When musical traditions meet, handled by people with real mastery of their technique, wonderful things can happen. That can be true of master instrument builders, for one. I got a chance to hear the sounds of the Moog Lap Steel Guitar in June while meeting with the folks from Moog Music. It’s an incredibly-delicious instrument, both in terms of how it’s engineered as a guitar and in bringing the filter from the Moog synth, now itself a tradition.

But more importantly, in the stage that comes after those tools are built, traditions fuse beneath the fingers of master musicians. Chris Stack has been updating CDM regularly on his wonderful Experimental Synth Series, in which he explores musical applications of tools – what you can do when you take these things home and really live with them musically. Here, for CDM, he explains the wonders of “hybrid vigor,” as two master folk/bluegrass musicians take up the sonic possibilities of synthesis. It’s all in the analog domain here, but that’s secondary: anyone working with the techniques of electronic music and electronic experimentation will find inspiration.

And you thought bluegrass and synthesis had nothing to do with one another. Think again. -Ed.

The history of musical instruments and of music itself is a story of the search for ever-greater tools for expression, and of an ever-deepening well of ideas to express. Combining innovations by instrument makers from around the globe (and across decades and centuries) with musicians who take a similar approach to their art is bound to produce music that displays a welcome hybrid vigor.

A prime example of this is Billy Cardine and the Moog Lap Steel. A bluegrass virtuoso who has performed everywhere from Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center to the Ryman Auditorium and Bonnaroo, he also studied in India and will perform at the upcoming Bangalore International Music Fest with chitravina master Ravikiran. [Ed.: the chitravina is an ancient Indian instrument dating back at least two millennia. It’s a fretless string instrument, and can itself be seen as a precursor to slide instruments in places like Hawaii – it’s played in the same way, with a slide. Just dig those 21 strings. -PK

Billy was instrumental (pardon the pun) in the development of the Moog Lap Steel and played a prototype at its debut at Moogfest 2010 (see video, below). Combining the unique expressive qualities of the lap steel with the innovative string control abilities of the Moog Guitar – adding an onboard Moog filter – results in an instrument with incredible expressive potential.

And since there is a CV (control voltage) input for external control of the Moog filter, why not bring some modular synthesis into the mix? Against a backdrop of synth drones and arpeggiations, with a sweep of a pedal the MakeNoise René sequencer can be brought in to modulate the Lap Steel’s filter cutoff frequency. The René has two independent clock inputs. In this video (top), only one of them is synced to MIDI clock, resulting in some nice, subtle glitchyness.

Bring this to life with Billy’s unique style… the results… the expressive vigor of hybrids.

And More Sonic Experimentation – With a Fiddle

In another example of electronic expression in unexpected genres… Casey Driessen, violinist with Bela Fleck, the Sparrow Quartet and others visits the ExperimentalSynth Studio to check out some Moogerfooger effects processors.

Ed.: For a change of pace, I have to also embed here a preview Chris shot for the workshop he was teaching for the Moog Foundation. You get some computers here. And actually, I’m impressed by the sense that, in some sense, it doesn’t matter – this Mac laptop could easily jam with the violin, with the banjo, with the slide guitar… That’s important. Working solo in the dark hours of the night is terrific. But it means you can also play – really play, not just get lost in some chaotic soundscape – with friends from a range of musical traditions. -PK

More Experimental Synth:

  • Interesting, that first video reminds me of one of my favorite ambient artist of all time :

    Robert Rich.

    He used (and still does) a lapsteel as well to create these amazingly beautiful 'ethereal' sounds. I don't know exactly how he manage to do that though.

    nice article, Peter, i'll definitely head over to the Moog website to check it out.

  • Peter Kirn

    Actually, just to clarify, the article and videos aren't affiliated with Moog Music. And even the workshop was Moog Foundation, not Moog Music. The association with Moog Music is that their gear gets used, along with that fantastic MakeNoise kit, which I also badly would like. 😉

  • Wasili just beat me to it, but yeah, definitely Robert Rich comes to mind… Almost all of his beautiful wordless lead vocals ( wich i thought were synth generated) are actually created with ( e-bowed ? ) a lap steel guitar, using some micro-tonal tunings of his own, and running thru combinations of effects.

