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What is an Ebow?

Published: Thu April 30, 2009  News Feed

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The EBow or ebow (brand name for “Electronic Bow” or Energy Bow) (often spelled E-bow in common usage)is a hand-held, battery-powered electronic device for playing the electric guitar, invented by Greg Heet in 1969. Instead of having the strings hit by the fingers or a pick, they are moved by the electromagnetic field created by the device, producing a sound reminiscent of using a bow on the strings.

The EBow is used to produce a variety of sounds not usually playable on an electric guitar. By varying the EBow’s linear position on the string, the user can produce different string overtones, and also fade in and out by lowering and raising the EBow. Furthermore, starting with the current generation of EBow (PlusEbow, the 4th edition Ebow), the user also gains an additional mode known as harmonic mode, which produces a higher harmonic sound instead of the fundamental note.

A wide variety of artists have used the EBow in a wide variety of musical styles. Radiohead most notably. An early pioneer of EBow playing was Max Sunyer, who used it in a 1978 live album “Iceberg en directe”, recorded and released in Spain Picap. It was used later on by Bill Nelson, who introduced it to Stuart Adamson of The Skids. Adamson went on to use it heavily with Big Country, and it formed an integral part of their well-known “bagpipe sound”. More recently, it has been used on Opeth’s 2001 album Blackwater Park, in order to create ambient background melodies.

Besides its appearance in Rock and Jazz music, the E-Bow also made its way in the domain of contemporary art music, being used by John Cage in his harp piece A Postcard from Heaven (1982), Karlheinz Essl in Sequitur VIII (2008) for electric guitar and live-electronics, Elliott Sharp on SFERICS (1996), Arnold Dreyblatt in E-Bow Blues (released 1998) and David First in A Bet on Transcendence Favors the House (2008).

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While the EBow is not normally used with the electric bass guitar, which has heavier strings, Michael Manring (who uses light bass strings) has persevered, and it features heavily on his 1995 album Thönk. He has even been known to use two at once.

Although the EBow is most commonly played on the electric guitar because of the ease of use and the responsiveness obtainable from the pickup, it has also been used in applications with the steel-string acoustic guitar. For example, Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour used one on his Gibson J-200 acoustic in the 1994 song Take It Back to great effect. Generally an acoustic guitar gives a limited response for varying reasons, including the density and spacing of the guitar strings. But despite these limitations, using an EBow on an acoustic guitar gives a rich, flute and clarinet-like tone with a slow-swelling response.

Furthermore, an EBow can also be utilised on a grand piano (with depressed sustain pedal) in order to create sustained sinusoidal sounds as it was used by Olga Neuwirth in Hooloomooloo (1997).

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  • Elton John: The One, others
  • Henry Kaiser: Wind Crystals, Daredevils, Aloha, If Looks Could Kill, Info Mechanics, With Friends Like These
  • Phil Keaggy: Amazing Grace, Pilgrim’s Flight, Town To Town, Rise Up O Men Of God, Let Everything Else Go, Reaching Out, I Love You Lord, When The Wild Winds Blow
  • King’s X: Ear Candy, Cigarettes (live)
  • Paul Kurzweil: Song 86, The Tango Express
  • k.d.lang: The Air That I Breathe (Drag)
  • Love and Rockets: The Light, All In My Mind, Laralay, Love Me, An American Dream, Saudade, Haunted While The Minutes Drag, Seventh Dream Of Teenage Heaven
  • Marillion: Cinderella Search, Pseudo Silk Kimono (the intro of Misplaced Childhood), Nightwater by The Wishing Tree on the album Carnival of Souls, You’re Gone, Seasons End (live version).
  • Metallica: Unforgiven, Blackened
  • Man on Fire: Various
  • Michael Manring: Adhan (2 EBows on bass - EBow only), On A Day OF Many Angels, Cruel And Unusual, Bad Hair Day, Big Fungus, plus other cuts on Thonk

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