Guitarist, daxophonist, inventor
Hans Reichel is one of the most unusual musicians at work in the world today. His work can be restrained, meditative, quirky, disturbing—or all of those at the same time. One of the authentic guitar innovators of the turn of the century, Reichel makes his music with a number of one-of-a-kind guitars of his own design, using performance techniques of his own invention, which enable him to coax a broad palette of sounds that previously lay hidden deep within the instrument. Guitar Player wrote of his impact: “Reichel is more than just a brilliant player, he has reconceptualized the instrument itself, opening up entirely new sonic possibilities.” He broadened his sonic range even further with the astounding resources of the daxo-phone, an instrument of his own invention, one of such vocal versatility—albeit perhaps inhuman—that Reichel composed two “operettas” for it.
Hans Reichel was born in Hagen, West Germany, but makes his home in Wuppertal, a town the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called “the cradle of West German Free Jazz.” He is one of a trio of musical giants from the Wuppertal—the others being saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and bassist Peter Kowald—who live within a couple blocks of each other. Wuppertal is also the birthplace of one of Germany’s other important guitar pioneers, Caspar Brötzmann.
Reichel was a musical Wunderkind. When he was nine years old, he taught himself to play violin and played for a number of years in his school orchestra. As a teenager, he started listening to rock music, in particular Cream, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Frank Zappa, along with various blues players, and soon took up guitar. “Jimi Hendrix is one of my major influences, although I don’t try to copy him,” Reichel told Guitar Player’s Mark Dery in 1988. “If anybody though, I feel related to Derek Bailey because, in a way, he’s the old man who ‘invented’ improvised music, this kind of playing. I think he inspired me; I like his way of thinking about how improvised music can be done best, how it can function, and so on.” When he was 15, he started playing bass in a local rock band. But he told Guitar Player that he gave up music altogether in 1970. He devoted himself instead to studying graphic arts and later worked as a typesetter. Since then, Reichel has also distinguished himself in graphic design and typography. He has designed a number of typefaces which are now used throughout the world, including FF Dax, FF Dax Condensed, FF Dax Wide, FF Schmalhans and FF Sari.
During his hiatus from music, Reichel did not own a guitar and did not plan to become a musician. He was eventually drawn back to music in 1972 when a visitor to his apartment left a cheap acoustic guitar behind. But, in typical contrarian form, Reichel did not start by playing the instrument—he took it apart first and started experimenting on its construction. Reichel’s puttering about with the abandoned guitar had two results: first, he made a tape, barely three minutes long, of some of his guitar music, which he submitted to the German Jazz Festival in Frankfurt. What the judges heard was so remarkable, that Reichel was invited to perform in a special concert for newcomers, which in turn led to an offer to record for the German Free Music Productions (FMP) label and his first album, Wichlinghauser Blues, released in 1973. Second, he became a guitar builder. “I discovered that guitar-making is easy and fun,” he told Dery, “and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Reichel built his first guitar around 1974 using the neck from the old acoustic guitar, a piece of wood from an unused table, a Fender pick-up and approximately 12 strings. “People thought I was crazy,” he told Dery. ‘“He can go to a shop and buy a guitar, so why doesn’t he do that?’ But my guitars looked very different from store-bought ones.” One of his early models was a double-neck electric guitar. But unlike other double-necks popular at the time, which looked like normal guitars, except they had two necks, one above the other on the left side of the instrument, Reichel’s necks pointed in opposite directions, joining in the middle where the pick-up was, creating a mirror-like effect. Unsatisfied with only two necks, his next guitar had four necks, two on each side, with 23 strings—one neck, for reasons Reichel no longer recalls, had only five strings. Obviously these instruments couldn’t be played like standard guitars, so Reichel invented new techniques that involved hammering the strings on the fingerboards, rather than plucking them. According to Reichel, it was much like playing a piano.
Born May 10, 1949, in Hagen, Germany. Education: Studied graphic design and typography.
