Halloween: aka Christmas for Rock’n’Rollers and other misfits. It’s the only day of the year when dressing like a zombie vampire pirate is socially accepted by your boss and neighbors. Aside from trick or treating, Halloween is often the time of the year that all of your favorite horror movies make their annual appearance on TV. Spine-chilling shrills, screams, sirens, death knells, and howls abound. Scary sounds are an integral part of horror movies. If you don’t believe me, try watching one with the sound on “mute” and you’ll see what I mean. I distinctly remember watching Michael Jackson’ s video for “Thriller” and being fascinated by all of the visual and sound effects, while watching through the spaces between my fingers which were covering my face. Well, that, and pretending that my Mickey Mouse sweatshirt was a red leather jacket, and my grandmother’s garden glove was a sparkly one like Michael’s, but I digress: my love of the dark, dangerous, and spooky has remained ever since, and backlot tours at Universal Studios and Disney as a young teenager only exacerbated my fascination with the genre known simply as “horror.” Listening to Alice Cooper and seeing his live show only fed the beast!
Have you ever wondered how they make all of those cool sound effects in your favorite thrillers? On those backlot tours I learned that there are entire crews of people dedicated to that very purpose for every horror film that is made. The cool part? You can use your guitar to make some of the very same sounds you’re used to hearing during your favorite horror movies. In honor of Halloween, here are some cool – and easy – “tricks” you can do using your guitar. Oh, and if you’re wondering about the “sinister” guitar used in the photos, that’s the Lita Ford Black Widow Signature Warlock by B.C.Rich, loaded with a Seymour Duncan Distortion SH-6 in the bridge and a Seymour Duncan JB Model SH-4 as the neck pickup: The ultimate hard rockin’ Halloween combo. If you find these sounds fun and you’d like to try some more, including ones that don’t have much of a Halloween connection, pick up the book The Guitar F/X Cookbook by Chris Amelar, published by Hal Leonard. These effects were found in his book and I’ve added my spin and helpful hints along the way to make the sounds as spooky as possible. In parenthesis next to each effect is the equipment you’ll need.
1. Ghostly Sighs
(Guitar, amp, slide) Hold the slide directly over the twelfth fret so that the strings are NOT touching the fret.Using your picking hand,reach over pick the strings at around the second or third fret. You’ll hear an eerie “sigh” that sounds a bit distant and spooky.
2. Church/Cathedral Bell
(Guitar, amp, two heavy picks) Warning: Alice Cooper or Black Sabbath might hire you to fill in some sound effects during their recording sessions if you perfect this one. Take one pick and near the bridge or over the pickups, put it over the A string, under the D string, and over the G string. (Figure 1) Turn the pick towards you so that you eventually flip it right over. The strings should be “twisted” around each other at this point. (Figure 2) Slide the pick (still intertwined in the strings) up the neck till about the 3rd fret. (Figure 3) Using the other pick, use a downstroke to hit the string that is in the position of the A string. You choose how many times you want the “death knell” to toll. Hell’s Bells!
(Guitar with tremolo unit/whammy bar, amp, distortion in your signal) Starting with a very distorted tone, play a note on the third fret of the G string and slide it up and down the neck while at the same time pushing down on the whammy bar. When you reach the last few frets on your guitar, go back down the neck towards the headstock while letting go of the whammy bar at the same time. Grrrrrrr!!!!!!
4. Creaky Door
(guitar with a Strat-style tremolo routed with springs in the back, amp) You can use this to get the creaking door sound in “Thriller,” or take a lesson from Eddie Van Halen in his instrumental “Intruder.” Take the back plate off of your Strat-style guitar and scrape the tremolo springs with your pick or other sharp item. Experiment with distortion and some reverb to get some different sounding “creaks.”
5. Cat’s Meow
(Guitar, a little distortion in your signal) Move your guitar’s pickup selector switch to the neck pickup. Mute all of the strings using your fretting hand except for the G string. Using the index finger of your picking hand, tap the string just after the last fret on your guitar’s neck, then slide your finger towards the bridge. Repeat as many times as you would like meows.
6. The Headless Horseman
(Guitar with tremolo unit/bar, distortion in your signal) Who doesn’t love the story of “The Headless Horseman”? Now you can re-live the tale of Sleepy Hollow as many times as you like using this easy trick. In fact, the hardest part will be getting a clear harmonic. Practice till you get it just the way you like it. Start with a distorted signal and your guitar plugged into your amp. Without picking any strings push the whammy bar down just a little bit. Pick a harmonic between the 4th and 5th frets of the G string and pull up on the whammy bar. Quickly use the tremolo arm for a vibrato while pushing the bar down. Woah horsey! If you like, to simulate galloping, just drum your fingers on the strings directly over the pickups while muting the strings with your fretting hand. Try alternating between the gallop and the horse whinny to get the most authentic effect.
(Guitar, amp, wah pedal) The coolest part about this trick is you don’t use the strings on your guitar – only the volume and tone knobs! Plug your guitar into the output of the wah pedal and plug the input of the wah into the amp. You are basically using the wah pedal/guitar combo in reverse or “incorrect” order. No worries, nothing will get damaged. Engage the wah pedal and start to turn your volume and tone knobs on the guitar. There is no precise science to this effect, so you’ll have to experiment with the types of howls and screams that come out of your amp based on the various knob turning options. The amp and wah pedal aren’t used at all once you’ve found the spot in the wah’s range where you get the sounds you are looking for.
8. Whammy Growl
(Guitar with a floating tremolo unit that can bend notes up and down, amp, distortion in your signal) Start with some distortion in your signal and play a note on the G string. While holding the note, push your whammy bar down and let it “snap” back up. The heavier the distortion used for this effect, the more you’ll be able to fret notes after the whammy bar has been allowed to “snap” back into place.
9. Buzz Saw
(Guitar, battery powered electric drill/device, amp, distortion in your signal) Eddie Van Halen used this trick live and it looked and sounded so cool! WARNING: DO NOT USE AN ELECTRIC DRILL THAT PLUGS INTO A POWER OUTLET OR YOU WILL BE ELECTROCUTED! Trust me, that won’t be a pretty sound at all. Bad news is you probably won’t be around to hear it, so play safe people! Make sure your guitar is plugged into your amp and your distortion of choice is dialed in. Push the button on the battery powered drill/tool and put the drill’s head close to the pickups (Figure 4). Depending on the speed of the drill and the amount of distortion you’ve got in your signal, you’ll end up with something that sounds like a super high pitched drilling sound or a buzz saw type sound: perfect for carving up some parts to “Feed your Frankenstein.”
10. Police Siren
(Guitar, metal slide, distortion on your amp) What horror movie is complete without a police chase?! Here’s how to get a siren sound out of your guitar. Make sure your signal has plenty of distortion. Mute all of the strings (around the third fret) with your fretting hand. Hold a metal slide length-wise between your thumb and index finger, over the sixth fret. Rub the slide up and down quickly(think the same motion as when you’re using a salt shaker) while you slowly move the slide up the neck (the twelfth or fourteenth fret will do), then back down to the 6th fret. Keep going as long as you want the police chase to last or until the cops actually do show up at your door. With a bit of creativity, you can create some other neat sounds as well. If you throw in some stompbox effects, you can change the pitch, volume, and/or tonality of each effect I’ve described. Remember, as with all creativity and spooky things, your imagination is your only limit.