Spotify e-bow masterclass: Metallica, REM and...Kajagoogoo?
"Wait, so it's a guitar effect, but it's not a pedal? And it's not some sort of black box of studio trickery? Well what is it then?"
In short: it's a small device that you hold in your picking hand. It magnetically vibrates the strings, which gives a rich, sustained tone similar to a guitar being played with a violin bow. But unlike a violin bow, the e-bow isn't troubled by the flat bridge on most electric guitars, meaning you can "bow" individual notes. This allows for scorching solos or intricate melody lines, as opposed to the less musical "special effect" style bow playing that's used by Jimmy Page, for example, in the noisy break before the solo on Whole Lotta Love. (If you still fancy playing with a real bow though, we've got you covered...)
If you're the sort of gear-head who loves to know how your instruments and effects work, our e-bow product page has more info on exactly how you can use it. But if you just want to hear it first hand, read on for some of our favourite uses of the device, which we've also linked to on Spotify.
Two of the earliest recordings to use the e-bow are Genesis's 1974 concept-album centre piece Carpet Crawlers and Queen's Good Company from their 1975 record A Night At The Opera. Brain May uses the e-bow mainly as a novelty to create a playful pastiche of some of the woodwind sounds of Dixieland jazz with his trademark Red Special.
Steve Hackett of Genesis, however, gives an early glimpse of how the e-bow would later be used: not just as a gimmick, but a key part of a track's whole mood and ambience. A great example of this mood-setting later use is in the REM track where e-bow's so key that it even gets namedropped in the title.
You get a good glimpse of Peter Buck at work with the e-bow around the 1:42 mark in the video, where its drone almost takes the place of a backing vocal, adding depth to what's otherwise quite a minimal song. And Coldplay's Spies is another great case of the e-bow's ability to add texture to otherwise sparse arrangements, both in the intro's plaintive wail - easily mistaken for moody orchestration - and the wall of noise crescendo two thirds in. And if you really want to fully recreate their sound, e-bow and all, we've got a range of Coldplay sheet music in stock.
But it's not just used in mellow indie - guitarists none more rock than Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme and James Hetfield of Metallica count the tool as a key part of their sonic arsenal. While you can't hear it on the finished recording, Nothing Else Matters by Hetfield and co is famed for its incorporation of the e-bow not into the recording or live performance, but the songwriting process itself. Hetfield painstakingly composed the orchestral arrangement using an e-bow - see what he came up with on Apocalyptica's strings-only cover of the track. So if you ever find yourself without a classical quartet to hand but need to knock out a quick string arrangement, the e-bow might be the thing. As for Josh Homme, in his former life as guitarist of stoner-rock godfathers Kyuss he showed how the sheer sustain of the e-bow can add an other worldly feel to even the heaviest of rock riffage.
And if you still need further proof of the e-bow's amazing versatility for the jobbing musician - no matter how uncool - listen to the atmospheric instrumental break in this 80s pop, erm..."classic".
(Skip to 2 mins 30 secs if you really can't bear it).