Janet Feder is in a bit of a pickle. Over the past two decades, she's built a solid reputation for her unusual instrumental guitar playing. But she's just released her first album combining her playing with singing, and she risks alienating old fans. NPR's Tom Cole introduces us to a woman who embraces risk and chance and turns it into music.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: Janet Feder does things to her guitar.

JANET FEDER: If I play the second string of the guitar with nothing on it, it sounds like this:


FEDER: Just a pure pitch. And then if I put this little metal object on it...

COLE: It's a split ring, like the kind you put your keys on but smaller.

FEDER: It'll sound like this:


FEDER: And so what it creates here is more like a spectrum of sound. It has a lot of low tone and high tone to it at the same time...


FEDER: a bell does. And then I can move it and it sounds like this:


FEDER: So, it's now more gong-y. It's less complex and closer to the actual pitch of the string. I can fret notes on this string.


COLE: In formal circles, this is called prepared guitar, and Feder's not the first. She's been experimenting with it for some 20 years.


COLE: She started playing guitar as a kid in Colorado, singing folk songs. When she was about 18, she embarked on a decade of intense classical guitar study and she got pretty good.


COLE: Then it all fell apart.

FEDER: I was playing classical guitar and consider myself a classical guitarist. And yet, I was sort of unsatisfied with what I was doing. I felt like I was trying to play other peoples music better than other people were playing other people's music.

COLE: By chance, a friend happened to ask one day doesn't anybody ever put things on their guitar strings? So, she tried it.

FEDER: And before I knew it, I was playing like a little kid again. And there was just this sort of joy in discovering sounds that were not expected or anticipated from the guitar.


COLE: Feder had the time to search for those sounds, thanks to a full time job teaching in and eventually heading the music department at Naropa University in Boulder. Her childlike sense of discovery and her ability to turn it into music has attracted some heavy-duty fans.

BILL FRISELL: Well you know, I've been playing the guitar my whole life. Pretty much that's all I think about.

COLE: The quiet, self-effacing jazz guitarist Bill Frisell gets relatively excited talking about Janet Feder.

FRISELL: When someone comes along that's doing something that I've never seen or heard before, it's just so inspiring for me. I mean, it's not just that. It's that it's beautiful music.


FRISELL: She's like an inventor. You know, she's just really using her imagination in an incredible way.

FRED FRITH: I think she's unique.

COLE: That's Fred Frith, one of the contemporary pioneers of prepared guitar and a professor of Music at Mills College.

FRITH: She's created a completely new kind of pallet, where she's apparently accompanying and soloing at the same time and play percussion at the same time. It sounds like you're hearing more than one person playing a lot of the time, and it's really intriguing.


COLE: Janet Feder describes her instrumental music as being like a postcard, a story she keeps in her head as she plays. One of her compositions came from a story she heard on NPR about families separated by the border between Syria and Israel - a border they can't cross - so they shout back and forth across the valley that runs along it through megaphones.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: In a few minutes, the words of Um-Rabeah on the Israeli side, float in the air.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

FEDER: The melody of the voices traveling across this valley was beautiful. It was so beautiful and at the same time I just wanted to cry. So, I wrote this a piece of music about it.


FEDER: When I recorded it, this crazy thing happened. I was recording in a church that's turned into a theater in downtown Denver, and when I finished playing the last note of the piece - it's not far from a local hospital - and a helicopter flew overhead and that got captured in the recording, and so it really sort of emphasized that military zone sort of feel to it.


COLE: Chance events seem to be a feature of Janet Feder's life. A helicopter was the source of another piece - a helicopter crash.


FEDER: I wanted to convey this idea of the middle of the song of that moment when they knew they were falling. And I wanted to extend that out and make it more like where time just goes into super-slow motion and just wait, wait for this thing to just fall.


FEDER: (Singing) Oh, the sky is falling, woman. There's no time to wonder. Earth hold still to catch you, barely even shudders.

COLE: Her husband was in that helicopter.

FEDER: It's a happy story. Everybody lived. I had to write something about it.


COLE: It's on Feder's new release, "Songs With Words." The album was co-produced by Joe Shepherd, who invited Feder to record in his state of the art studio in Boulder for free because he likes her music. In return, and Feder will share in any proceeds, an iffy prospect considering Feder's shift from instrumental music to guitar and voice.

JOE SHEPHERD: Traditionally she's kind of been on the avant-garde side and still is, and is pretty much revered in the Denver music scene for being a, first of all, woman, which is really rare, a great instrumentalist. But this is pretty brave to do.

COLE: And yet Feder is now at the point where she wants to put words to her musical postcards.

FEDER: My intention had been to write songs that other people to sing. I know some people who can really sing. But when the possibility of making this record came up, Joe wanted to start in two weeks. And so I didn't have time to share these songs with other people. And I thought, well, I'll just try it and see if it sounds good and if anybody likes it. And the same kind of fascination that I saw with these small metal objects on my strings, I started to feel this same kind of fascination about how words fit with music, with song, and come out of my mouth. 'Cause through all the years of playing up until now, I've really felt like the words were coming through my hands. And now some of it's actually coming out of my mouth.

COLE: She says it's terrifying. But approaching the unknown is something Janet Feder knows a little bit about. Tom Cole, NPR News.


FEDER: (Singing) The blackest crow that ere did fly would surely turn to white...

WERTHEIMER: The last time Janet Feder was in our house, she played a Tiny Desk concert, and you can see that at


FEDER: (Singing) It would be a good night if soldiers refused to fight...

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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