Music lessons with Warren Ellis

Friday July 27, 2012 Written by george

This weekend Warren Ellis will play the electric violin to thousands of people at Splendour in the Grass, but the Dirty Three musician's obsession with instruments started in a rubbish dump during the late '70s. He tells us about 10 noise makers that have changed his life.


As a child I used to hang out at the local rubbish dump and bring stuff home with my brothers. I found an old piano accordion there one day. It was enormous - half my size plus a bit more. It was functioning, so I took it home and my mum made me a bag out of some pillowcases, which I used to carry it to school. A guy there gave me lessons and that was my first attempt at playing an instrument. There's an expression: 'a gentlemen is a man who owns a piano accordion, but doesn't play it'. I probably fall into that category these days.

There was always music around the house when I as growing up because dad played country and western songs on the guitar. I was brought up on a diet of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash with dad's songs peppered in there. Instead of singing "Old MacDonald Had A Farm", we'd sing something by Chad Morgan.

When I was 10 years old a teacher came around asking if anybody wanted to learn the violin. I noticed that all the girls put their hands up, so I put my hand up. At the time I was listening to Black Sabbath and ACDC. Violin didn't figure heavily in my sonic dimension, but there a whole bunch of girls there... Of course I ended up being the only person who stuck with it so I got the violin, but no girls. That's just about the story of my life. Growing up in a country town and carrying a violin to school wasn't the greatest look either.

Probably the only instrument I've truly ever been drawn towards was the piano. It's something I can just sit down and play for hours and hours, and forget who I am. I really love the sound of it. The other instruments I've played have been more about curiosity than anything else.

This Hungarain reed instrument is a cross between the Oolijan pipes, which I love, and the Irish bagpipes. I remember the first time I heard them. I was playing the fiddle in Scotland at bar in the late '80s, and this guy walks in. It was literally like a Western where the whole place stopped. He put his pipes on the bar and the barman said, "This here is the finest piper in the region," and pulled him a pint without asking what he wanted. Someone said, "You gonna play something for us?" so he took them out and proceeded to play one of the most haunting and unbelievably beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard in my life.


The four-string guitar is a really liberating instrument. Coming from a classical background I found it difficult to jump into something abstract like playing in band – not relying on notes to play. It's a struggle that a lot of classical players have. I was listening to jazz and a lot of rock that wasn't notated, but I was playing stuff that was. It took time and, I think, a lot of drugs to get me thinking differently.

I love drums and percussion instruments, but I'm not particularly good at keeping a beat. You have to be so focused. Over years of playing, the area I've concentrated on musically is kind of abstract and free of restraint in many ways. Keeping time doesn't appear to be part of my basic nature, but I'll bang the odd thing live.

My favourite instrument is the cello. It's the closest that any instrument comes to a marriage of dance, drama and purity. It's a pure connection with a very pure spirit, and so animal-like in the way that it is played. When you see someone on the cello locked into a connection with the instrument, it's pure joy. It's extraordinary.

I joined a Chinese ensemble in the early '80s and played with a Chinese orchestra for a few years, but that's another story... The Chinese violin is a two-string violin that sits upright on your knee instead of under your chin. It has this almost human-like voice that sounds like someone is weeping. It has the same kind of emotional resonance as a cello.

Made by Hohner in the '50s, the Guitaret was an attempt to change the way history was unfolding and make a new instrument to replace the guitar altogether. It's kind of like an electric kalimba that is played with a little sustain hold pedal. I heard someone play one in the studio, they told me they'd been given it by Brain Eno, and it was this ambient, soundtrack type of tenor. I use it a lot. It's a very unusual sound, like the bass hand on the accordion. I like picking up an instrument and just seeing what happens with it. It does often feel like my kind of thing has been an accident in a way; one big enjoyable accident.

Warren Ellis plays Splendour in the Grass with Dirty Three this Saturday July 28.