This article is about scraping sounds. Scraping is great: you can make a lot of ear-catching sounds this way. Most people are familiar with a few scraped instruments, like washboard or guiro, although not everyone has had a chance to appreciate how varied and colorful the sounds they make can be in the right hands. Many also have heard sand blocks or coconut grater in musical use. And let us not forget the Rake & Scrape music of the Bahamas, in which the groove is typically held together by scraping an old knife across the teeth of a carpenter’s saw. And there is much more: in the wide world there are lots of scrapables, and the sound possibilities are many and varied.
With this in mind, I decided a while back to make something like a scraper battery, by analogy to the drummer’s trap set (also sometimes called a battery). The idea was to bring together all the cool-sounding scrapables I could come up with and set them up in such a way that one or two players could work them every which way for scraper groove jams, symphonies of scrape, high-flying scrapathons and scrape-o-ramas. I called this battery of instruments Scrape Because, and I will now describe it.
(Text note: As you read through the following, you may notice that when I talk about the Scrape Because instrument I jump back and forth between past and present tense. The reason for this will be revealed at the end of this writing.)
First, a few preliminary notes. Scraped instruments typically have two components: the scraped object (e.g., a guiro) and something to scrape with (e.g., the little stick you use to scrape the guiro). For effective scraping, one or the other of these two elements must have a rough, serrated or ridged surface – it doesn’t really work to try to scrape two smooth things together. Although we usually think of the thing-to-be-scraped as having the rough surface, it also works to have the rough surface on thing you scrape with. Scrape Because took the form of a bunch of things that can be scraped, which typically were mounted as part of the battery, and another bunch of hand-held things for scraping with, analogous to the drummer’s collection of sticks and mallets, kept in little bins close at hand. In theory you could scrape any of the mounted scrapables with any of the hand-held scrapers, creating a huge number of possible combinations. In practice an important aspect of the playing was discovering which combinations make the best sounds and learning not to bore people with the less interesting combinations.
With scraped sound makers, it’s usually the case that most of the sound radiates from the thing being scraped, not the thing doing the scraping. To use the guiro example again, most of the sound comes from the guiro itself, not the stick, and thus the resonant characteristics of the body of the guiro dominate the sound. This need not necessarily be the case though. By finding a way to add more sound-radiating surface to the thing doing the scraping, you can bring out its sound qualities instead. One of the easiest ways to do this is to securely attach a Styrofoam cup to end of the scraper. More generally, we can say that the resonant and radiant qualities of either or both elements may be central to the resulting sound quality, and you can have fun altering or adding on to explore the possibilities of either component.
And now onto a description of Scrape Because and its various components. The first stage of the Scrape Because project was to come up with the scraped instruments to include. Since I had long been a student of scrape, and a collector too, I had lots of ideas and raw materials, and to this I added the fruits of investigations newly undertaken for the project.
The main body of Scrape Because was a specially made tabletop on which many things were mounted. One side of this tabletop was edged with steel rods and bars. These were smooth-surfaced, but they could be scraped with various sorts of hand-held stick-like implements with ridged or roughened surfaces. These hand-helds included threaded rods of various thread pitches, finely or coarsely notched wooden or plastic sticks, or hair combs. The bars or rods mounted on the table had various edge characteristics, including the right-angle edge of a flat bar, the narrow rounded form of a rod of less than 1/8”, and the more broadly rounded form of a ¼” rod. The thickness or angularity of that edge makes a big difference here. For instance, a comb will catch awkwardly on a narrow rod but will ride smoothly and sonorously when drawn at a low angle over the edge of a flat bar.
The tabletop served as an effective radiating surface for the various edge-scraping operations, but I also found it worthwhile in some cases to add extra radiating surface to some of the hand-held scrapers. For this I used the afore-mentioned Styrofoam cups. Especially effective were long threaded rods (18-30”), which undergo gradual resonance shifts as the player draws the rod across the edge and the point of contact moves along the rod – a very cool sonic effect much enhanced by the attached cup. I also made specially modified combs, sanding the teeth down shorter in different parts of the comb so that they’re not all the same length and generate different tone qualities and pitch ranges within the same comb. Once again, attached styro cups greatly increased the volume and helped bring out the lower frequencies for a wider range and more full-bodied sound.
Also mounted on the table were a variety of upright steel rods. The vertical orientation works well for scraping down or across. Some of these were the usual threaded rods; also corrugated metal flex pipes. The coarsely ridged flex pipes sound especially cool, stroked with steel or plastic rods. The most effective of the corrugated pipes has unusually large corrugations 5/16” across. Others among the mounted uprights were smooth steel rods of various lengths and diameters which could be stroked by hand-held, rough-surfaced scrapers. To the smooth uprights I added styro cups, which really helped to bring out the varied sounds of the different lengths and thicknesses, creating a nice vocabulary of distinct but related tones. I also had some quarter inch steel rods in which I filed very small grooves spaced a half inch or an inch apart. These wide spacings, with flat smooth surface between, scraped over with a narrower hand-held rod, create a distinct sound-feel of their own.
