Feats of Strength: Modest Mouse (Music Edition)

There are many reasons that Modest Mouse became one of the preeminent success stories of the 90’s independent music scene, but the underlying common factor of each explanation is that each element of the band’s sound represented their personal and unique perspective.  The most memorable aspect of the band is perhaps Isaac Brock’s brilliant lyrics, which captured the hearts and minds of thousands by being both poignantly reflective and bitterly sardonic, followed closely by the innovative rhythm section of bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green.  However, one component that has not received proper credit is Isaac’s guitar-playing.   In this edition of Feats of Strength, we’re going to take a look at Isaac’s ability to turn what should be a gimmick into a significant ingredient in Modest Mouse’s trademark sound.

The specific trick we’re referring to is one that most average listeners can spot, even if they are unfamiliar with the particular mechanics of guitar-playing: the bending of a harmonic note.  It is a peculiar technique that Isaac has incorporated into his guitar-playing since the origins of Modest Mouse, as can be heard from the beginning of the opener “Dramamine” of their debut, This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About.*  Since then, the bent harmonic has appeared periodically over the years on multiple songs throughout the band’s catalog.  When the band finally released a new single last month after years of relative silence, the sonic detail from “Lampshades On Fire” that immediately grabbed my attention was the background presence of those trademark harmonic bends.  Once I heard those distinctive wavering chirps, I could confirm that I was in fact listening to a Modest Mouse song.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the technique, here is a quick explanation.  Bending the string is a key component in every guitarist’s arsenal, and the ability of the guitarist to manipulate the pitch in this manner is one of the things that distinguishes the guitar from other instruments (for example, a pianist is unable to mimic this technique and the vibrato employed by wind players does not have the same sweep or range of a guitar bend).  The bend is accomplished by the guitarist holding down the string for a particular note and then pushing the string up or down, in a manner perpendicular to the neck, while continuing to press down on the note.  It’s a simple maneuver that is essential to most guitar playing, most notably for leads.

Modest Mouse’s innovation is their ability to accomplish this same effect with a note that is normally unable to be bent.  On a guitar neck, it’s easy to see most of the possible notes–simply press down on any spot, and a note can be played.  But hidden on the neck is the capacity of the guitar to produce a harmonic overtone.  In conventional terms, by lightly pressing on the string in a certain manner, a guitarist can shoot the pitch up into a higher register than normal.  This may not sound like a big deal, but for instance, harmonics are used as a quick and easy way of making sure the guitar is in tune with itself (whether or not it is actually in tune with anything else is another story).  Sometimes harmonics come up in the course of a song; usually they’re thrown in as a bit of a curveball, since one normally expects pitches that are relatively close to what was just played.  The harmonic notes also have a distinct tone which differs from a normal note, a tone that is more undefined and ethereal, so guitarists often use them if they’re trying to create that kind of atmosphere.

Since in order to achieve the harmonic overtone you need to physically apply only a light touch, it would seem impossible to bend this note.  However, Isaac and the band thought outside the box and came up with a way around this problem, by looking to affect the pitch with the opposite hand.  Normally, the picking hand simply plucks the string, but there are other ways for it to manipulate the pitch.  Isaac used a whammy bar with his picking hand to bend the string from the bridge of the guitar (located near the base of the instrument) instead of the neck, which allows him to create the harmonic bend.  Whammy bars have often been used by guitarists to create a certain type of bent note, namely with large chords or to create a vibrato effect, but they had not been used to specifically bend a harmonic in the way that Isaac envisioned.  Isaac’s method has changed somewhat in recent years, as he’s using a guitar without a whammy bar attachment these days, and so he instead directly manipulates the bridge of the guitar to create the desired effect.

What is remarkable is not the mechanics of the technique, but the ability of the band to organically incorporate the trick into their sound.  Even though Modest Mouse has used the harmonic bend throughout their career, it has never sounded repetitive and they have never been close to driving it into the ground.  Isaac has been able to mine a lot of subtleties from this particular trick, using it to help convey a sense of chaos, as in the furious ending to “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine”, or to create a feeling of weightlessness, as in the main riff to “Interstate 8”,** or the ability to construct the sonic equivalent of pure melancholy, as in the opening to “Gravity Rides Everything”.

It’s an impressive achievement for a band to pioneer such an unusual technique but not be defined solely by that trick.  Even though the harmonic bend is not often a dominant part of their music, one would imagine that for most bands even using it a couple of times would get old after a while.  But the harmonic bend, while distinct on its own, is not far removed from the normal sounds and musical ideas of Modest Mouse.  As a result, it rarely draws attention to itself, and even knowing the mechanics behind the mystery doesn’t take away from its impact and effectiveness.

*I think I covered all the possible ways to convey the fact that this was at the very start of the band.

**Sidenote: Consider that Modest Mouse has a B-Sides and oddities album with Building Nothing Out Of Something that puts most band’s regular output to shame.  They are truly a remarkable band.

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One comment

  1. Extremely informative and well thought out. As a non musician I’ve always wanted to put into words what about Isaac’s guitar style was so evocative and unique – you’ve totally done that. Awesome!

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