The pencilina is an electric board zither played primarily by striking the strings with sticks; also by plucking and bowing. Bradford first created it around 1985, and has continued to refine it. (“It just keeps developing," he says.) The basic form is of two boards mounted parallel to each other on a stand, like extended guitar necks with no bodies. Each has a bridge at either end, and tuning machines at one end. One of the necks has six guitar strings stretched across it; the other has four bass strings. Wedged over and under the strings in each neck is a stick – an old drum stick for the guitar strings and a metal rod for the bass strings. The sticks divide each string into two segments, one on each side, which vibrate quasi-independently and so can be played separately. The sticks can also be moved to alter the effective string lengths on either side.


There are four built-in pickups: two are contact mics mounted in the bridges at one end of each neck, and two are guitar-style electromagnetic pickups which are placed under the strings toward the opposite end. In addition, there are four bells – a fire bell, a door bell, and two brass telephone ringer bells – mounted at the end of one of the necks. The contact mics pick up the ring-ing of the bells through the wood of the instrument. They also pick up percussion anywhere else on the wooden necks, so any spot that happens to produce a nice sound is available for drumming.

The slidable stick arrangement, it turns out, is laden with odd sound possibilities. Typically the wedged stick divides each string into two separate string segments with different pitches depending on their relative lengths. But for many stick locations, there is communication across the stick, so that when one side is struck the segments on both sides contribute to the sound. The quality of this effect depends on the pitch relationship between the two strings segments and whether they share any overtones frequencies in common. All manner of strange gong-tones can arise, infinite in their variability. Other special effects occur when the player pivots or flexes the wedged sticks to change the tension on the strings as they sound. The fact that the electromagnetic pickups are movable adds yet another parameter.


The instrument, as you may guess, is completely idiosyncratic – and yet within its idiosyncrasy lies a world of possibilities. Bradford’s phrase is “I haven’t hit a wall with it yet” – meaning that in all the years he’s been playing, he hasn’t exhausted any facet of its potential. “It's been my primary focus for a long time, and I’m still learning gnd trying to improve on it. I’ve grown to really like what the pencilina can do.”
Bradford currently uses a pair of shortened timbale sticks to strike the strings. But yes – when he first began to play the instrument, he used a pair of pencils as his strikers.

-Bart Hopkin, Orbitones, Spoon Harps and Bellowphones, Ellipsis Arts, 1998


HISTORY - PHOTOS
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