Taught himself to play violin, 1958; taught himself guitar and bass, and played in local rock bands, mid-1960s; gave up music entirely and devoted himself to study of graphic arts and typography, 1970; tinkered with first guitar, 1972; submitted tape of his guitar playing to German Jazz Festival and was invited to perform there, 1972; released his first record album, Wichlinghauser Blues, for FMP label, 1973; began serious experiments with guitar modification, builds first behind-the-bridge guitars, mid-1970s; released solo guitar album, Death of the Rare Bird Ymr, 1979; invented daxophone, 1986; released Shanghaied on Tor Road, 1992; Kronos Quartet commissioned work which was performed at Talklaenge Festival in Wuppertal, 1997; work for orchestra and daxophone commissioned, 1997; received DM 25,000 Kunstpreis der Stadtsparkasse of Wuppertal, 1997.
Addresses: Record company —Free Music Productions, Postfach 100 227, D-10562 Berlin, Germany. Website —http://www.daxo.de.
“Finally,” he told Dery, “I got tired of these multiplying necks and I returned to the simple thing—one neck, six strings.” But though his newer instruments looked simple, they were revolutionary nonetheless. On standard electric and acoustic guitars, the strings extend from the nut, a small bar made of plastic or ivory at the top of the neck near the tuning machines, down the length of the guitar, and over another small bar of metal, plastic or ivory called the bridge near the end of the body. The strings are anchored in holes or slots usually an inch or less behind the bridge. Reichel had once seen a guitarist playing those short segments of strings behind the bridge which are not normally picked. Reichel wasn’t particularly impressed with the music the guitarist made playing the short ends of the strings, but it gave him the idea of extending the strings on his guitar six inches or more past the bridge before anchoring them.
It created a brand new kind of musical instrument, with a sound all its own and which was very versatile. “When you play [one of my guitars] normally, it’s a standard guitar,” he wrote in a Guitar Player article on his guitar designs. “But when the strings are plucked on the ‘wrong’ side of the bridge, it produces quite a different sound—subtle, ethereal, reverberated tones that float into each other. The timbres can sound very relaxed (it could be the ultimate new age guitar), although it allows you to forget about relaxation within a millisecond and blast out rock and roll, new age heavy funk, or whatever.” Reichel built a series of “behind-the-bridge” guitars, both electric and acoustic, and later refined them further by putting a set of frets behind the bridge as well. The 1989 CD Coco Bolo Nights is a revealing collection of solos on Reichel’s “homemade” guitars. Mike Joyce, writing about the record in the Washington Post, said, “Reichel has created an alternately soothing and restless suite, clearly fascinated and inspired by the peculiar tones, harmonics and percussive effects each instrument is capable of producing. The result is sometimes comforting, sometimes jarring and sometimes so exotic that it borders on world beat music.”
In 1986, Reichel invented a entirely new instrument, which he christened the “Dachsophone” and later simplified to daxophone. The daxophone consists basically of four parts: one, a cello or violin bow; two, a small sound box equipped with a contact microphone; three, a board of indeterminate shape but on the average about a foot long, a little over an inch wide and about one-sixth of an inch thick; and, a “dax,” a wedge-shaped block of wood with slightly curved sides. One end of the board was clamped to the sound box on a table. The other end extended out over the floor. That end was bowed with the right hand, while the left hand rocked the dax gently on the wood to alternate the pitch. The vibrations of the board resonated in the sound box and were amplified by the contact mic. Later, Reichel also designed a three-legged stand for the daxophone that could be dismantled and easily transported.
The sound of a daxophone is remarkably similar to a human voice or the cry of an animal. At the time he invented it, Reichel owned a Swedish record album entitled Mammal Voices of Northern Europe, Vol. 1, which included a badger—in German “Dachs.” “I was impressed by the badger’s astounding sonic range, from very low to very high notes,” Reichel wrote in the liner notes to his 1992 CD Shanghaied on Tor Road. “Thus the dachsophone got its name—with echoes of Adolphe Sax.” Sax was the inventor of the saxophone. Reichel later simplified the spelling of the instrument because, he claimed, he was tired of telling the badger story.
Like every person—and probably every badger—each daxophone possess its own individual voice, depending in particular on the kind of wood its board is made of and its shape. It can sound, for instance, like a boy soprano, a pipe organ, a man clearing his throat, or a mosquito buzzing around one’s head. Since refining the instrument, Reichel has divided his time between it and guitar. Reichel performed on the daxophone on various albums, most notably Lower Lurum on the Rastascan label and The Dawn of Dachsman on FMP, a record Joe Gore writing in Guitar Player called “one of the avant guitar’s high water marks.” Not everyone took to the daxophone. Reichel described one response in his liner notes to Shanghaied on Tor Road: “A completely unnerved California critic once said it reminded him of tortured mules, monkeys, and poultry (i.e. animal testing) and the whole thing was really just annoying—like the neighbor’s barking dog.”
