Tune in, tune up and turn it up to 11! From arthouse gems and cult classics to teen blockbusters and beyond, Guitar On Film explores the stories of onscreen guitars and the people who play them
Twisted metal. Death-defying stunts. Forty-five-foot flames. Angle-grinding guitar riffs. No, this isn’t a Rammstein show. This is Mad Max: Fury Road. Regularly referred to as one of the greatest action films of all time, this turbo-charged chase movie raced from the mind of Australian auteur George Miller, the man behind the original Mad Max (1979) and its follow-ups. When Miller’s modern update screeched onto screens in 2015 following years of production battles, the acclaim was explosive. Critics and fans fawned over its bone-rattling action sequences, its sharply drawn world and its cast of colourful, unforgettable characters.
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With the Namibian desert standing in for post-apocalyptic Oz, Fury Road sees Max Rockatansky, Imperator Furiosa and the five wives that she liberates from the film’s big bad, Immortan Joe, fleeing across the desert, with Joe and his army of very loyal, very loud War Boys in pursuit. But of all the movie’s madcap characters, one made more noise than most: Coma, the Doof Warrior.
Wearing a red onesie and the dead skin mask of his murdered mother (metal enough for you?), the Doof Warrior is an eyeless field musician whose job is to marshal Joe’s army and relay his orders through sound. His weapon of choice? A high-speed collision of garbage, legitimate art and movie magic: the fire-spitting, double-neck Fury Road guitar.
“I’m into the hot rods and the speed shit,” says Michael Ulman over Zoom. A graduate of Boston’s Northeastern University, Ulman is a scavenger of sorts, a found-object sculptor who repurposes trashed radios, chainsaws, kitchen appliances – basically whatever he can get his hands on – into detailed models of cars, planes, speedboats and especially motorcycles. The speed shit.
One of the Boston-based artist’s most important early pieces was Lo Rida, built in 2001. A low, blue, badass two-wheeler that Ulman describes as his dream bike, it crystallised the approach that his career artworks would take, with his pieces growing in complexity alongside his growing confidence. “That first motorcycle might have had maybe 10 pieces,” he says. “Now they have thousands of pieces. Sometimes I don’t know when to stop.”
In 2007, Ulman turned a standard US mailbox into a miniature 1930s Ford hot rod. The piece took off, wheeling around art blogs in an age before Instagram made viral art so easy to see. Sometime later, the hot rod parked up in California found-object gallery Device, where it would eventually attract the attention of Sydney-based production company Kennedy Miller Mitchell.
George Miller had been reaching out to found-object artists around the globe, dab hands and foragers whose passions lay in transforming discarded doodahs, doohickeys and detritus into show-stopping art. Miller was rounding up makers who could imprint their own signature style on the then-nascent Fury Road. Miller eventually reached Ulman in 2009 before offering him the opportunity of a lifetime: come to Australia, bathe in the best of the country’s junkyard scrap, and generally make a mess for three months. Three days later, Ulman was on his way.
“I didn’t have a ticket. I didn’t have a visa. I didn’t have a thing,” he says. “My passport was probably outdated. They got all that in three days and then first-classed my ass to Australia. Epic. Epic. Epic.”
Once he was down under, Ulman and Belgian artist Olivier Pauwels – whose signature baby faces are hidden all over Fury Road – spent weeks in Sydney working on weapons, car parts, and Mad Max miscellany, turning Australia’s trash into fit-for-Hollywood treasure. “We were making weapons hand over fist,” says Ulman. “We made all the steering wheels. We made all these things.”
Ulman had been brought onboard because of the speed shit, to add his intricate touch to Fury Road’s many custom vehicles. But about a month into his three-month stint, production designer Colin Gibson came to him with what would be his defining role on the project.
Concept art for the Fury Road guitar, as well as the Doof Wagon and the Doof Warrior, was drawn up by Australian storyboard artist Peter Pound as early as the late 1990s, with Miller having come up with the idea for the film about 10 years before then. But some members of the team weren’t privy to such details. “When I got there,” says Ulman, “I had no idea there was even a guitar in the movie.”
