Electronic Guitar: Rafiq Bhatia

Crafting innovative sounds with Son Lux and on his new solo release, 'Breaking English'
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The first step in integrating electric guitar into electronic music is realizing there isn’t a lot of electric guitar in it,” says Rafiq Bhatia, solo artist and member of the genre-bending, post-rock trio, Son Lux.

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Growing up in North Carolina, Bhatia became aware of that even before picking up the guitar, while listening to J.Dilla in elementary school. But hearing Jimi Hendrix and Bill Frisell revealed that, in addition to providing harmony, melody, and rhythm, the instrument could be used as a pure sound source. After thorough schooling in its traditional use, Bhatia developed his nontraditional approach playing in genres that didn’t normally use guitar, such as hip-hop and electronica.

“The second step in integrating the guitar is to think of it differently for the studio and the stage,” he continues. “There are sections of the Son Lux record where my guitar has been chopped up, put into a Kontakt sampler, and heavily processed. I have to figure out how to perform that live.”

Bhatia uses two approaches to solve the problem. “Sometimes, I process the guitar to get as close as I can to the sounds on the record. Other times it makes more sense to jettison the original part and come up with something that works better in a live show.”

Fig. 1. With a pair of Eventide H9s, an expression pedal, and a Disaster
 Area Designs DPC-5 Gen3 (MIDI controller and loop switcher) among
 the effects on his Custom District pedalboard, Bhatia can craft the
 wide range of sounds he needs for his solo work and with Son Lux.

Fig. 1. With a pair of Eventide H9s, an expression pedal, and a Disaster  Area Designs DPC-5 Gen3 (MIDI controller and loop switcher) among  the effects on his Custom District pedalboard, Bhatia can craft the  wide range of sounds he needs for his solo work and with Son Lux.

The guitarist gets his sounds from a surprisingly small number of pedals. They include a mild overdrive made by JHS and a ZVex Fat Fuzz Factory, with a heavy bass boost (Figure 1). The signal then goes through a volume pedal into an Origin Effects Cali76, which is like an 1176-style, studio-grade FET compressor. A couple of Eventide H9s are employed for reverb, delay, modulation and additional compression. “I like using an expression pedal with the H9 because you can program it like a plug-in with the iPad app to control a number of parameters simultaneously,” he says. “For example, you can make the reverb mix wetter, while at the same time shortening the reverb decay.”

Bhatia runs his guitar and pedals through a Swart Atomic Space Tone amp with a single tone control perfectly voiced for his needs. Because the lows he creates with the H9s and the Z.Vex are often too much for the Swart’s speaker, he uses a speaker-emulator D.I. to send the signal to the PA, which is better equipped to handle the bass frequencies. “I also use the Swart in the studio to reamp other sonic elements, like samples and keyboards,” he adds.

Breaking English

Breaking English

Bhatia’s brilliant solo record, Breaking English (Anti/Epitaph), features guitar that is largely sliced, diced, and processed to the point where the original instrument is indiscernible. What you might swear is a kalimba is actually a series of prepared-guitar tracks. A few sounds that are more recognizable as guitar show up on “Hoods Up” and “Perihelion I.”

“I was using the Z.Vex fuzz on ‘Hoods Up,’ along with either an upper octave from the H9 or a Soundtoys Little AlterBoy vocal-formant and pitch shifting plug-in,” he explains. “I would often record the guitar direct and mix that with the amp.”

On the final track, “A Love That’s True,” Bhatia tosses acoustic guitar into mix. It starts with a parlor-sized Collings strummed folky-style, but its accents are soon driving reverb stabs that are increasingly processed through tremolo and distortion to add emotional impact.

In figuring out how to represent his own record live, Bhatia has helped forge the electric guitar’s future. Like his heroes, Hendrix and Frisell, he is experimenting with sounds that reflect his times, meanwhile using the uniquely expressive nature of his instrument to inject an extra dose of humanity into electronic music.