sure, when I was a kid, that was my card.” Anyway, I’m now married to her.

The Three of Pentacles is another favorite, one that presented a particular design challenge.

The Smith deck shows a stonemason, an architect and a church official, collaborating on building a cathedral. Now, there are no cathedrals in the pulp world, so I had to think, well, in the pulp world, pentacles represent money, so the obvious choice would be to show three criminals planning a heist. I couldn’t find an image anything close to the one in my head, so I had to build it: the room, the table, the map of the bank, the plan, the people involved, and then stitch it all together in Photoshop so it ended up looking like a cohesive illustration. That was a really joyful moment for me: there were the three conspirators, the Big Cheese, the Dame and The Goon, their roles clearly defined despite not seeing anyone’s face. It was a real breakthrough, seeing that I could put together a little narrative like that.

Smith imagined a medieval fantasy world when designing her Tarot deck. Alcott is drawing on 70 years of pop-culture ephemera to create a tribute to Smith’s vision that also works as a deck in their own right “with its own moral narrative universe, based on the attitudes and conventions of that world.”

Before drafting each of his 70 cards, Alcott studied Smith’s version, researching its meaning and design as he contemplates how he might translate it into the pulp vernacular. He has found that some of Smith’s work was deliberately exacting with regard to color, attitude, and costume, and other instances where specific details took a back seat to mood and emotional impact:

Once I understand what a card is about, I look through my library to find images that help get that across. It can get really complicated! A lot of times, the character’s body is in the right position but their face has the wrong expression, so I have to find a face that fits what the card is trying to say. Or their physical attitude is right, but I need them to be gripping or throwing something, so I have to find hands and arms that I can graft on, Frankenstein style. In some cases, there will be figures in the cards cobbled together from five or six different sources. 

These cards are easily the most complex work I’ve ever done in that sense. The song pieces I do are a conversation between the piece and the song, but these cards are a conversation between me, Smith, the entire Tarot tradition, and the universe. 

Visit Todd Alcott’s Etsy shop to view more of his mid-century mash ups, and see more cards from The Pulp Tarot and support Kickstarter here.

All images from the Pulp Tarot used with the permission of artist Todd Alcott.

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David Bowie Songs Reimagined as Pulp Fiction Book Covers: Space Oddity, Heroes, Life on Mars & More

Songs by Joni Mitchell Re-Imagined as Pulp Fiction Book Covers & Vintage Movie Posters

Four Classic Prince Songs Re-Imagined as Pulp Fiction Covers: When Doves Cry, Little Red Corvette & More

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Ethan Hawke Explains How to Give Yourself Permission to Be Creative

The most creative people, you’ll notice, throw themselves into what they do with absurd, even reckless abandon. They commit, no matter their doubts about their talents, education, finances, etc. They have to. They are generally fighting not only their own misgivings, but also those of friends, family, critics, financiers, and landlords. Artists who work to realize their own vision, rather than someone else’s, face a witheringly high probability of failure, or the kind of success that comes with few material rewards. One must be willing to take the odds, and to renounce, says Ethan Hawke in the short TED talk above, the need for validation or approval.

This is hard news for people pleasers and seekers after fame and reputation, but in order to overcome the inevitable social obstacles, artists must be willing, says Hawke, to play the fool. He takes as his example Allen Ginsberg, who appeared on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line in May of 1968 and, rather than answer Buckley’s charge that his political positions were “naive,” pulled out a harmonium and proceeded to sing the Hare Krishna chant (“the most unharried Krishna I’ve ever heard,” Buckley remarked). Upon arriving home to New York, says Hawke, Ginsberg was met by people who were aghast at what he’d done, feeling that he made himself a clown for middle America.




Ginsberg was unbothered. He was willing to be “America’s holy fool,” as Vivian Gornick called him, if it meant interrupting the constant stream of advertising and propaganda and making Americans stop to wonder “who is this stupid poet?”

