The Golden Gate: Not only a bridge! A musical instrument!

By Carole Illouz-Thompson

The jewel of San Francisco, the glorious Golden Gate Bridge, is used by hundred of thousands everyday to travel between San Francisco Peninsula and the Marin headlands to the north.  It’s a 75-year-old suspension bridge made up of enormous, resonant arcing and vertical cables, connected with thousands of rivets to towers, rails and roadway.  It also stands as a magnetic tourist attraction for millions. 

But tourism wasn’t the  reason why three Bay area homies decided to hang out on the Gate one night in July 1975 at 11:30pm.


Doug McKechnie, Arnie Lazarus, and Michael Phillips were brought to the bridge in the middle of the night by the cover of a music magazine featuring a powerful drawing of a Robot “playing the GG Bridge” like a harp. Bringing this picture to life was what inspired Doug: Emmy and Oscar nominated producer, and composer,  Arnie: a genius of  the audio engineering world, inventor of  FRAP(Flat Response Audio Pickup), and Michael: business manager at Glide Memorial Church, to go to the bridge that night. They had brought with them a Japanese  mini tape recorder, FRAP’s red metal box, a bunch of wires and a sculptor’s mallet to strike the cables. While they were busy, seeking the one cable with the best sound to capture, the scene attracted the police,  and the three nocturnal bridge players were asked to leave.


 Two weeks later, Michael, calling upon his connections in the city, allowed them to lease the bridge for a mere $13.50 an hour.  The DVD “The History of playing the Golden Gate Bridge” recounts this 5th of August between 2 A.M and 4 A.M, when a crew of 20 people with hammers hit the structure to capture each and every sound created. With the typical Bay Area mindset, they knew it was just a matter of time before the technology came along that would help them effectively play the sounds of the Golden Gate Bridge as a musical instrument.

Searching for the best cable sound
Searching for the best cable sound

Soon the technology came by way of Paul de Benedictis, a musician immersed in the development of the digital music revolution.  Using that technology, Doug and Paul joined by John Lewis and Jim Purcell in the creation of the San Francisco Synthesizer Ensemble, and it became a musical lab. They were experimenting with the most inventive audio technology on the planet, created by the genius engineers and audio programmers of the Silicon Valley.  The sound delivery was on its way to major changes and in 1987, the Gate turned 50.  The long awaited technology was just coming together, and it was now possible to use the sounds of the bridge captured 12 years earlier. Using a Macintosh Plus, an Emax sampler from Emu Systems, and Sound Designer software from Digidesign,  these MIDI explorers could transfer the sounds of the bridge into a sampler, ready to play.  Now the public could hear these loud, industrial sounds played via synthesizers, and arranged like symphonies.

Fast forward to 2012. The Gate is  3/4 of a century old, and audio technology is in full bloom. With tablets and smartphones anyone can play the bridge now, because there’s an app for that!  But this one has behind it the story of historical turns in the world of music making, playing and listening.  From a wall of synthesizers, to a few keyboards, shrinking to pocket sized portable devices, everyone can now play the Golden Gate Bridge,  like magic!

The Golden Gate has its own legend etched in vibration:  Ocean storms,  gusty winds, thick fog, rolling cars under deep orange towers, come together to create a feeling from another dimension. A legend tells us to make a wish when crossing the bridge, sooner or later it might well become reality.

To share the little known  musical  saga of  the Golden Gate Bridge. A San Francisco story:

Golden Gate Bridge Pavilion Store – (on site only not internet)