Most modern guitar sounds continue to exist in the instrument-pedals -amp world. Mark Wingfield is one of the few to explore the possibilities that spring to life when you attach a hexophonic pickup to the guitar. In his masterful use of Roland’s VG-88 and soft-synths in a laptop he remains almost alone among purveyors of the instrument. He was kind enough to take time out of a schedule so busy it doesn’t allow for Facebook (or maybe because it doesn’t) to wax eloquently on his path towards this approach to the instrument as well as modern music in general.
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?
I’ll define proficiency as the ability to play what’s necessary to create the music you want to hear. At one point I knew all my scales, could play over chord changes, had a reasonable chord vocabulary, and had my basic technique sorted, but then realized I still didn’t have the tools to play what I was hearing in my head. I realized every note sounded more or less the same tonally—You fret the note, pluck the string cleanly and it sustains and that’s the end of it. But for me that was boring compared to a sax or trumpet having an almost limitless number of tonal variations during the attack and sustain of any note.
I set about experimenting with different ways to vary the attack, transition and tone of the notes I played. This meant going back to the drawing board for a number of years and working on a completely different set of techniques. By the end of this I was playing in a very different way and was able to finally play some of what I was hearing in my head. Of course, by this time I was hearing a whole lot of new things that I was unable to play, and so it goes.
What led you to create experimental (non-mainstream) music?
When I got to the stage where I was able to render my impressions of the world, as well as the things in my imagination in musical form, it was clear that the music was not mainstream. Mainstream music almost always has a formula, limited to certain sound choices, riffs, melodic lines or rhythms, shared by other music in its genre. It’s easily digestible, easily understandable, and safe because you know what to expect and it sounds familiar. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. However, the art that excites and inspires me never sticks to rules like that. Most of the great composers and great jazz musicians overturned what had come before. Some rock music does that too, however most of it conforms to the formulas. I have always been interested in making music that doesn’t seem to fit into any of these genres or formulas because the emotions I relate to, when rendered in musical form, don’t tend to resolve into mainstream formulas.
It was the same with my guitar sound: Whatever sound I got from a guitar never seemed to match what I was hearing in my head. As I progressed, the sounds I was hearing and feeling got even further away from plugging a guitar into an amp in a straightforward way. It became my quest to find the sounds in my head and thus explored using electronics to shape the sound. I heard something guitar-like, but also like a voice or a sax or trumpet. I worked hard at playing guitar synth with trumpet and flute sounds and got to the point where I could play convincing trumpet and flute solos. This helped move my phrasing away from typical guitar centered vocabulary, but I realized using other instrument sounds was getting me no closer to what I was hearing in my head.
I continued to experiment for a long time with every effect and amp I could find, but nothing really got away from the stock set of guitar sounds until the Roland VG-88 turned things around for me. It allowed me to create what I call imaginary guitar sounds. Now I’m using a laptop and software to take the guitar sound to places that even the VG can’t go.
Whose music inspires you?
Some wonderful guitarists have inspired me in the past, and I still love their music, but I try not to listen to them any more because it’s too easy to end up copying them. Jimi Hendrix is still a giant, if you think about what things were like before he did what he did, and how much of what you hear now came from his experiments and inventions. One thing that raises him above other players was his ability to make the sound more than the sum of its parts—with a guitar, an amp and a few primitive effects, he made it explode, bifurcate like something alive coming out of the speakers, the pure expression of what he was feeling in that moment. The Woodstock version of “The Star Spangled Banner” is still one of the great sonic works of art, and one of greatest achievements of the electric guitar. I didn’t want to sound anything like Hendrix, but I did want my sound to be more of a living entity.
I love Terje Rypdal, Jeff Beck, Pat Metheny, Adrian Belew, Bill Frisell and others, but I’ve pretty much stopped listening to guitarists. An exception is Kevin Kastning. He plays so far from how I play it’s almost like another instrument. I can listen to as much of his music as I like and don’t have to worry about starting to play like him!
For a long time my main influences and inspirations have been other instruments: Miles Davis’s ’60s and early ’70s music, Coltrane’s ’60s music; and then a lot of the ECM catalog like Jarrett, Garbarek, Kenny Wheeler. Art Ensemble of Chicago and Anthony Braxton have also been huge influences. Mixed in are composers like Eliot Carter, Bartok, Ravel, and many others. I spend as much time listening to classical music as I do improvised music. I also spend huge amounts of time listening to traditional music from all over the world.