He continues: “[Colin] was like, ‘There are three stipulations: it has to have two necks, it has to look like the sickest weapon, and it has to throw flames 45 feet’. I was like, ‘That’s it? Done.’”
Ulman had never built a guitar before – and he wasn’t given much direction. As he tells it, it was unclear to him whether the guitar would even need to be functional. Ultimately, Ulman was given free rein to create his artwork without limitation. The team would figure out its functionality later. He had two months.
“No-one knew what the guitar was going to be like,” he says. “They told me what they wanted, they gave me a frickin’ wad of cash, and they put me with this guy who took me to the junkyard. The junkyards in Australia are insane. Acres and acres and acres and acres. The production company would be like, ‘Okay, we’ll take that acre of junk’, box it all up and take it to the facility so the guys could go through it. They didn’t care what the fuck was in it. I just went hog wild digging through parts. Bells and whistles and bumperettes and spark plugs. All this amazing stuff. I got it back there, laid it out on the table, and I started building.”
Combing through mountains of refuse, as well as buys from bric-a-brac and antique shops, Ulman eventually found everything required to engineer the picture-perfect post-apocalyptic instrument. Exotic tonewoods? No thanks. Fine nitrocellulose finish? No way. This guitar was to be made of sterner stuff.
Ulman used a bedpan for the body (eat your heart out, Leo Fender), which he sliced in half horizontally and stuffed with tuba valves to form its guts. He decorated the body with car horns, voltage dials and a cut-through Zildjian cymbal, as well as a dash of the speed shit in the form of a motorcycle kickstand repurposed as a whammy bar. To hold everything together, Ulman worked up a lattice-style metal skeleton onto which the parts could be attached.
For all its outlandish components, the instrument would need a standard guitar and bass neck if it was to be playable. Ulman got two single necks, guitar and bass, both of which were capped with Chevy bumperettes adorned with spark plugs to cover their headstocks. He’d have liked to have made them work, connecting the plugs and tuning buttons so that turning the plugs affected the strings, but there was no more time. Ulman was done. He’d soon be heading home to Boston, leaving his Frankenstrat on the slab. The team’s next task? Bring the monster to life.
Australian industrial designer and propmaker Matt Boug began as a junior, Fury Road the first full-length live-action feature he’d worked on. He started in 2010. At first, he was assigned to the speed shit too. “I started in the motorcycle department,” he says. “My job was basically to take whatever motorbike they pointed in my direction and dress it in the Mad Max style.” After all the bikes had been embellished, Boug became a kind of pre-production troubleshooter for Colin Gibson, whose biggest trouble was turning Ulman’s hulking creation into a working instrument.
At this stage, the guitar was still very much a sculpture: non-functional, with no real parts or pickups, no strings attached. Boug had to tighten up Ulman’s artwork, fix the pieces in place, tweak the aesthetics and install the all-important electronics. Basically, says Ulman, “Matt had the painstaking task of taking apart all my cool shit and trying to shove some other shit in there to make it work”.
Boug grew up with guitars in the house but had never built one before either. So, for inspiration, he looked to that grand master of home luthiery, Brian May. “I remembered that in my childhood I’d read an article about the Red Special,” says Boug. “He made that out of old stuff from his house – there was a piece of wood from his mantelpiece, and some of the springs are old motorbike parts.” Boug found the article, hoping that May’s methodology might prove a guiding light. It didn’t. “It completely daunted me,” he says. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is an epic undertaking.’”
Instead, Boug drew on what he and Ulman had done on the film so far, and decided to approach the guitar as if it were a vehicle. Meanwhile, production designer Gibson had had his buyers purchase a cheap, unbranded double-neck, which was dumped on Boug’s desk along with a simple directive: here’s a double-neck guitar, here’s Ulman’s guitar – make it work.
