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Rhodes Scholar 

Nick Trotter finds new sounds in old keyboards

click to enlarge Nick Trotter - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Nick Trotter

When Ben Collette of the Tank Studio needs some work done on his collection of vintage keyboards, he knows whom to call: Nick Trotter. The owner of Winooski’s Burly Electronics, which also repairs guitar amps, became Collette’s go-to guy for keyboard modifications and maintenance a few years ago after he worked on one of the Burlington recording studio’s old instruments. “Every time I did a session, people would say, ‘This thing plays amazing,’” Collette recalls. “And it sounded great.”

Trotter, 28, has an impressive collection of tube amps and huge speaker cabinets in his shop on West Canal Street, but it’s the keyboards that really attract attention. There’s an old Yamaha electric grand piano, a hulking Hammond organ, two or three Clavinets, a heavily modified Rhodes and several other mysterious-looking instruments in various stages of repair — or disrepair. It’s hard to tell.

The Rhodes, circa 1976, is Trotter’s main instrument when he plays with local postpunk outfit Drive the Hour; it’s also his most visible experiment. The top is missing, and the instrument features a few knobs and wires that definitely didn’t come from the factory. It’s also the first keyboard Trotter modified. Now, he claims, it’s made up of “four Rhodes’ worth of parts” that he’s collected over the years. A few “newer” parts date from 1983.

Trotter started tweaking his baby when he was a college student at Bennington, learning how to adjust the action and voicing to dial in some of the classic sounds made famous by players such as Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock. A few years later, he was studying music theory at the University of Washington and started playing the Rhodes in a few improv collectives. That’s when his academic interests in composing for the “inside of the piano” connected with his need to find new sounds while improvising.

Trotter opened the top of the Rhodes and experimented with the resonant tines that are usually struck by hammers activated by the keyboard. While the traditional sounds of a Rhodes wouldn’t fit in contemporary classical music or improvisation, the more subtle and unorthodox sounds Trotter created were perfectly avant-garde.

“The way technology moves, these instruments got superceded long before all their possibilities were explored,” Trotter says during a recent tour of his shop. He calls out the 1984 release of Yamaha’s DX7 synthesizer as the moment when old keyboards became obsolete nearly overnight — and stopped their creators from making the same kind of modifications he makes today.

“It’s like, if you could stop guitar playing at Elvis Presley records, and then just go straight to the digital realm and make any of those sounds that you wanted,” he explains. “It would be easy to make those again, but you would have lost out on everything that happened to electric-guitar performance since.”

The undeveloped potential of old technology is what keeps Trotter busy “modding” his keyboards, and those of his clients.

One of Trotter’s current obsessions is designing and building a pitch bender for his Clavinet, another classic keyboard made famous on funk and soul records from the ’60s and 70s. Trotter says he’s seen some great YouTube videos in which Frank Zappa’s keyboardist, George Duke, has a big metal bar that lets him bend the notes he plays through the Clavinet — something the instrument wasn’t exactly built to do.

“Being a keyboard player in the rock or fusion realm, all you want to do is be able to compete with the guitar player,” Trotter says with a chuckle, then adds, “‘I’m going to hold this note and I’m going to bend it.’”

This isn’t the first time he’s come up with a mod for his Clavinet. He first ran it through a Big Muff guitar pedal while playing in a metal band in Seattle in 2005. Then he detuned it an octave.

“It was amazing — it went from that classic Clav sound to this scary, dark thing,” he says with enthusiasm.

Then Trotter decided he wanted to play with the strings under the Clavinet’s keyboard, so he machined a hinge and attached it so he could lift up the board and access the strings underneath.

“If you imagine having a guitar that has 60-some-odd strings on it and being able to manipulate all of those strings by hand at the same time, you can think about getting some pretty dense, tonal things,” he points out. “You can do that with your fingers, you can do that with a pedal-steel slide … The strings are so close together you can’t ever really hit just one.”

Though Trotter is inclined toward the musical avant-garde, he realizes most of his clients are looking for more traditional work.

The Tank’s Collette, who also works as a studio manager and engineer for Phish, recently hired Trotter to work on a Wurlitzer for Ray Paczkowski, chairman of the ’boards for the Trey Anastasio Band. “He got the action playing really great. Ray was psyched about it,” Collette reports.

“Not everybody in the world wants a super-modded Clavinet,” Trotter says. “Which is cool. I don’t mind restoring a Clavinet to factory [condition], either. I think that’s a really wonderful presentation of its possibilities, as well.”

Still, he’s already working on an album that will feature the pitch-bending Clavinet. Trotter describes it as a grindcore project featuring fast, aggressive metal arrangements with tuba, drums, guitar and, of course, the someday-it-will-happen modded Clav.

Most folks would probably never think of using tuba and Clavinet in such an aggro way, but to Trotter it’s obvious.

“Just like you have dudes making music with Game Boys,” he says. “There’s a lot of potential in this old stuff.”

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