In early 2017 I made myself a geetar. I had no plans, only half a clue & barely any ingredients. I didn’t even have a cigarbox. My kids were sure it would be a disaster and I tended to agree.
I sawed up a big old cutlery drawer & used one of its compartments for the soundbox, a bit of old chairleg for the neck, and some oversized hook-screws for tuning pegs. The nut and the bridge are held in place by a matter of faith, and the neck slants out from the body like a hillbilly’s lazy left eye.
I added a couple of ill-considered tines (twangy things) near the soundhole, thinking they would provide some kind of kalimba element, and for the slide I used the plastic handle off an old saucepan lid – in the hand it proved to be surprisingly ergonomic, and I actually prefer the sound it gets over my “proper” steel and perspex slides. Another serendipitous feature is that the neck (old chair leg) has a series of natural markings in the wood that actually coincide with the main note intervals I use, with alarming accuracy, making it much easier to navigate.
The instrument was born dodgy, a frankenthing held together by its own wonkiness, but through sheer instinct, improvisation & luck I managed to come up with an acoustic sound machine with a surprisingly sweet & penetrative voice.
I’ve never been much of a slide player, but as I befriended this threestringbox, it coaxed out new dimensions in my playing, and inevitably a new batch of tunes, which became the Threestringbox album. I used this album to explore a lot of traditional sounds you’d expect from a slide guitar, referencing blues, folk & mountain music, but I found a few more atmospheric and experimental textures as well. There’s even a surf instrumental in there.
Most of the tunes evolved out of a kind of morning ritual I developed – I’d sit out on the deck with my first coffee, gazing out over the Huon River as I noodled around. Once I caught a riff I’d noodle it into shape to record later, adding a few other instruments here and there, the occasional crow or other field recording, and splashes of odd fx. Many of the tracks were fully-baked by day’s end.
The Return of Threestringbox: Hill Tribes of the Huon Valley Region
I’m still very proud of having made a functional primitive instrument, and surprisingly, 5 years later I’ve hardly ever had to tune it. Admittedly I rarely play it, but in 2020 I dusted it off to reacquaint myself with it’s dulcet tones.
I’d been immersed in making a lot of edit-intensive, electronically-motivated music and needed a break from bleeps and bloops. I set myself the creative limitation of acoustic-only instrumentation, with ‘The Box’ as the key feature.
On 2017’s Threestringbox album, I had only just begun teaching myself to play bass on cello (not having a bass guitar) – I’ve played electric bass many times, but I find fretless instruments quite alien. By 2020, however, I’d been using the cello bass on a lot of other recordings and I was a lot more confident, even finding some passable imitations of jazzy doublebass stylings.
I’d also been mucking around with a battered old kidsize drumkit I bought cheap at the tipshop. These elements, and my renewed interest in the threestringbox, converged and conspired to become the acoustic hillbilly jazz & ramshackle folk improvisations on the album Hill Tribes Of The Huon Valley Region.
By setting up some loose rhythm foundations with the bass & kit, I could apply a more improvisational jazz thinking to The Box and found a new confidence in my slide-playing – and it’s always a pleasure to surprise oneself out of old playing habits, boosts the old dopamine levels.
Another primitive DIY string instrument that makes a cameo appearance on this album is the Electric Plank, constructed on a creative whim by my daughter when she was 11. I had previously used it with an oyster pickup, and played it as an amplified slide guitar on the two Pigbox albums (2016), and in places on SKIN (2017). This time, I played without amplification, using a chopstick to tap the strings with my right hand, while using my left to push down on individual strings above the nut to bend the notes, resulting in a sound reminiscent of the Japanese koto. You can hear it on the track Twixt The Nipple And The Deep Blue Sea:
For this album, I also dug out a few other bruised & bedraggled acoustic instruments I’ve accumulated over the years, seemingly with the express purpose of not playing them: balalaika, balafon, european mandolin, jawsharps, and a kemenche (Turkish fiddle). I’ve never taken naturally to bowed instruments, but I think I managed to strangle some reasonably convincing “ethnic” sounds out of the kemenche on this album.
While Hill Tribes Of The Huon Valley Region is an unapologetically ramshackle performance, it befits my original intention:
“A Lomaxian anthropological peek into the mountainous remotes of my musical psyche – rough edges but cohesive interactions, honest acoustic textures and polyrhythmic tensions, in the spirit of the original folk impulse, the bang or pluck of a thing, making it work with whatever’s at hand.”