Out went Ulman’s guitar and bass necks, which had been sawn across the 20th and 22nd frets, respectively, and in came the full-length necks from the Fender-style double. But they still had to be secured. “Michael had put all the pieces together but it needed something to hold it all together, kind of like a chassis,” says Boug. “So the first thing I did was conceive a chassis to fit into Michael’s structure so that I could hold the neck and the bridge in tension properly. I built a chassis and then bolted all the panels on it.”
Faced with inexpensive pickups from what he thinks was an Asian-made Fender copy, Boug wasn’t confident. He wanted to use higher-grade electronics so that he could minimise issues once the guitar was exposed to the elements in the Namibian desert. “I wanted to make it all really good-quality so that it wasn’t a problem when we got to Africa,” says Boug. “But [Colin] insisted that I just use this stuff. And I suppose you can’t be picky when you’re in the wasteland; I just had to make do with what I was given.”
The difficulty came in finding a place for the electronics within the guitar’s body. Boug had to take the entire thing apart several times over to install the electronics, before finally re-wrapping Michael’s sculpture around them and his new chassis. The finished instrument features three Strat-style single-coil guitar pickups, two Precision-style bass pickups, a volume control, a tone control, a guitar pickup switch, and a switch with which to flip between guitar and bass (or run both simultaneously). Stretching between the necks is the fuel tube that feeds the flamethrower, which is capped by a protective sheath made of halved truck exhaust pipes and controlled via the whammy bar.
“It was epic,” says Boug. “There were more than 400 pieces, with all the little connecting screws and the plumbing for the flamethrower. It was complex to disassemble. It was never designed to be pulled apart and put together. I struggled to get all the electronics in.”
The Fury Road guitar is a microcosm of the wider movie: loud and proud, made up of many moving parts, and stuffed with small cosmetic details that matter as much as the big picture. To bring Ulman’s sculpture more in line with the film’s tone, for example, Boug fixed a Datsun 1600 name badge onto the sliced Zildjian cymbal. “Just to add extra car elements to it,” he says,“the belief in the Mad Max world being that they’re all car nuts.” To give the guitar a more appropriately post-apocalyptic appearance, Boug also took a blowtorch to it, charring the cheap necks and fretboards. Roasted maple, indeed (blowtorch torrefaction not advised).
With the guitar built and the movie’s long Sydney pre-production complete, Ulman and Boug’s creation would eventually land in Namibia in early 2011, before later being passed to the man who would wield it. But first, they had to find him.
Hell bent for leather
Black leather gimp mask, blackened teeth, Cherry Red Gibson SG, iOTA turned up to his 2012 screen test ready to rock. “I just wore what I would’ve worn if I was in Mad Max 2,” he says, “some feathers, black eyes and brown teeth, leather and stuff.”
Having performed the lead roles in stage productions of raucous musicals Hedwig and the Angry Inch and The Rocky Horror Show, and having been a Mad Max maniac ever since he saw the first film at a drive-in aged 11, iOTA is no stranger to leather and stuff. Spikes, studs, sequins, iOTA has seen – and worn – it all. But this would be his wildest ride yet.
The Australian-Māori actor and musician had released four studio albums and appeared in numerous stage shows by the time he auditioned for the Doof Warrior in 2012. With his SG in tow, he seized the part. “To be honest, I could’ve gone in there and just noodled and that would’ve been enough,” he says. “I didn’t really do much. I just made a lot of noise. It was more the physicality. George really liked that I leaned forward and put one of my legs out the back. I remember him saying to me, ‘As soon as you did that, I knew you were the right one for the job’.”
Other actors who auditioned for the role went for more impressive feats of technical guitar playing. But clearly that’s not what the production team were after. “It was weird. I had no idea what this character was going to be like or how a guitarist was going to fit into the Mad Max world,” says iOTA. “But I figured it would just be rough, y’know? It would be something that was guttural, screeching, rather than…” he mimics complicated fretwork.
Having landed the role based on his aggressive, grotesque physicality, iOTA was invited to the Kennedy Miller Mitchell headquarters in Sydney a few days later, where he would learn more about his fate.
