People have wanted to know about how the pencilina came to be so I decided to write this- following the timeline are some thoughts about my process which might be useful or seem stupid.
1986- I recorded a percussion piece using drums and a guitar that had bottle caps wedged between the pickups and the strings. I hit the strings with pencils.
1987 - I built a 6 stringed instrument out of old guitar tuning pegs, a pickup and a pine fence post. I'd put it on my floor tom and bang on it when I played the drums
1988 - I built a new version of the instrument out of oak boards and added a contact mic to the pencilina. I used and still used K&K contact mics. They are my favorite. After seeing Sonic Youth (I think it was the Evol tour) I decided to try weaving a drum stick in the strings to use as a sliding bridge. 16 years Iater I still use this same drum stick.
1995- I dropped the Pencilina on the street in Boston while I was unpacking it. The bass neck cracked near the tuners and it cracked in the center. A friend helped me with some quick repairs bolting steels plates around the cracks. These were very effective but immensely changed the character of the sound. The denser materials made the sound a lot duller.
1997/8?? - I was approached by an enthusiastic German man with lots of ideas and advice when he noticed me playing on the street New York. My pencilina was showing a lot wear as well as warping and bowing under the heavy stress of the strings. He said, you could do this and that so it doesn’t bow, and make it out of laminated wood and you could use sperzel tuning pegs and ........ This fellow was Hans Ochs, a trained luthier and guitar technician. I hired him to build a new Pencilina for me using his ideas. A year of so later he came up with an instrument he carved from two blocks of wood made of many laminated pieces. It was heavy, amazing looking and cool as a slide instrument but sadly not a playable pencilina. Some measurements were different and he used an inline tuning peg layout (Stratocaster style). This design didn’t interact well with the sticks interwoven in the strings. It was back to the drawing board and we came up with the design that I still play today. It took Hans a while but he did a fantastic job. It includes a Hipshot multiple tuning bridge on the treble neck which lets me have three different tunings for each string so I can flip its levered cams and switch chords.
1999- I became enthralled with the Clavia Nord Micro Modular synthesizer. This is a strong little red box a little smaller then a VHS tape which is a DSP modeled analog modular synthesizer that can be programed and configured using an external computer. Basically you can lay out modules (filters, oscillators, envelopes, distortions, etc.) and connect them in any way you want. After creating the patches you don’t need the computer- everything is stored in the Micro Modular. I control this with two Paia midi brains and a thumb drum sensor board that I built and fit into a small box slightly bigger ten the Micro Modular. The sensors for the Paia boxes are connected to my high hat, bass drum, and a box with some knobs on it that I can use to control the Micro’s virtual ones.
2003- I’ve been playing around with the MIDI portion of Max (a multimedia programming environment) and programmed a virtual simulation of the pencilina that I’m beginning to use in some of my music. My program ties a keyboard and drum pads together to interact in a similar way to the pencilina. I decided to do this because a MIDI keyboard isn’t well suited to my playing style and I needed a more direct way to get my ideas into my compositions for other instruments.
It seems like the best ideas in developing the pencilina, my playing techniques and devices surface as the result of heavy trial and error. Prototypes are very important and so is scrapping them. I have to keep reminding my self of this because I have the potential to waste time refining an aspect of something before it’s basic purpose is fully functional. It’s kind of like spending a lot of time making the ultimate mix of a song which sucks. So patience is a wonderful thing. Also in the end nothing is perfect. I’ve had to change many aspects of my playing and composition to suit particular pencilinas/instruments. As long as the pros outweigh the cons then a design is getting better and I’m moving forward. Most of my interaction with the pencilina has been playing it and not perfecting it. I’ve accepted the fact that there are many things it won’t do that other instruments can do with ease. The list of things that I can learn to play within its limitations is a better for me to focus on. Its important to work within the idiosyncrasies of the instrument and expand on what it has to offer. I’ve always thought of the pencilina like the drum set- my first instrument. Drums are limited pitch wise but there’s so much that can be done within their boundaries. I think of Max Roach doing a high hat solo or Buddy Rich playing a snare drum- Infinite worlds of music within a limited set of sounds. I’ve also found that electronics, programming and mechanical tweaking can also present dilemmas and problems. If I’m trying to perfect a design then I’m not making new music. Sometimes this is good because it will open things up for me later or I might be at a dead end, need to accept that and learn from the process and keep going.
-Bradford Reed 7/04
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