Who is this person so willing to chant at William F. Buckley for “the preservation of the universe, instead of its destruction”? What might he have to say to my secret wishes? This is what artists do, says Hawke, take risks to express emotions, by whatever means are at hand. It is the essence of Ginsberg’s view of creativity, to let go of judgment, as he once told a writing student:

Judge it later. You’ll have plenty of time to judge it. You have all your life to judge it and revise it! You don’t have to judge it on the spot there. What rises, respect it. Respect what rises….

Judge your own work later, if you must, but whatever you do, Hawke advises above, don’t stake your worth on the judgments of others. The creative life requires committing instead to the value of human creativity for its own sake, with a childlike intensity that doesn’t apologize for itself or ask permission to come to the surface.

Related Content: 

Allen Ginsberg Talks About Coming Out to His Family & Fellow Poets on 1978 Radio Show (NSFW)

The Long Game of Creativity: If You Haven’t Created a Masterpiece at 30, You’re Not a Failure

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Airline Toilets Theatre Company: Watch One Man Stage Comical Shows in Airplane Bathrooms

When COVID 19 struck, theater lovers were faced with a choice.

Let go entirely, or expand our definitions of what constitutes “theater.”

We’ve had 14 months to get used to the idea of performances staged in closetsin podcast form, or as phone calls hinging on audience participation.

We’re sick of Zoom, but we no longer consider it mandatory for the players to inhabit the same space as each other or the audience.




This is all old news to Peter Brooke Turner, a member of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and the founder of the Airline Toilets Theatre Company.

The ATTC’s repertoire consists of great works of literature, song and dance… performed exclusively in aircraft lavatories, a true feat when one considers that Turner, impresario and sole company member, is 6’8”.

2015’s inaugural production, above, remains among the company’s most ambitious —  a 50th anniversary recreation of Bob Dylan’s 1965 promotional film clip for Subterranean Homesick Blues, shot on various flights throughout the Ukulele Orchestra’s US tour.

Before long, Turner’s carry-on was stuffed with props and costumes — a toga, three self-adhesive Abraham Lincoln beards, a fat suit, a plastic cigar, cardboard face masks of Jimi Hendrix and Queen’s Brian May, and a numbers of inflatables, including a woman, a horse, and a not particularly realistic handgun.

Staging solo, site specific mini productions struck Turner as a far more amusing prospect than remaining in his seat, watching a movie:

I don’t like passive consumerism — I’d rather make my own movie than watch some CGI blockbuster on a plane. 90% of touring is NOT performing but sitting around on a plane/train/bus staring into space — I’m just trying to do something creative to make the time pass. 

With advance planning, the simpler productions can make it into the can on a single take.

The James Bond Tribute, below, which called for costume changes, puppets and cardboard masks of Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Daniel Craig, was shot in segments — London to Frankfurt, Singapore to Auckland, and Singapore to London.

Rather than projecting for the benefit of folks in the non-existent back row, Turner prefers to lip synch prerecorded lines, fed to him via earbud. This helps dial down the suspicions of flight attendants and fellow passengers. Once the “occupied” light comes on, he reckons he has between 7 to 10 minutes to take care of business. Should anyone question the length of his stay, or his large bag of costumes and props, his excuse is that “I suffer from haemorrhoids and need to change my pants. (Believe me, this is a conversation no one wants to take further.)”

Watch a playlist of the Best of the Airline Toilets Theater Company here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her June 7 for a Necromancers of the Public Domain: The Periodical Cicada, a free virtual variety honoring the 17-Year Cicadas of Brood X. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Creative Thinking: A Free Online Course from Imperial College London

From Peter Childs (Head of the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial College London) comes a free course that explores creative thinking techniques, and how to apply them to everyday problems and global challenges. The course description for Creative Thinking: Techniques and Tools for Success reads:

In today’s ever-growing and changing world, being able to think creatively and innovatively are essential skills. It can sometimes be challenging to step back and reflect in an environment which is fast paced or when you are required to assimilate large amounts of information. Making sense of or communicating new ideas in an innovative and engaging way, approaching problems from fresh angles, and producing novel solutions are all traits which are highly sought after by employers.