Reichel’s album Shanghaied on Tor Road is subtitled “The World’s 1st Operetta Performed On Nothing But The Daxophone.” And indeed all the wordless “singing” and accompaniment (except for one brief exception) is played—with over-dubbing—by Reichel on daxophone. His grunting, belching daxophones manage to recreate a number of familiar musical forms, including carny music, blues, early rock and roll, and the waltz. The idea for an all-daxophone recording came up after a 1990 concert at which Reichel, Canadian guitarist René Lussier, and Claude Simard played daxophone with the cello trio of Tom Cora, Anne Bourne, and Eric Longsworth.
Over the course of his career, Hans Reichel has performed with many of the heavyweights of improvising music. Besides Cora, he’s played in duos with partners such as Fred Frith, German reed player and accordionist Rüdiger Carl, Keith Tippet, and Paul Lovens. “My favorite format is the trio,” he joked with Rubberneck’s Chris Blackford, “and quite often I play in a duo because I was lacking in an idea for who the third person could be.” In the late-1990s, the Kronos Quartet encountered Reichel’s music and commissioned a piece for daxophone and string quartet, which premiered in July 1997 at the fifth Talklaenge Festival in Wuppertal. The composer played the daxophone part in the work’s first section, and Kronos joined in for a daxophone quintet in the second half. Ulrich Olshausen of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) wrote of the composition: “Its flowing imprecisions and flipped-out sonorities came from another world.” Two days after the concert, according to FAZ, Reichel was given another commission, this time to write a piece for daxophone and symphony orchestra. Two years later, in 1999, he was awarded the Kunstpreis of the Stadtsparrkasse of his home town, Wuppertal.
As the twentieth century wound down, Hans Reichel’s work, despite its inherent beauty and musicality, remained entrenched in the avant-garde ghetto, the result of its unconventional sound, the small record labels that have released it, and the fact that most other musicians seem willfully ignorant of his technical advances. “Reichel has opened up a lot of avenues in the last 20 years,” Robert lannapollo wrote in Cadence. “Unfortunately, few have been taken up by the mainstream. But given time, I think they will.”
Wichlinghauser Blues, FMP, 1973.
Bonobo, FMP, 1975.
The Death of the Rare Bird Ymr, FMP 1979, (re-released on CD Bonobo Beach/The Death of The Rare Bird Ymr, FMP, 1991).
Bonobo Beach, FMP, 1981 (re-released on CD Bonobo Beach/The Death of The Rare Bird Ymr, FMP, 1991).
The Dawn of Dachsman, FMP, 1987 (re-released on CD 1994).
Coco Bolo Nights, FMP, 1989.
Shanghaied On Tor Road: The World’s First Operetta Performed On Nothing But The Daxophone, FMP, 1992.
AngelicA 93, CAICAI, 1993.
Lower Lurum, Rastascan, 1994.
Buben (with Rüdiger Carl), FMP, 1978 (re-released on CD, Buben…plus, FMP, 1994).
The Return of Onkel Boskop, Repertoire, 1983/1997.
Kino (with E.ROC), Teldec I.S., 1986.
Angel Carver (with Tom Cora), FMP, 1989.
Show-Down (with Wädi Gysi), Intakt, 1990.
Stop Complaining/Sundown (with Fred Frith and Kazuhisa Uchihashi), FMP, 1990/1991.
Kith ’n Kin (with Thomas Borgmann’s Orkestra), Cadence Jazz Records, 1995.
King Pawns (with Kazuhisa Uchihashi), Zen, 1997.
Cadence, April 1993; March 1994; February 1996.
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, July 17, 1997; March 18, 1999.
Guitar Player, July 1988; January 1989; July 1994; January 1997.
Washington Post, July 17, 1989.
European Improvisers Pages, http://www.shef.ac.uk/misc/rec/ps/efi/index.html(June 23, 2000).
Hans Reichel, http://www.daxo.de (June 23, 2000)
—Gerald E. Brennan