  • I kid you not….I literally just made a quick patch in Sunrizer for iPad and recorded a 5 minute improv,then I went on to twitter to see this link posted by a friend. The song/patch I made sounds eriely similar to the first video. Crazy. I didn't even know this thing existed and here I am making the same sounds with an iPad and a $5 app. 

    If anyone wants to hear my iPad only music check out my soundcloud.com/freesoulsound page and I might put the "song" up. It's not a real song but more a patch demo just like the videos so I don't know if I want to add it to my only music delivery page ;). Hit me up if you want the Sunrizer patch and demo I can email them both my freesoulsound.blogspot.com should be able to contact me and I can send them your way!

  • r

    I don't think it's such an unexpected combination.

    I've always loved bluegrass as an electronic musician. It seems kindof obvious to me – if you've ever opened your ears to the _sound_ of a t bone burnett production or an allison krauss album, the timbres are simply beautiful. ditto for crooked still, sarah watkin's voice, …

  • A lap guitar is a nice twist to regular guitar and make it closer to Middle East instruments.

  • Genou

    Laurie Spiegel composed and recorded Appalachian Grove back in 1974; it was an algorithmic composition inspired by appalachian bluegrass music.

  • Sébastien

    What is the name of the band playing with Mr Cardine at the hand of the second video ? Sound so good to my ears !

  • sjc

    I was never very impressed with any of the Moog guitar demos I've seen, but the lapsteel seems a lot more suited to the sustain and other features. Daniel Lanois would have a ball with this.

  • Peter Kirn

    @sjc: The Moog Guitar is a beautiful instrument, but I'm partial to the Lap Steel for sustain and filtered sustain for the same reason. I don't think you're alone. 😉

  • bliss

    Best post of the year, IMO. Nothing but great. 🙂

  • @Bliss… Thank you very much!

    @ Sebastien… that was an all-star band assembled for that show.  Billy Cardine, Cyril Lance (Moog Chief Engineer) on Moog Guitar, Ben Hovey (no stranger to these pages) on trumpet and synth, Brian Kehew on synths, Jeff Sipe on drums and Jay Sanders on bass.

  • I've been a bluegrass musician for over 40 years, and started exploring synthesis in the mid '80s with the arrival of MIDI, and MIDI guitars. The "High, Lonesome sound" of bluegrass translates pretty well into electronic sounds and textures. My duo with Fiddler Kenny Kosek delves into folklore and fiddle tunes, and I play a MIDI banjo controller alongside my 5-string banjo.

    Billy and Casey iare amazing musicians whose playing seems to fit naturally into electronic music.

  • I was joking with Billy recently that his playing on the intro to the top video really puts a new spin on "high, lonesome" 🙂

  • sarmoung

    Well, it surely can't be too long until Moog put this on a pedal steel and if so, how about giving a model to BJ Cole? Currently he plays a 12 string in a hybrid E9/B6 tuning (with a MIDI pickup as well I should point out!) and I'd love to see what he could do with it. It's that elusive search for greater sustain that excites me most about these guitars. 

    Here he is with Emily Burridge in an Appalachian mood of sorts:


  • A few years ago, I took the dusty, garish off-brand guitar I've had on my wall for ages down, cleaned it up, asked a guitar-oriented friend to show me how to tune it, and plugged it into my performance rig as a new and highly intimate oscillator. I've never played guitar, and always looked at 'em with a bit of a wrinkled nose, but there's definitely this touch there, and I've had some great times and gigs with my guitar+nord+fx setup since then.

    Holger Czukay once said that learning to play an instrument was like learning to lie, and I've been telling very particular lies with this rig since, though I think one of these days, I'm going to get myself a proper lap steel. For now, my old junk guitar isn't nice, isn't fancy, and doesn't sound especially nice, but it's a hell of a touchable oscillator.

    I've got a video up of one of my first attempts with it at vimeo:


    There's just no substitute for play and the arena of the happy accident, channeled into more controllable circumstances.

  • I never thought I would find such an everdayy topic so enthralling!