The greatest innovators aren’t necessarily the people who have the most original idea. Often, they are people- or teams- that have harnessed their creativity to develop a new perspective or more effective way of communicating an idea. You can train your imagination to seize opportunities, break away from routine and habit, and tap into your natural creativity.

This course will equip you with a ‘tool-box’, introducing you to a selection of behaviours and techniques that will augment your innate creativity. Some of the tools are suited to use on your own and others work well for a group, enabling you to leverage the power of several minds.

You can take Creative Thinking: Techniques and Tools for Success for free by selecting the audit option upon enrolling. If you want to take the course for a certificate, you will need to pay a fee.

Creative Thinking will be added to our list, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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167 Pieces of Life & Work Advice from Kevin Kelly, Founding Editor of Wired Magazine & The Whole Earth Review

Image by Christopher Michel, via Wikimedia Commons

I am a big admirer of Kevin Kelly for the same reason I am of Brian Eno—he is constantly thinking. That thirst for knowledge and endless curiosity has always been the backbone to their particular art forms. For Eno it’s music, but for Kelly it’s in his editorship of the Whole Earth Review and then Wired magazine, providing a space for big ideas to reach the widest audience. (He’s also the reason one of my bucket lists is the Nakasendo, after seeing his photo essay on it.)

On his 68th birthday in 2020, Kelly posted on his blog a list of 68 “Unsolicited Bits of Advice.” One bit of advice that frames his thought process and his work is this one:

“I’m positive that in 100 years much of what I take to be true today will be proved to be wrong, maybe even embarrassingly wrong, and I try really hard to identify what it is that I am wrong about today.”

However, the list is more about wisdom from a life well-spent. Many fall into the art of being a curious human among other humans:

  • Everyone is shy. Other people are waiting for you to introduce yourself to them, they are waiting for you to send them an email, they are waiting for you to ask them on a date. Go ahead.
  • The more you are interested in others, the more interesting they find you. To be interesting, be interested.
  • Being able to listen well is a superpower. While listening to someone you love keep asking them “Is there more?”, until there is no more.

And this is probably the hardest piece of advice these days:

  • Learn how to learn from those you disagree with, or even offend you. See if you can find the truth in what they believe.

Other bits of advice have to do with creativity and being an artist:

  • Always demand a deadline. A deadline weeds out the extraneous and the ordinary. It prevents you from trying to make it perfect, so you have to make it different. Different is better.
  • Don’t be the smartest person in the room. Hangout with, and learn from, people smarter than yourself. Even better, find smart people who will disagree with you.
  • To make something good, just do it. To make something great, just re-do it, re-do it, re-do it. The secret to making fine things is in remaking them.
  • Art is in what you leave out.

And some of the more interesting ones are his disagreements with perceived wisdom:

  • Following your bliss is a recipe for paralysis if you don’t know what you are passionate about. A better motto for most youth is “master something, anything”. Through mastery of one thing, you can drift towards extensions of that mastery that bring you more joy, and eventually discover where your bliss is.

One year later, Kelly has returned with 99 more bits of advice. I guess he couldn’t wait til his 99th birthday for it. Some favorites include:

  • If something fails where you thought it would fail, that is not a failure.
  • Being wise means having more questions than answers.
  • I have never met a person I admired who did not read more books than I did.
  • Every person you meet knows an amazing lot about something you know virtually nothing about. Your job is to discover what it is, and it won’t be obvious.

and finally:

  • Don’t let your email inbox become your to-do list.

There is a small shift in Kelly’s 2021 list from his 2020 list, like a little more frustration with the world, a need for more order in the chaos. I wonder what his advice will be in a few more years?

via BoingBoing

Related Content:

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The Best Magazine Articles Ever, Curated by Kevin Kelly

What Books Could Be Used to Rebuild Civilization?: Lists by Brian Eno, Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly & Other Forward-Thinking Minds

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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