Limited Palette Doesn’t Mean Limited Potential

A Harpsichord Track

Turning A Harpsichord Into A Guitar

I swear, I don’t base my blog posts on what C.C. Chapman writes in the morning, but today it seems we’re writing about the same subject:  How limitations spark creativity.  Kudos for beating me to it, Mr. C., you win this time…

The album I’ve been working on for the past year and a half presented all kinds of challenges:  How do I take a story called The Lives of Dexter Peterson and write music to accompany it?  Will I be able to bring a fictional character to life through more than one medium?  Can I still do all this stuff myself or do I need to start kissing some record label asses?

For all the external challenges I faced, I decided to impose one challenge of my own:  This album will use only six instruments. In the past I’ve drawn from all kinds of sonic palettes.  Hell, Goodbye Planet Earth used everything from strings to synthesizers, tubular bells to a distorted washing machine loop.  And, of course, robots.  For the new album, though, I wanted to see if I could create the sounds I wanted with the same 6 elements:

  1. Vocals
  2. Piano
  3. Electric Piano
  4. Harpsichord
  5. Bass Synth
  6. Percussion

Something I discovered, though, was that this self-imposed limitation did not hamper my creativity in any way.  In fact, it broadened my abilities as a composer and arranger.  Let’s say there’s a spot in a song that needs a low-mid-range BIG sound to make it full.  Normally I’d grab something like a Hammond B-3 organ and play a big thick chord in the background- works every time.  Big fat organ = one of Matthew Ebel’s usual tricks.  With a 6-piece palette, though, I had to think of new ways to fill that gap.

An Actor Playing A Role

Harpsichord

Harpsichord (Photo by dalcrose)

Since The Lives of Dexter Peterson is an album about a fictional character, I had to become an actor during the writing process.  The songs, for the first time, weren’t strictly coming from my voice and my experiences.  The limitations of my own life didn’t dictate what I wrote about.  Though I’ve never been to outer space, I had to become a starship captain and imagine what I’d feel if I watched the woman I loved drifting away from me through an escape pod porthole.  I played a role, just like I’ve done on stage in plays, musicals, and opera.

In the same way, the six instruments had to do the same.  The limitations of a harpsichord, for example, are many:  It sounds tinny on top and boomy on bottom, it doesn’t sustain indefinitely like an organ or strings, its dynamic range is limited, and the plectrum makes an audible sound when your fingers come off the keys.  So what?

I just released a video for my Matthew Ebel dot net members showing how the harpsichord dressed itself up as an electric guitar and sang. The instrument could sound so much larger than its inventor ever intended, thanks to modern guitar amps and pedals.  By limiting my sonic palette for this album, I discovered the potential that some of these simple keyboard instruments possess.

Here’s an example of what the harpsichord sounded like on the album, followed by what it sounds like on its own:

Harpsichord Guitar Example (Download MP3)

Again, if you want to see the video of exactly how I transformed a harpsichord into a guitar, grab an All-Access or higher pass at Matthew Ebel dot net and watch while it’s still available.

In any case, who knows what discoveries and new abilities will arise from limitations?  I am a limited person, just like you, but I have no idea what I will become- either in spite of or because of those limitations.

  • Khyber

    It sounds decent, but as a guitarist, let me suggest a couple of adjustments.

    The attack could be a little softer. It sounds like only the pure tip of the pick is being used to sound the note. Add a bit more “oomph” to the initial sounding and then try to let more of the natural string take over. You might need to back off on the treble to get more of this effect.

    Try running the harpsichord through an amp modeling pedal if possible. Even buying a cheapo Digitech Death metal pedal, and using it totally off with the line out from the mixer output (which has the amp modeling circuit) will be sure to give you some added tone.

    ~Khyber

    • Walt Ebel

      I give you… European cave art! Limited canvas, limited media, enduring message

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