Meet the REAL Spiders from Mars!
Bartók on Electric Guitar

Bartók: Smarter than math-rock — and way more violent.

Bartók: Smarter than math-rock — and way more violent.

My Bowie fandom is second to none. Yet I’ve always felt a vague sense of disappointment that the Spiders from Mars didn’t really sound much like spiders from Mars.

On the other hand, the fourth movement from Béla Bartók‘s Fourth String Quartet really does sound like Martian spiders — assuming the critters in question had been force-fed a diet of chord clusters, mathematics, Hungarian folk music, and some of the most astonishing counterpoint this side of J.S. Bach.

And dig it: This white-hot blast of dissonant modernism was composed in 1928!

And how does this string quartet music sound on guitars? Awesome, IMHO — largely because the movement is played entirely pizzicato (plucked, not bowed). Very few modifications were needed to adopt it for four electric guitars.

This is the same piece I used as a case study while trying to learn Notion’s notation software. I wrote about my first brush with the software here, and my subsequent experiences make me an even bigger fan. (That post also includes a link to the score of my guitar arrangement, so follow along at home, readers!)

Attentive viewers will notice that my guitars aren’t plugged in — just like on Top of the Pops! Yup, I’m “fret synching” for the video, though the performances are pretty darn close to what I play on the recording. I used a Fender Bass VI for the cello part. I picked the Guild archtop for the viola because it has a warm, rather dark tone. My Trini Lopez covers the second violin. The one fake-out: I actually played the first violin part with my Hamer 20th Anniversary, not the Hello Kitty Strat. But, well, you know. The amps and reverb are digital.

Some fun Bartók facts (plus some not-so-fun ones):

  • Bartók was born in Hungary in 1881. Along with Franz Liszt, he is regarded as the country’s greatest composer.
  • He made a lifelong study of Eastern European, Near Eastern, and North African folk music. The wild rhythms, colorful modes, and raucous energy of that music influence most of his compositions. In fact, he was one of the inventors of ethnomusicology.
  • Bartók’s music often has intense mathematical underpinnings. Analysts have identified many instances of Fibonacci numbers series and Golden Section ratios in his compositions.
  • The string-snapping and popping in the video weren’t my idea — it’s specified in the score. Bartók innovated this string technique, now known as “Bartók pizzicato.” Yup — 40 years before Larry Graham.
  • Many regard Bartók as the 20th century’s greatest master of counterpoint. And they’re probably right.
  • Bartók hated the Nazis and the fact that Hungary sided with Germany in WWII. He left his beloved homeland for the States in 1940, and practically starved here. He might have, were it not for help from his (very few) devoted admirers.
  • Soon after arriving in the U.S., Bartók was diagnosed with incurable leukemia. I’ve heard that he composed his final works (including his best known piece, 1943’s Concerto for Orchestra) in a simpler, more accessible style so that his family would have a better chance of subsisting on the composer’s post-mortem royalties.

While dissonant, Bartók’s music is never atonal in the way Schönberg’s later works are. He was more interested in stretching and expanding tonality than overthrowing it. In this piece, there’s dissonance within the individual parts, and dissonance between the parts. Consider some of these chords plucked at random from the score:

Bartók chords

Mmm — crunchy! Since violin, viola and cello only have four strings each, none of the chords in this piece have more than four simultaneous pitches. But dang, they’re dense.

Much of the tension here comes from stacking such chordal structures on top of each other. Try recording any of the harmonies above, and then double it with the same chord a half-step above or below. That happens often in this piece.

You may notice I’m reading from my iPad. This is the first time I’ve used it extensively as a music reader, and I’m hooked. I’m using forScore, one of several cool PDF-based score readers for iPad. I’m switching pages with a PageFlip Cicada, a pedal that communicates page-turn messages to the iPad via Bluetooth. (It works great, but it’s made from cheapo plastic, ill-suited to a clumsy, lead-footed player like me.)

BTW, this isn’t the first time I’ve attempted this piece. I did a four-track cassette version some 20 years ago. (I wound up using it as my Tom Waits audition tape. Tom, fortunately, is very open-minded.) I haven’t looked at the piece in detail since then, but when I revisited it this week, I was shocked to realize how much of its melodic and harmonic vocabulary had crept into my playing, especially the snaky half-diminished scales. Which, I suppose, is what you get for listening to stuff like this as a teenager instead of KISS or Sabbath.

45 comments to Meet the REAL Spiders from Mars!
Bartók on Electric Guitar

  • Oinkus

    That is pretty neat stuff ! And yes it certainly seems to have colored your playing style a touch. Too funny though , I hear the twilight zone coming out of that for some reason? Great job , love to hear and see actual music.

  • Mat

    Reminds me of the ‘psycho’ theme music for some reason..? Really like the uncompromising abrasiveness of it.

    • joe

      Oh, Bernard Hermann, who composed both the Psycho score and the Twilight Zone theme, would have been EXTREMELY familiar with this score. 🙂

      • The more familiar *do do do do” Twilight Zone theme was written by French Avant-Garde classical composer Marius Constant. It was actually two pieces of his combined; “Etrange #3” and “Milieu #2”. These were actually just short cues used for sound rack work.