How did you get better at your current style?
By always pushing the boundaries of what I can do mentally, emotionally and physically. By hearing something else, something that’s beyond what you can do. By striving for that, but not minding how long it takes to get there.
What are you trying convey with your music?
For me music is usually a translation of an experience. If I’m improvising then it’s the experience of the moment. If I’m composing the experience can have various sources: impressions of times, places and lives, either real or imagined; music is a way for me to translate those experiences into sound. I don’t know what I would do with these feelings if I didn’t have music as a way of translating them and rendering them into something real.
Sometimes experiences can be discovered within music. There are times when through exploring and experimenting I’ll uncover some new musical idea that contains a particular feeling. The feeling might be one I recognize, or it might be as new to me as the musical idea. So I spend quite a bit of time searching the boundaries of what I know, trying to find new things that mean something to me.
Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?
The heart of my guitar sound is a Patrick Eggle LA guitar going through a Roland VG-88 [No longer available-now the VG-99]. I haven’t used a guitar amp or conventional pickups in seven or eight years now. I’ve built sounds in the VG-88 that are so close to my inner voice I can’t stop using the VG unless I can create very similar sounds another way. I’ve used it on almost every track of my last six records. There’s nothing else out there that allows me to shape the guitar sound in this way.
I do a lot of tone shaping with my hands on the strings, so it is essential that when I add distortion and shape the frequencies with electronics every nuance of what I play is preserved. There is a huge tonal range between picking near the neck of the guitar and picking against the bridge, it sounds like two different guitars. That’s one example of tone shaping. I find with conventional effects, by the time I’ve added distortion, EQ, some sort of delay line, and more EQ and distortion from an amp, the tonal difference between picking near the bridge or neck might be negligible. The VG preserves every detail of what you play and any tonal effects you create on the guitar.
I added a sustainer to my guitar and have rarely switched it off since—it was as if this is how the electric guitar always should have been. It opened up the possibility of manipulating the tone over time as a note sustains, like a trumpet or sax.
I have been using a laptop as part of my sound. I’m using an Apple MacBook Retina 2.7 GHz, SSD and a TC Studiokonnect 48 A/D with MainStage. With this setup I can get a round trip latency of 7.1 ms; I sometimes need to move it up to 8.2 ms, but that’s still less time than it takes for the sound to reach you from a guitar amp three meters away, in other words, totally playable. I am now able to play through plug-ins in real time, which opens up a huge range of possibilities.
I’m mainly using some of the more subtle tone and harmonic shaping plug-ins to alter my sound via controllers as I play. I’m using some complex filters made from combinations of Waves, Melda Production and Tone2 as well as other tone shaping effects.
I control parameters using a VMeter touch strip attached to my guitar so I can subtly control parameters with my right hand fingers. I might move my finger forward on the strip to move the filter peaks towards and then past each other, all the while increasing the mix of the filter with the dry signal. This is something that wouldn’t make much sense if I didn’t have a sustainer because they are slow changes I make over a sustaining note. I also often have an iPad within arms reach for further parameter manipulation, especially of synth parameters if I’m using guitar synth. I find the touch surface subtler than turning a knob or fader.
I’ve done a lot of experimenting with the new tools that are around, like spectral filters, frequency shifters and wave shapers etc. They all have interesting possibilities, some of which I’m using. I particularly like what waveshaping can do. I’ve tried every waveshaper I can find; the Sinevibes for me is the most useful and musical.
I also sometimes trigger samples from the guitar. I collect my own samples and then manipulate them in the studio. These are mapped to notes on the guitar. I can take the sound of a huge piece of metal hitting the bottom of a concrete chasm and a micro sound, like moving a miniature box slightly on a table top, mix them at the same volume and map them to adjacent notes on the guitar.
I use synth sounds at times , though rarely as part of my main guitar sound. I normally use them for creating chord backdrops or extreme “monster” guitar sounds. For me, the Spectrasonics Ominisphere is the best synth in terms of sound quality, breadth of sounds and programmability.