I had found that this business of added radiating surface creates a lot of cool possibilities, so I went a step further. I got hold of a couple of shallow frame drums and a similarly shallow, thin-wall stainless steel pan, and affixed them to the table surface, drumhead up and pan-bottom up. You can hold one end of a long-ish notched stick against the drumhead or pan-bottom and scrape along the notched stick with a smooth stick held in the other hand. The drumhead or pan-bottom adds its own resonance while greatly increasing the volume. By varying the amount of pressure or the pressure point you can continually alter the sound in all kinds of singy-talky ways. This proved to be especially effective using a corrugated steel flex tube bent so that it could sort of roll over the drum surface while being scraped. You can also get a nice singing tone by drawing a notched stick over the edge of the drum or the inverted pan.
I said a moment ago that I affixed the drums and pan to the tabletop; actually it was more complicated than that. I had to find ways to mount that didn’t damp the drum itself and also didn’t trap the resonant air beneath, and that also didn’t allow too much transmission of thumpy drum body sound to the tabletop. I ended up with a special mounting involving dense foam pads and large holes cut in the tabletop beneath.
On a couple of the notched hand-held sticks I added small shakers at the end (think of plastic pill bottles with BBs inside). Shaker sounds join the scrapey sounds when these are used. They sound good scraped with another stick or drawn over the edges of the drums or pan.
A couple of the hand-helds consist of fairly thin spring-steel rods – less than 1/8” in diameter and between 4” and 8” long – mounted in very heavy steel handles. The heavy, rigid handle mountings allow the short spring steel rods to vibrate more effectively on their own when struck or pressed or slid along an edge than they would if they were directly hand-held. They behave almost like sliding hand-held kalimba tines, letting some nice bendy tones into the mix. (The same idea can be seen in different context in this instrument.)
Also among the hand-held elements, I use the plectrum-like things I think of as the Savart’s plectra, which I originally made for use with Savart’s Wheel. They consist of plastic pieces a working like oversized guitar picks, with styro cups glued on to increase the radiating surface area. You can drag the plectrum across the ridges of a threaded rod or other closely ridged surface for impressively loud, broad-spectrum sounds.
I attached a couple of scraper flutes to the table too. These are tubes made of not-too-rigid plastic, with grooves filed laterally into the plastic surface to create ridges. The tubes are typically about an inch in diameter and between eight and eighteen inches long. Scraping a short quarter-inch steel rod across the ridges excites the expected scrapey sound, but it also excites the clearly pitched resonance tone of the air within. You get recognizable pitch depending on the length of the tube, and you can even add tone holes to cover and uncover with the fingers of the free hand, allowing you to play growly melodies on a single scraped pipe.
And one more element: to provide scrape sounds in the Chipmunks register, I found room on the increasingly crowded tabletop for a plastic Fresnel lens with very closely spaced ridges. This can be squeakily played with a stiff wire, a Savart plectrum, or fingernails.
With all of these many elements together, what a vocabulary of sounds Scrape Because provided for the adventurous player! But here’s the thing: When it finally came down to playing, I found it difficult to get going with the sort of really good scraped grooves I had imagined for Scrape Because. Scraping, it turns out, is different from hitting. What comes naturally to a happily grooving percussionist at a drummer’s trap set is much more ergonomically challenging when it comes to scraping movements. And then, when I set Scrape Because out for general use during free-for-all music-making sessions, it seemed that a lot more distracting or irritating sounds came from it than just-right sounds, even in the hands of really good improvisors. Perhaps this is just a matter of time and practice; I and others would surely have learned to use it well with more dedicated effort. But I increasingly felt that the many wonderful and distinctive individual scrapey sounds work better when used separately and on their own rather than in ensemble with other scraped sounds – which kind of goes against the original idea of a scraper battery.
And another thing: Scrape Because had grown into a hugely inconvenient piece of furniture. I mean it was big – a crowded table about three feet across, with sticks and rods and cups and things sticking out all over the place … not to mention the hand-held implements, many of them fairly long and awkward and often with their own fragile styro cups on the ends; there must have been over twenty of them which, for playing purposes, needed to be kept nearby and accessible on little mini-tables I made for the purpose … and all this residing in a studio or basement in which space was already at a high premium, with too many other instruments competing for real estate. Plus, Scrape Because was a huge hassle to move: awkward to carry, highly fidgety about passing through doorways, with multiple trips required to gather the several bins and mini-tables for the hand-helds.
And this is why I speak of Scrape Because in the past tense. I eventually made the decision to dismantle it.
But I kept on hand and playable the best of the individual components and have indeed continued to make good use of them.
And this is why, even as the instrument as a whole is now a was and not an is, many of its sounds still is (or rather are).
In connection with this article a special bow goes to Tom Nunn, master of scraping (as well as lots of other things). For adventurous scraping, all should check out his Skatch Boxes. Tom, why don’t you have a website or other clearinghouse for information on your work? … but a good amount of Nunn material is available on YouTube and Vimeo, so do have a look.