The Energy Bow has been around a lot longer than you might think. EBow is the correct and proper name of the tool. “E” stands for ‘Energy”. “Bow” stands for the kind of Bow used on a violin, or cello. The name is perfectly descriptive, though seldom used to emulate the sound of a bowed instrument. To give you an idea how long the EBow has been around, its inventor, Greg Heet completed his first working prototype when he was 22 years old; Mr. Heet is now 72. There doesn’t appear to be any working prototypes of the original device that could just have easily been called the “magnetic bow”. Let’s be honest; “Energy bow” sounds cooler anyway. The EBow was not ready for the marketplace until the mid-70s, when it made its debut at the bicentennial NAMM show; with Heet securing the patent in 1978. The EBow is unlike any and every other outboard guitar effect. The 9-volt power supply is shared with most pedal effects, but that’s where the similarities end, or do they?
Fuzz, flanger, delay, auto wah, ring modulator… whatever you can think of, they all share a lot of common features: output/volume, sensitivity/intensity, tonal color, attack controls and some kind of on/off switch. The EBow shares these features, but you’d never know it by looking. If you’ve never seen an EBow in action, you might never figure out what it is, or what it does. It looks more like a miniature plastic stapler than a guitar effect. Heet’s EBow has been around for over 40 years, been on tons of recordings, and used by a who’s who of guitar players. It has solved two of the most fundamental weaknesses of the electric guitar, and it’s been under $100.00 since its introduction. The question here is obvious, but hiding in plain sight:
Why isn’t there a parade for Greg Heet once a year on Ebow day?
It’s simple; the EBow in all its glory and capability is far from understood and it is seldom used to its full potential.
Back to the Electric guitar’s two most fundamental weaknesses; what can’t you do on an electric guitar that can be done on a trumpet and the same for a violin? Or even an accordion? In the immortal words of Ben Stein…Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? No?
You cannot control the length of sustain, beyond the guitar and strings natural limitations, the way you can on a bowed violin. Long after a trumpet player has turned blue and passed out from lack of air, the violin can continue to hold a note. Assuming our trumpet player recovers from lack of oxygen and returns to his seat, the trumpet player can dramatically increase the dynamic value of the note he is playing. A soft, low volume note can be increased in volume from Pianissimo to Fortissimo, with an increased output of air. Try that on a guitar string, after it’s been plucked. Sure, you can turn your amp to 10 (or 11), but you just didn’t have the endless sustain of a bowed instrument or dynamic control of winds or brass, until the EBow came along.
The EBow is like, but oh so far from other effects. It does not go on the floor and is not turned on and off with a foot switch. It is not set to taste and then forgotten about. The Ebow is very controllable, like setting your pedal effects, but there are no knobs to turn. The EBow is something that needs to be learned; it’s not entirely intuitive, but it is not difficult to use. Like all instruments or effects it will take some practice to learn, and more practice to master.
The EBow is little more than a magnet and some circuitry fitted into a plastic enclosure, shaped to be easily held by the players picking hand. A pair of grooved channels on the underside helps guide the player to the sweet spot that activates the magnetic field. The magnet inside the EBow reacts with the guitars magnetic pickup(s). Tip: Best results occur when the neck pickup is used. It’s a bonus if the neck pickup is a powerful humbucker. Once the EBow is placed in the correct position, the string between the channels will vibrate. Once activated, the string will vibrate (produce pitch, and amplitude) until the device is picked up off the string, or the 9volt battery dies, whatever comes first! The closer the player slides the EBow to the pickup, the louder the sound will get. The increase in amplitude is dramatic, to say the least. At this point, most guitar players will play a scale, or melody of some kind, using hammer-ons and pull-offs while the string vibrates indefinitely. Using this technique, drone pitches can be utilized, or multiple guitars can harmonize (the EBow works only one string at a time). Many players will double, triple track, or layer as many single notes as they wish. Using this method, the artist can create a guitar counterpoint, or an entire guitar orchestra. A great example of the guitar orchestra technique can be heard on the Good Rats (The world’s most famous unknown band) “Taking it to Detroit”.
The EBow has been world famous without most people knowing it’s even being used. Buck Dharma’s sustained EBow induced swell is the absolute climax of 1976 classic “Don’t Fear the Reaper”. The Solo passage in U2’s “With or Without You” would not be possible with the little plastic gem. Have a good listen to Bowie’s anthem “Heroes”, that instrumental melody that flows throughout is no synth; Robert Fripp and a Les Paul Custom played with an EBow made that haunting melody possible!
The fact that these mesmerizing, iconic guitar tracks are only a small taste of the EBow’s potential boggles the mind. String skipping, staccato arpeggios, as well as cello style bowing effects are all possible with the EBow. For a taste of what else can be done with the EBow, listen to Phil Keaggy use the EBow on “Amazing Grace”. The list goes on and on. If you don’t have an EBow in the flap of your case, or the back of your amp, or loaned to you by a trusty friend, it might be high time to get one of your very own. Much of the EBow’s potential is still locked in someone’s imagination: Maybe it’s you!
Check out our Spotify playlist to hear some songs that incorporate Ebow!