        I have a couple of CDs of Constant’s work, and it’s right up there with Bartók!

  • jeremy

    Speaking of Bowie and dissonance (if indeed that’s what it is in this case), I’d love to hear what you could do with a guitar version of Mike Garson’s piano playing on the Aladdin Sane title track. I’m sure you’d have to multitrack several layers of guitars, but do you think it would be even possible?

    • joe

      LOL — don’t know if I could do it! Mike plays real fast…

      Fun Bowie fact: Know who played all the noise/skronk guitar on Diamond Dogs? You know, the stuff that sounds like Sonic Youth 15 years before Sonic Youth? David did it! He’s the only guitarist on the album.

      • jeremy

        yeah, he gets some great noises on that record, for sure, but even a couple of years before that, Steve Hunter’s solo on Alice Cooper’s Sick Things was quite an abstract noise-fest too; check out about 2 minutes in…

      • Peter

        I’d never really listened to Diamond Dogs (except through thin dorm walls in college and Rebel Rebel at too many parties) but just did through the power of suggestion here (and youtube). Real late to the party. That was good stuff and I love the guitar on it. Wonder if Bowie used one of the cheapos he often posed with.

        • jeremy

          if he used one of the cheapo guitars you’d see him pictured with at the time, maybe he also wore the eye patch from the same photos as he played too – and that might explain why he played in that style – he simply couldn’t see what he was doing! 🙂

          • joe

            Yeah — and did you ever see his 1-string Flying V with a whammy bar?

            I interviewed David a couple of times, and I remember we talked about Diamond Dogs (for the Guitar Player cover story week Reeves and David on the cover back in the ’90s). I can’t remember what guitar he used, though something tells me it may have been a Tele. The story is probably available online somewhere.

  • soggybag

    What no ring modulator!

  • Bravo! I’ve a;ways liked Bartók.

  • That is some DENSE harmony! Amazing performance(s)!

  • smgear

    Awesome!! Do Ravel’s quartet in F Major (2nd movement) next!

  • Digital Larry

    All I can tell you is what is brought to mind. Which was the teddy bear’s picnic, except populated by the tortured plastic toys from the deranged neighbor kid Sid’s house in “Toy Story”. and, oh the SpidersfromMars also! :smirk:

  • soggybag

    Wow great performance! No need for ring mod. Very inspiring. :shroom:

  • Great music usually sounds great, but this piece really worked nicely and is so beautifully dense. Bartok, Schoenberg, Henry Cowell, Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart all guide me, even for mainstream gigs. There’s always some interesting complexity you can bring to anything. Beautiful Joe!

  • Peter

    I love this performance. And the score works so well for amplified guitar.

    Was Bartok recognized and appreciated by the Hungarian folk music tradition/traditionalists that he borrowed from, or ignored or disdained like Beefheart was by the blues purists? (not sure that a Bartok-Beefheart comparison is apropos). My musically conservative Hungarian mother-in-law doesn’t care for Bartok at all.

    • joe

      That’s a great question — and one I’m not qualified to answer! But this wasn’t like Dylan pissing of the folkies by strapping on a Strat. I imagine Bartók did his field work quite literally in the field — collecting music from farmers, fishermen, shepherds, grandmas — basically, semi-literate people who probably never stepped foot in a concert hall. On the other hand, I’d imagine that professional “folk” musicians of modern times universally revere Bartók for his phenomenal scholarship and enshrinement of Magyar (and other) cultures.

  • Lovely stuff sir! Thanks for taking the time to post/record/shoot this!

    I’ve always had a theory that if you want to see what a composer was really about (or really see their skill level) that you have to check their string quartets. Bartok’s quartets are among my favorites (along with Shostakovitch, Ives, Shubert, Beethoven and Crumb’s Black Angels)

    I took a Bartok class at Berklee where we analyzed all of the quartets and there are a number of harmonic and melodic concepts that could intrigue anyone.

    The intensity of theory in this book:

    The Music of Bela Bartók: A Study of Tonality and Progression in Twentieth-Century Music by Elliott Antokoletz

    might be a little too intense for casual reading – but I can’t recommend a better book for talking about the ideas at play. I would have loved to have had that book when I was knee deep in the quartets.

    If you ever get to Budapest, make sure that you check out the Bartok Museum. It’s tiny but REALLY cool.

    And the transcriptions in the Folk Music transcription books are just….whew!!!!!!!!

    Thanks again!

    • joe


      Oh gosh — I loved Black Angels when I was a youngster, though I haven’t heard it in like 30 years. Going to have to revisit it. Is it still cool, or does it sound all hippie-dippie ’70s?

      I studied a lot of Bartók in music school, but never had a dedicated class — I’m jealous! Though of course, you could do a class entirely on the folkloric component. Or the contrapuntal one. Or the harmonic one. Or the structural/mathematic one. What a fascinating dude.

      Thanks for the museum tip. I’ve never been to Budapest, but it’s very, very high on my wish list. Thanks too for the book recommendation.