Most of my distortion is coming from the VG-88, but a finer layer of distortion frequency and envelope shaping can be added to that by software on the laptop. I find the Waves recreations of the 1176, NLS desk channels, and API EQ can add a very pleasing harmonic content and distortion, especially when used in combination. I think of it as adding a very subtle distortion and envelope shaping effects box to my existing guitar sound.
Most of my favorite chord voicings are impossible to play on the guitar and, since very specific voicings are central to the way I compose, I had to find a way to make this happen. On the title track of Three Windows and “The Serpent,” I used two VG-88s to create rhythmic pads built from playing single notes. More recently on the track, “Distant Call Of Knowing,” from An Illustrated Silence, with Kevin Kastning, I used the laptop to create sustaining chords from single notes. I have a controller pedal which, when I press it down, feeds the guitar into the sustain setup on the laptop and clears the sustaining chord when lifted up. I created these chords as Kevin and I played depending on the improvisation. The result of all these techniques is the ability to play chords not normally possible on the guitar by building them from single note lines.
With all that is now possible in the digital domain, I can imagine a plug-in that would restructure the audio signal in a more organic way. At the moment it is based around concepts like frequency shifting, waveshaping, spectral filtering etc. I can imagine more deeply restructuring a guitar audio signal to take on the character of an oboe or cello. I don’t my guitar to sound like another real instrument, but would love to be able to invent new instruments, like combining the breathiness of a flute with the deep wooden tones of a cello, which might transform into a brassy sax tone as it decays—yet still sound like a guitar. I’m not talking about incorporating the actual sounds of these instruments—you can do that now just using samples; I mean altering the guitar audio signal itself, keeping the tonal variation of fingers on strings, but restructuring the audio in real time. I don’t know a plug-in company working along these lines, but if there is I would be very interested in working with them.
Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?
I love both for different reasons. Studio work is often more considered and there is often a goal in mind for a given piece, so everything that gets recorded is aimed towards achieving that. With live playing, where there often isn’t a predetermined goal as such, every gig can take a different direction depending on what happens and how it feels. That said, some studio recording is no different from a live recording except there is no audience. For example, the work I do with Kevin Kastning is live in the studio with no overdubs. In contrast, the albums I’ve done with Rene von Grunig have overdubs and layers and sometimes a lot of time is taken thinking about how the production can best achieve the aim of the piece. Some albums I’ve done with Iain Ballamy have been a mixture; a lot of Sleeper Street was played live in the studio, but there are other parts on some tracks that were overdubbed and layered.
How have you built up an audience for your music?
I’ve been doing it quite a long time, I only play gigs I want to play in places I like, which limits the number of performances but means I can put more into the performances I do. I put out at least one album a year. I honestly don’t know how these approaches affect my audience. My work has been critically well received, which obviously helps and I’ve been lucky enough that serious music journalists like Barry Cleveland (Guitar Player), Anil Prasad (Innerviews), yourself and others have taken an interest in my work.
I don’t do social networking; I’m not even on Facebook. I’m sure it would be a good thing to do, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day when I have to practice, compose, record, gig, create new sounds, keep on top of the technology, teach, spend time with my wife, and sleep—I only barely fit all that in as it is!
What is your latest project?
I’ve recently released an album called Cinema Obscura, this was co-written with Swiss keyboardist and sound-scaper Rene von Grunig, one of the most original musicians and composers I’ve had the privilege to work. Collaborating on the compositions and production for this album was really inspiring. The album also features, and was co-produced by, saxophonist Iain Ballamy who I’ve worked with a lot.
The concept of the album is to be a “visual journey for the ears” through places and times, some real and some imaginary. Rene and I wanted to bring in some subtle elements of classical music just in the use of structure and themes, as a way of telling these musical stories. Having said that every track on the album has a large improvisational element.
My next release will be a third album with acoustic guitarist Kevin Kastning. This is a series of improvised duets inspired by the music of the American composer Eliot Carter. Who has been a huge influence on both Kevin and me. There are two tracks on this album where Kevin is playing his newly invented 30-string guitar. This is a really fantastic instrument to play with, as the range is so huge. Kevin invented it so he could play things he was hearing that were not possible on anything else—essentially the same thing I’m doing with software. The album entitled Dark Sonatas is scheduled for release in August and we’ll be playing a concert in NYC at Drom to launch the album.