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The Controlled Chaos of Nora Rogers's Custom Guitar Rig

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Nora Rogers laughs as she says it, but one thing she loves about playing guitar is restraint.

She's sitting on the carpeted floor of the little Carrboro room where her bands Solar Halos and Object Hours practice, and just in front of her is the wall of amps and speaker cabinets that brings her instrument's signal to life. The pedalboard that sits at the foot of her amp wall enables Rogers to go from adding a touch of light distortion to her guitar to unleashing peals of apocalyptic noise and feedback. She's built them all from scratch or modified them to her liking, and sometimes, she says with obvious glee, she just turns everything on. And while Rogers seeks a degree of havoc with her guitar, when she plugs it in, she's in complete control.

"I think of the guitar amp and the guitar and pedals all as a living system, and you're part of that," Rogers explains.

"I like there to be a little chaos in that I have to sort of rein it in, so a lot is going on with how I am hitting the strings and how my guitar is played in terms of controlling this sometimes chaotic system."

Rogers's playing both drives and sprawls within the music of her two bands. Even when she's hammering out a seventies-style rock riff, her open-tuned guitars ring with sympathetic drones and reverberating overtones. She developed that fullness of sound as a member of the fierce (and sadly defunct) hard doom duo The Curtains of Night. As a duo with drummer Lauren Fitzpatrick, she expanded her sonic palette beyond a guitarist's traditional territory. Still, her high-volume, high-test style had a humble genesis.

"My parents are musicians and we always had instruments around the house," Rogers says. "My mom's a guitar player and would just put the guitar in open tuning and hand it to me."

Rogers and her parents have very different musical philosophies; they're old-time musicians, invested in re-creating traditional sounds. She respects what they do, but it's not for her. She has to get loud.

Rogers is especially focused on the interplay of pickups, pedals, and amps. To her, the electric guitar isn't a complete entity, but rather a piece of a puzzle wherein each element contributes something distinct to the whole.

"It's sort of like cooking. You're trying to balance the flavors you want," she says. "I guess the basis [the amps] is kind of the umami. I would say my overdrive pedals are sort of the salt and my Rickenbacker is sort of the citrus. It's all an organism that kind of works together."

We spent some time with Rogers and learned about the moving parts of her remarkable rig.

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INSTRUMENTALIST: Nora Rogers

LOCATION: A practice space in Carrboro next to a noisy concrete factory

AGE: 40

INFLUENCES: Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, Patti Smith, Algia Mae Hinton, PJ Harvey, Moonshine Kate, Mary Timony, Maybelle Carter, Kazu Makino, Barbara Lynn

KNOWN FOR: Rogers has been lending her heavy, muscular guitar playing to local bands for the better part of two decades. She currently performs with Solar Halos and the newer Object Hours.

SEE HER: Object Hours plays Nightlight Friday, Jan. 27, at 9:30 p.m., and Solar Halos plays at Local 506 Saturday, Jan. 28, at 9 p.m.

GUITARS

GIBSON SG SPECIAL

PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner

Screw holes in the body of this guitar and nonfactory tuners tell Rogers that this 1970 or 1971 electric was modified before it got to her, and that once upon a time it sported a Bigsby-style tremolo. She's done a few mods of her own, re-fretting it and putting in new pickups. At home, Rogers has a Gretsch hollow-body, an old Martin acoustic, and a Gibson S-1, which she says sounds good but is heavy and awkward and not entirely fun to play.

RICKENBACKER 620

This guitar caught Rogers's eye in a music store around the time she went off to college, but she lacked a good amplifier rig for it for about fifteen years. Rogers says it's light and easy to play but still boasts a big sound. It remains her favorite instrument in her arsenal.

PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner

TUNINGS

From her childhood spent listening to banjo music, Rogers has a long-held appreciation for the instrument's hypnotic quality, so she tends to replicate her favorite banjo tunings on her guitars. Usually, she uses a lower tuning in C or D.

"When you're the only guitar, it added a lot of fullness, and I loved the doubled notes on the guitar. You give yourself a drone, and the notes you play off of it has that kind of push-pull," Rogers says

AMPS AND CABS

HOMEMADE 50W HEAD AMP

One of the more remarkable pieces of gear in Rogers's collection is a homemade amp in a clear housing. With all its tubes proudly exposed, it's compelling in a Brutalist sort of way. She built it with her partner, Patrick Zung, who based the design on a Marshall amp he borrowed from Pipe guitarist Mike Kenlan.

PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner

"(Zung) is the real mad scientist amp builder, but I soldered every piece of that amplifier. We build kind of matching ones and have continued to tweak them along the way, and his now sounds different from the way mine sounds," Rogers says.

HOMEMADE 412 CAB

"I kind of like a new, crispy speaker, what most people don't like. With my guitar amp and setup, I'm kind of going for a higher-range frequency to come through, and this grittiness that is in the distortion pedals kind of adds this grit texture to the high frequency," Rogers says. "There's a little sizzle that I like. That's what I'm going for."

PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner

PEDALBOARD

1. GIG-FX CHOPPER

This powerful pedal makes Rogers's guitar signal sound like helicopter blades or machine gun fire or can summon even weirder "chopped" sounds.

"It's a tremolo and it has this chopping modulation so you can change what kind of wave pattern you want, the ratio and the rate of it," Rogers says. She admits the stereo-capable pedal is "a little intimidating," but appreciates its versatility and noisemaking potential.

PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner

2. IBANEZ TUBE SCREAMER OVERDRIVE/HOMEMADE OVERDRIVE

Depending on the needs of the band, Rogers summons additional grit from a modified Ibanez Tubescreamer (which is currently plugged in) or a purposely noisy homemade overdrive (which is not).

3. BOSS LOOP STATION

Rogers has cello and banjo loops saved in this pedal, which she turns on when she's tuning. These interstitial sounds come out of her quieter Ampeg V4 head amp.

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