The Ebow (Electronic Bow) has been around since the ’70s and the chances are you have heard it used without realizing it. In this review I’ll explain what the EBow is and what you can do with it. This is one accessory I strongly feel every intermediate to advanced guitarist should have.
The EBow is pretty basic when it comes to features. It’s a small handheld unit powered by a 9V battery. The EBow creates a magnetic field when held over a string which causes the string to vibrate. When you continue to hold the EBow over a string, the string will continue to vibrate indefinitely (until the battery runs out).
Ease of use
The EBow is incredibly easy to start using, but takes a while to master. The first time you hold it up to a string you will see how simple it is to use. Move the EBow closer to the string and it will cause the string to vibrate continuously. Move it away from the string and the string will start to die off.
At this point I should mention that you can use the EBow with any electric guitar regardless of the type of pickups you use. Some people have mistakenly mentioned that the type of pickups your guitar have matters. It doesn’t. Because the EBow creates its own magnetic field which makes the string vibrate, the only thing that matters is that the string is magnetic. This means you can also use it on a steel string acoustic guitar but not a nylon string acoustic.
So how do you use the EBow? Here are a few different ways I used the EBow while experimenting:
- Slow volume swells: add reverb, delay and a bit of chorus to your sound and use the EBow to imitate a cello or violin. Slow volume swells with the EBow sound amazing – especially with a nice hall reverb. You can use the EBow to create a nice atmospheric sound similar to the soft section in Dream Theater’s Count of Tuscany.
- Single string legato: keep in mind that the EBow is designed to be used on one string at a time so you won’t be using it for full chords. But it works really well when you want to add a bit of sustain to any legato lines you come up with. Of course you wouldn’t do this live, but would be a great way to create a thicker tone during recording. I really enjoyed improvising up and down a string like Joe Satriani would and using the EBow to give thicken up the tone.
- Feedback without high volume amps: cranking your amp up to enjoy some nice feedback and sustain is great fun – but not practical in the middle of the night with other people sleeping. I used the EBow to simulate the sustain a high volume amp generates on a few of my recordings. When timed right you can easily pick the EBow up and add it to the string at the end of a solo to let the last note sustain indefinitely. It’s a handy tool to have for this purpose and a fun way to jam with headphones.
- Steve Vai’s Whispering a Prayer: Steve Vai uses an inbuilt sustainer in his guitar to achieve a sound similar to what an EBow does. If you want to achieve the same sound Vai creates on that song (and quite a few others), an EBow is a cheap alternative to installing a sustainer in your guitar. In some ways the EBow does a better job than a sustainer as I’ll explain later.
- Cello bow effects: apart from the slow volume swells I mentioned above, you can actually use the EBow to simulate orchestral instruments such as cello, violin or even brass instruments. Quickly lifting the EBow on and off the string simulates the sound of a bow being moved quickly across a string. It can create an interesting tremolo effect that isn’t possible with a pick or fingers.
- Orchestral layers: if you want to add string sections to a recording but don’t have any synths available, it is possible to use the EBow to create really authentic sounding orchestral parts. The way to do it is to record multiple takes and layer them on top of each other. It’s also a great way to experiment with harmonies on any lead lines you create.
- Tap the strings: while most of the time you don’t want the EBow to touch the strings, tapping it onto the strings creates an interesting effect similar to picking a note. While I really enjoy using the EBow to gradually build up a note’s volume, tapping the string can be very useful for different effects.
- MIDI pickup: if you have a guitar with a MIDI pickup, buy an EBow. While you can definitely simulate the same bowing effects using a volume knob or pedal, you can’t simulate a note continuously ringing out as easily. The EBow gives you a lot of flexibility on how authentic your synth sounds are. Using a pick to simulate a violin, saxophone or synth pad will never feel right. Using an EBow dramatically changes the feel of any synth instruments you use. If you’ve spent the money for a MIDI rig, it’s worth spending a bit more for the flexibility an EBow will give you.
I’m still experimenting with different ways to use the EBow so I’ll add more tips as I come up with them.
One important point I’ll mention is that the EBow can start a note with no effort at all. Simply lower the EBow to the string and the note will start. This is different to a sustainer (watch Steve Vai play ‘Whispering a Prayer’ to see one in action) because a sustainer needs you to get the note started either by picking it or lightly tapping the guitar or string. In many ways a sustainer is far more versatile than an EBow, but this is an important benefit to remember.
Depending on how you hold the EBow, the effect will sound natural or it can sound slightly artificial in the sense that notes don’t continuously vibrate without dying off. So from a creative point of view this gives you a fresh way you can improvise and come up with song ideas. I experimented with different modulation and pitch effects and the results were always interesting and inspiring. Even on an acoustic guitar the EBow forced me to think differently and try to come up with ideas in different ways. This is partly due to the fact that you can’t hold a pick and the EBow at the same time.
The EBow is a plastic unit so don’t expect you can throw it around and expect it to last. The design hasn’t changed over the last 40 years which is a bit disappointing because it doesn’t feel very ergonomic. But that’s only a minor issue and the main thing is that the EBow delivers what it promises.
The first time I held the EBow to the string I’m sure I had a big stupid smile on my face. I think the reason I enjoy using the EBow so much is because the string really is vibrating continuously. This isn’t a pedal trying to pretend it will give you unlimited sustain and it works perfectly whether you’re using a clean sound, high gain or low gain distortion. The first time you pick up an EBow you will feel why it’s a far better option than getting one of those horrible sustain pedals.
I’ve noticed that some reviewers have stated that the EBow is an overpriced gimmick. I think those people don’t see the creative potential the EBow gives you. It’s not just a toy that makes a note ring out constantly, it’s a source of inspiration and creativity. Whether you’re trying to get an atmospheric sound like U2’s ‘With or without you’ or using it to come up with wacky sounding effects, don’t think of the EBow as a gimmick, instead think of it as a different way to play the guitar.
I highly recommend the EBow because it’s such a simple way to transform the way you look at playing music on guitar.
- Unlimited sustain – unlike pedals that promise to give you ‘bucket-loads of sustain’, the EBow actually delivers on that promise
- Easy to use – it takes a few minutes to get the hang of it
- Achieves a few different effects – shake it, sweep it across the strings, tap it onto the strings, etc.
- Only works on one string at a time
- Not practical for live use in most situations
Who is it for?
The EBow is pretty cheap and because of the creativity benefits, I recommend it for every guitarist. Just like a capo you may not use it all the time but it’s really handy to have available.
How to get the most out of it
Use the suggestions above in the ‘Ease of Use’ section to come up with different sounds and check out the following songs for inspiration on how to use the EBow:
- With or without you – U2
- Whispering a Prayer – Steve Vai
- E-Bow The Letter – R.E.M
- Heroes – David Bowie (original song didn’t use an EBow, but it has been used to recreate the sound live)
- Take you on a cruise – Interpol
Check out live versions of the above songs on YouTube and you will often see the EBow in use. There are a lot of songs where an EBow wasn’t used but you can use one to simulate the high sustain sound or the synth sounds so don’t feel limited to songs that actually use an EBow.
The only close alternative worth mentioning is to use a sustainer. You can actually buy a kit to install a sustainer in your electric guitar or you can buy a guitar with a sustainer already built in. Some brand such as Jackson come with a Sustainic built in and Fernandes sell guitars with inbuilt sustainers. If you’re interested in installing a sustainer in your guitar (required woodworking and soldering skills), check out the Fernandes FSK101 Sustainer Kit.
The advantage to using a sustainer is that you can use it while continuing to use a pick or fingers. I’ll review the Fernandes Sustainer Kit soon.
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