      LOL — I think I agree with your comment about knowing musicians through their quartets, though that may have something to do wit the fact that it’s easier to digest a quartet score than anything else, except maybe a piano score. (And you could make an equal case that the gateway to Beethoven is through the piano sonatas — it’s just that the quartets are arranged in such neat sets, spaced so equidistantly across the years of his career. You get the Mozartian Beethoven, the Beethovian Beethoven, and the frickin’ weird late Beethoven.)

      LOL — the last thing I want to do is start a 12-tone argument — but I’ve got to say that my fave Schoenberg piece BY FAR is the second string quartet (the one that adds a soprano to the mix) precisely because he’s grappling with the destruction of tonality WITHOUT an organized system to replace it. I have a special love for the anarchy moments in music history. 🙂

  • mngiza

    Brilliant work, Mr. Gore. Inspiring.

    May I ask what video software/hardware you use?

    • joe

      Thanks! 🙂

      I shot it on a Canon 60D (DSLR camera with real good video) and assembled it in iMovie. (Because I’m too lazy to relearn all the Final Cut stuff I’ve forgotten.) iMovie is surprisingly capable, though you can only have one inset picture. So to get three little pictures, I had to render, export, and reimport two extra times. Urgh.

  • mwseniff

    Great video once again. I always loved guitar vids with no cable for the guitar, it shows a level of honesty and bravery :-). I would love to see a guitar video with no strings on the guitar (hasn’t been done since Lancelot Link Secret Chimp for the Evolution Revolution songs). Sounds like the editing took a while tho’

  • mngiza

    Thanks for the video info. I’ve avoided Macs, but I can see their virtues for the artist.

  • Lionel

    Love the video (and music!)– I recall once reading Robert Fripp saying that he wanted King Crimson to sound like Jimi Hendrix playing Bartok’s string quartets…

    (p.s., any shredder looking for a source for some wild, almost metal-ish licks that fall fairly well on guitar in places should seek out Bartok’s Viola Concerto. Warning: the standard edition, being for viola, is in alto clef, though I’m told that there is a bass clef edition for adventurous cellists– my delvings have been by ear, since I’ve never found the time to learn to read alto…)

    • joe

      Urgh…there was a time when I read viola and tenor clef really well. But that was a very long time ago. I practically had to count on my fingers to read the viola part.

  • Bargo

    You are amazing! Love what you did with Bartok. Thank you.

  • Love to see/hear more of this! Atonality lives!!!!

    This is the wildest stuff!! Also Check out Ed Chang …his arrangements of the >Mikrokosmos” piano suite is killer.

    Sonic N

  • Really great work Joe and gang. Something not totally disimilar did happen once upon a time in the Netherlands. You may enjoy this:

    Love the blog.

    • joe

      Hi Thomas — thanks for the kind words, and thanks for the Focus video. As a hopelessly geeky teenaged lutenist, I was fascinated by Jan Akkerman, the only rock player I was aware of who knew his way around the lute. Today, for better or worse, we also have Sting. 😉

  • Wonderful!
    Composers dynamica instructions (forte/piano…) cut bueno
    (click track?=-1)
    I just love twisted (neo)classics.

    Fripp quote +1.

    60’s rock band transcriptions like Sabre Dance, Internezzo etc…
    Very OK, but still… Superbly nailed sheet junk.

    I just have a ruder approach squeezing a total symphony orchestra sheet onto single guitar fretboard…
    Win some lose some but listener may well get an idea what’s going on…?

    Surf classical:
    These are what I’d call transcritions!

  • glenda

    also Zoltan Koday is another great hungarian composer… mom wrote her master thesis based on his system of teaching music & his theory that nobody is tone deaf……..all those interesting hungarian tones…..

  • Dags

    That is very very cool, Love it Joe

  • Bo Razon

    Can’t wait for your Bartok does Soukous vid! Cheers, Joe!

  • Rob Cambre

    Wow, sounds great – very impressive! i’m a late-comer to the site & have been bingeing out on it the past few days, but familiar with you Joe since the GP days (and PJ/Waits stuff)… Good to see Ed Chang namechecked here – havent seen him in years but i knew Ed when he lived here in New Orleans early 90’s. For lute-players Joe, have you checked out the work of Jozef Van Wissem? I organized a concert for him a few years back when he toured the US with (the super-rad) Japanes guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama. Jo is quite special in his lute work. Ok, the archive-binge continues, i’ll keep my commenting brief.!

  • Rob Cambre

    Right on. This sent me digging for my dusty Bartok LPs, unplayed for too long. Very glad to find i did have a copy of the 4th string quartet – an LP i got for 95 cents at the Symphony Book Fair years ago, played by the Fine Arts Quartet (probably late 50’s-early 60s)… Also i sent my buddy a link to yr vibramate article and he promptly ordered one for his old Aria Pro II (ripe for custom/hotrodding), so the ripples continue

  • joe

    Thanks, Rob! Yeah, can you believe the Bartók quartets are almost 100 years old now? Wow.

    I’m still digging the Vibramate. I hope your friend does too. And yeah, the Aria Pro II is a great platform for DIY experiments. Example:

    You can pick them up for next to nothing. Totally solid bolt-on-neck Les Pauloids.

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