Rafiq Bhatia is poised to become a force in modern guitar. His trio was the best guitar-based show at the last Big Ears Festival pre-Covid—and that festival included shows by David Torn and Bill Frisell! Check out his record “Breaking English.” He is also in a band called Son Lux that released a three record project in 2021: Tomorrows I,II,& III. If D’Angelo and Bowie had a baby, it might sound something like Son Lux. We talk about all this, and more. I suggest you go to here for his National Sawdust performance and our talk about it. I have posted the original interview I did with him for Electronic Musician below as well.
The Electronic Musician Interview
Electronic Guitarist: Rafiq Bhatia
“The first step in integrating electric guitar into electronic music is realizing there isn’t a lot of electric guitar in it,” says Rafiq Bhatia. Growing up in North Carolina, Bhatia became aware of that even before picking up the guitar, while listening to J.Dilla in elementary school. But hearing Jimi Hendrix and Bill Frisell revealed that, in addition to providing harmony, melody, and rhythm, the instrument could be used as a pure sound production source. After thorough schooling in its traditional use, Bhatia developed his non-traditional approach by playing with bands that didn’t normally use guitar, like hip-hop and electronica acts, culminating in his joining the electronica-based Son Lux.
“The second step in integrating the guitar is to think of it differently for the studio and the stage,” he continues. “There are sections of the Son Lux record where my guitar has been chopped up, put into a Kontact sampler, and heavily processed. I have to figure out how to perform that live.”
Bhatia uses two approaches to solve the problem. “Sometimes, I process the guitar to get as close as I can to the sounds on the record,” he explains. “Other times it makes more sense to jettison the original part and come up with something that works better in a live show.
For either approach, the guitarist gets his sounds from the creative use of a surprisingly small number of pedals. They include a mild overdrive made by JHS and a ZVex Fat Fuzz Factory, with a heavy bass boost. The signal then goes through a volume pedal into an Origin Effects Cali76, which is like an 1176-style studio-grade FET compressor. A couple of Eventide H9s are employed for reverbs, delay, modulation and some more compression. “I like using an expression pedal with the H9 because you can program it like a plug-in with its iPad app to control a number of parameters simultaneously,” he says. “For example, you could make the reverb mix wetter, while at the same time shortening the reverb decay.”
Bhatia runs his guitar and pedals through a Swart Atomic Space Tone amp with a single tone control perfectly voiced for his needs. Since the low octaves he creates with the H9s and the Z.Vex pedal’s bass boost can prove too much for the Swart’s speaker, in addition to the speaker sound he runs a speaker emulator D.I. between the amp and the speakers. The D.I. sends a signal to the PA, which is better equipped to handle the subs. “I also use the Swart in the studio to reamp other sonic elements like samples and keyboards,” he adds.
Bhatia’s brilliant solo record, Breaking English [Anti/Epitaph], features guitar that is largely sliced, diced, sampled, and processed to the point where the original instrument is indiscernible. What you might swear is a kalimba is actually a series of prepared guitar tracks. A few sounds that are more recognizable as guitar show up on “Hoods Up” and “Perihelon I.”
“I was using the Z.Vex fuzz on “Hoods Up,” along with either an upper octave from the H9 or a Sound Toys Little Alter Boy vocal formant and pitch shifting plug-in,” he explains. “I would often record the guitar direct and mix that with the amp.”
On the final track, “A Love That’s True,” Bhati tosses acoustic guitar into this electronic stew. A Collings parlor-sized guitar starts off strummed folky-style, but its accents are soon driving reverb stabs increasingly processed through tremolo and distortion to add emotional impact.
Bhatia has had to figure out how to represent his own record live. In the process, he is helping forge the electric guitar’s future. Like his heroes, Hendrix and Frisell, he is experimenting with sounds that reflect his times, meanwhile using the uniquely expressive nature of his instrument to inject an extra dose of humanity into electronic music.