“I walked into the office,” he says. “There was a great big table with George Miller sitting at the end of it. The room was surrounded by storyboards, and there were model trucks and little figurines all around. There was a truck that was the Doof Wagon. I saw this truck thing with speakers everywhere and a little guy dangling on a rubber band on the front. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s cool,’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, that’s gonna be you’.”
Back when he first built the guitar, Michael Ulman hadn’t paid much mind to such trivial issues as ergonomics. “In my head, it doesn’t have to work,” he says. “I wanted to make it so [whoever would have to play the guitar] could hold it comfortably. But in my head, ‘comfortably’ just meant that his hand placement and the strap were right. I didn’t think about weight.”
Thankfully, Miller and his team did. According to Boug, the guitar weighed about 58 kilos – that’s about nine stone. The production team had to find a solution. Unbeknown to iOTA as he toyed with a tiny figurine hanging by an elastic band from a model truck in Miller’s office, that was precisely it.
In a delightfully DIY rebuttal to Gibson’s Ultra-Modern Weight Relief techniques, the production team would mount the guitar on bungee cords to relieve iOTA from having to take its full weight. However, with iOTA also suspended on bungee cords and the real Doof Wagon – a German 8×8 former military truck – in perpetual motion, he’d have a fight on his hands even playing the thing.
A few months after that meeting in Miller’s office, iOTA was in the Namibian desert, gazing up at what, until now, he’d only seen over Skype: the Fury Road guitar. “The whole thing was just such a trip. I couldn’t believe what was happening. When I got to Namibia, it was hanging on some sort of rack. It was plugged in and I just got onto it as quickly as I could. I climbed up the ladder and they strapped me in and it felt like you were on the second storey of a building looking down. It was very cumbersome and not at all pleasant to play. But it made total sense. You really had to fight with it.”
Upon getting to grips with the flame-spewing double-neck, iOTA quickly learnt the limits of its tone. “I loved the sounds that came out of it,” he says. “But it was all a little too clean. That’s why I suggested we get a distortion pedal on it and just treat it like a gong, just more of an angry atmosphere – make it scream and screech rather than try to play a riff or something.”
iOTA went to the nearest music store, in the Namibian city of Swakopmund, and picked up “whatever was the most distorted pedal” they had, which happened to be a DigiTech Hardwire SC-2 Valve Distortion unit. Look closely at the finished film and you might just catch it, swaddled in a custom-made leather pouch and attached to the lower bout – if you can call it that – of the guitar. “It looked really cool,” says iOTA. “It just looked like it’d been there forever.”
With iOTA strapped in and the sound sorted (sort of), the actor was given the freedom to do whatever the hell he wanted, up to and including using the whammy bar to fling fire into the sky. “‘Yeah, just do it every now and then. Whatever. Just have a go,’” he says. “There was a couple of different runs that we did where, you know, ‘Can you just do heaps of the flame this time?’ Lots of different ideas.” As it turned out, though, the guitar’s in-built flamethrower wasn’t as impressive as the film-makers had hoped, with the flames not showing up well on screen. Canny cinema-goers might be able to tell that the flames in the finished film are computer-generated.
“Basically that was my brief the whole time: just get up there and do what you want to do. Just rock. Be crazy,” says iOTA. “It was very physical. You’ve got protection on your knees, pads anywhere you feel that you might get injured. They were very careful. That’s all it was: ‘How are you feeling? Are you ready to have a run?’ It’s a crazy feeling to be hanging there, fighting against [the guitar] as the truck’s turning. It was wild. It was fuckin’ wild. I was just screamin’ my head off. It was like a roller coaster.”
Despite all reasonable precautions, serious injury must have crossed iOTA’s mind as he hung from a bungee cord on a moving ex-military wagon while explosions rang out all around him? “I think that’s just something you have to put to the back of your head or you’re probably not gonna do it,” he says. “Something could go very wrong. You just hope it’s not going to…”
Some scenes, however, were deemed too dangerous for iOTA, at which point he was replaced by stuntmen. Some were too dangerous for the guitar too. “Whenever there’s a fight or a stunt in movies like Fury Road, there’ll be some kind of soft version of the weapon,” says Matt Boug, whose boss Burt Burless built the stunt guitar for the film. “It was basically a process of taking the guitar that we’d built and then moulding and casting that into a version that looked exactly the same but was made out of softer materials, like foam rubber and soft plastics.”
