Karlheinz Essl

Portrait KHE

While my guitars gently whip

for electric guitar quartet

Commissioned by Champ d'Action
for ZWERM electric guitar quartet (Antwerpen)

Basics | Score | Instructions | Requirements | Performances

ZWERM electric guitar quartet (Antwerpen)
Live recording of the premier: Antwerpen, deSingel (28 Mar 2009)

Rediscovering the Electric Guitar

While my guitars gently whip is the fruit of of long series of experiments that I conducted with the electric guitar. Having played this instrument as a rock-obsessed teenager, I re-discovered it 25 years later. In the meantime, I have studied composition and musicology and became heavily involved with electronic and computer music. Working as a composer writing complex musical scores I felt more and more the desire to re-connect to those ecstatic times when I was performing on stage with my electric guitar. But first I developed my own idiosyncratic electronic instrument called m@ze°2 (1998 ff.) which I am still using for free improvisation and live performances.

In 2007, I was ready for another change when the handling with MIDI controllers, graphic tablets, keyboards, computer mouses and pedals became more and more insufficient. I was seeking for an instantaneous, tactile input device to be included into my live-electronic setup. First I was thinking of a custom-made wooden resonance box equipped with strings, contact microphones and pickups that could be plucked, bowed, beaten and scratched. As such a device had to be constructed first (and I am not really good at tinkering) I suddenly realized that a common electric guitar already fulfilled most of my requirements. So I bought myself a Steinberger electric guitar - the most compressed instrument of its kind - and started to study the almost forgotten playing techniques again.

Fortunately, as the body obviously has a strong memory, I got back very quickly to the status of playing that I had 25 years ago. However, meanwhile my musical mind has completely changed: Not being primarily interested in re-adapting those powerful rock clichés, I tried to develop a fresh view onto the electric guitar. First of all I decided not to use a plectrum at all and to develop a personal finger-picking technique which incorporates several elements that I used when playing the double bass. Then I discovered the possibilities of an E-Bow which serves as a wonderful substitution for the bow. Later I became familiar with tapping technique and the use a volume pedal in order to shape the envelope of the sound.

With these achievements, I wrote a piece for electric guitar and live-electronics Sequitur VIII in the beginning 2008 as part of my Sequitur project.

I was discussing this development with my friend Serge Verstockt, a composer and the musical director of the Belgium ensemble Champ d'Action. To my surprise he revealed that he has gone through a similar process recently. As part of my residency with his ensemble during the season 2008/2009, he commissioned to me a composition - not for chamber music ensemble as expected - but for a group of young electric guitarists named ZWERM. This gave me the possibility to explore the sound world of this instrument in different way: not as a solo instrument with its pretentious attitudes, but as the part of an organism that is constructed of four equal parts which are communicating with each other. By this interaction, a complex sound entity should be created that builds up a spaces in which the listeners may immerse in.

Karlheinz Essl with his Steinberger electric guitar

Karlheinz Essl with his Steinberger electric guitar
© 2008 by Stefan Csaky


The entire score of While my guitars gently whip can be downloaded for free. Please note that the music is protected by copyright.
Here are some sample pages from the score:

while my guitars gently whip - page 1

while my guitars gently whip - page 7

while my guitars gently whip - page 9

while my guitars gently whip - page 12


1) The four guitarists are positioned around the audience in a sort of quadrophonic setting: player 1 and 2 in front, player 3 and 4 in the back. It is recommended to use small stage platforms in order to elevate the musicians so that they can easily see each other.

2) The musicians have to play from the score in order to understand the global context of the piece. As mentioned before, each player represents a part of a sounding organism, and each parts contributes to the global sound which is spread out over the audience. Therefore, it is necessary that each guitarist follows the other parts as well.

3) The sound quality of the four instruments played through a guitar amplifier should be very similar. I suggest using a humbucker pickup (bridge position) and a mellow tube distortion on the amplifier.

4) Scordatura: The lowest string is tuned down to low A.

5) The use of a plectrum is not allowed throughout the piece.


Each player needs:

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Updated: 27 Jul 2017