There’s something about the moan and wail of a good gut-bucket slide guitar riff that can grab you by the innards and not let go. Any tribologist worth his salt is likely to have another reaction: “A bit high on the tribometer, that.”
Blues, bluegrass, and Hawaiian slide guitar fans know the mechanics: One hand plucks the strings, while the other shortens and lengthens them by sliding a metal or glass bar up and down the neck.
Ebner has decided to end that state of affairs. He’s invented a slide of self-lubricating plastic that allows a slide player’s intended notes to ring clear and pure.
Tuning the Tone Bar
It all started in an Austin, TX, music store. Ebner came across a 1940s Oahu Hawaiian guitar—with hula girls painted on it—the kind played with a tone bar, sound-hole up, strings high off the neck.
Inside the case he found a contemporaneous tone bar, a Nick Maneloff brand, made of bowling ball plastic. It slid smoothly across the strings and the sound hit Ebner with its superiority.
Tribotone tone bars. Image courtesy of Tribotone Designs.
As the 1937 patent for the bar puts it, the plastic solved the “considerable dissatisfaction [that] has always been expressed where the metal bar was used because of the resultant distinctly unmusical tone.”
The only problem was that deep grooves were quickly worn into the bar.
Ebner is the son of a machinist, the brother of a fuel cell engineer. Once the urge to make a better, high-tech, plastic tone bar hit him, he became obsessed. He started calling engineering plastics suppliers.
“When you buy things that mainly the military and big corporations buy, it’s hard for them to deal with something like this,” says Ebner. “ ‘What the heck are you going to use it for?’ they would ask. I’d say, ‘For Hawaiian guitar music.’ And they’d say, ‘That’s such a crazy answer, we’ll send some to him.’ ”
A Developing Market
He tried dozens of materials before settling on one whose name he now guards as a trade secret. He built a small handful of solid tone bars—the kind used for steel slide guitar—on the machining equipment he’d inherited from his father. When he brought them to a guitar show in New York, everyone who tried one wanted one, though they weren’t then for sale.
Since then, Ebner has gone on to sell his Tribotone tone bars in 40 different countries. The least expensive, the “Classic Manoloff,” sells for $56, the most for $130. Unlike steel or glass, Ebner’s bars come in many weights.
Over time, they develop a patina, or satiny finish, as wear “dislodges the extreme microscopic outer surface.” Slide masters such as Debashish Bhattacharya and Reece Anderson have put the bars to use.
But however well regarded they are in the world of Hawaiian or steel slide guitar, the market is simply not that great. “I’ve locked up the market of Latvia,” says Ebner. “There’s only two steel players there.”
So Ebner has turned his attention to building a bottleneck-style slide (a tube that slides on a finger, instead of a bar held by the hand), making every Robert Johnson or Duane Allman wannabe a potential costumer.
So far, there are only 50 or so made to date. They’re more labor intensive than the tone bars and each is surfaced by hand. “I’ve got some touring around the world and in the recording studio with some famous players,” says Ebner, referring to Michael Messer and Louisiana Red, among others.
“They haven’t said anything because I don’t have any to sell—it’s all on the quiet.”
Michael Abrams on October 2011