Despite having a stunt guitar on set, the real deal suffered in the desert. “The guitar was probably there for eight or nine months,” says Boug. “I tried to shrinkwrap as much of the electronics as I could to protect it from the elements. But a lot of it was exposed. It got dropped a couple of times, which broke the electronics. I had to pull it all apart, figure out what had broken and then put it back together again.”
Not only did the guitar suffer, the amp did too. The 10-tonne Doof Wagon, based on a high-mobility payload-carrier, was adorned with walls of speakers and horns – not all of them wired up – as well as ‘reverberators’ made from old air-conditioning ducts and designed to carry the pounding of the four Taiko-style drummers across the sand flats. Beneath a grille under iOTA’s feet, there was also a small amp lying on its back, pointing directly up at him.
“It was cranked,” he says. “By the end of [the shoot], it probably wasn’t even making any sound because it was fucked. But you could barely hear it. There was trucks and wind and explosions and people yelling. It was complete mayhem.” For his part, iOTA didn’t care what sounds he was making. “I was just going for it. I was trying to imagine what it would be like to be that person. I don’t think he’d be thinking about playing something sweet. He’d be trying to break that thing.”
Ultimately, it didn’t matter much either, as iOTA’s on-set cacophonies didn’t make the final cut. He was mic’d up and the sound team were recording, “it just wasn’t good,” he says, laughing. “I even had in-ears for a while, until we realised it was pointless.”
Instead, in 2013 George Miller turned to Dutch engineer, producer and composer Tom Holkenborg, AKA Junkie XL, for the film’s score, which blurs the lines between diegetic and non-diegetic. The desert setting saw Holkenborg look to stoner rock and acts such as Kyuss for inspiration, which guided his playing and gear. His rough riffs and motifs were recorded on a Cherry Red ’74 Gibson SG and a Silverburst 2012(?) Les Paul Studio, tuned down to CGCGBE and running into a Fulltone Full-Drive 2 MOSFET and a Fulltone Fat-Boost pedal. From here, the guitars ran into an Orange Thunderverb 200 Head and cab set so loud that the sound-pressure levels distorted the microphones – all the better to simulate the juddering, jury-rigged low-end rumble of the Doof Wagon.
End of the line
Much of that speed shit, the elaborately decorated vehicles created for Fury Road, never made it home. “There was some stuff that got destroyed,” says Boug, “some of the cars and bikes, stuff that George knew he was never going to use again, that all got crushed over in Africa. They picked select things to take back to Australia, some for the reshoots that took place there, others that George was fond of.”
Thankfully, the guitar was one of them. Today it resides safely in storage at Kennedy Miller Mitchell. But it’s not the only one out there – its creator made more…
“When I try to sell my art, I’m like, ‘Oh, buy a motorcycle, buy a hot rod, buy this, buy this’,” says Ulman. “When I finally work up the courage to say, ‘Hey, I made the guitar for Mad Max: Fury Road’, their minds… everything just drops. Two people were like, ‘I–want–one!’, so I made them their own, two different versions. I would never have thought that anybody would’ve wanted that. But there’s a huge fanbase for this guitar. People are making crazy stuff of the guitar and they don’t even really know who built it.”
He’s right. In the wake of the film’s release, the Doof Warrior and Ulman’s guitar were parodied by Conan O’Brien, Seth Myers and Funny or Die, with all manner of fun fan-made recreations cropping up online, including a scorching Epiphone Les Paul mod and a flamethrowing ukulele. Ulman’s guitar and iOTA’s Doof Warrior have even been immortalised as a Funko Pop figurine.
“It just holds its own weight in that movie,” says Ulman. “It’s such a character. When I say to people, ‘Do you remember the guitar?’ they’re like, ‘That guy was my fucking favourite!’”
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