Quartertone Guitar

Quartertone Guitar by Erik Hinds

September 2004

Since this interview Erik has changed his persona and is now known as Killick.

Erik Hinds of Athens, Georgia is active as a composer, performer, and promoter of a wide range of music. In this article, specially written for Unfretted, Erik explains Quartertone fretting and his personal involvement.

erik_7str

Erik Hinds, with seven string quartertone fretted guitar.

Of course, I began like most strummers, with a fretted guitar. The majority of fretted stringed instruments, as did mine, have fretting in equal temperment, that is, octaves divided into 12 proportional tones, just like a piano.

So in 1995, influenced by the expansive range of the piano, I commissioned a 7-string acoustic guitar, still fretted and with an extra lower bass string. My hope was this would deepen and enrich the chords I was already playing. While it was true that the low and high tones ringing simultaneously were wonderfully full, something of my idealised sound was missing.

I continued on this incomplete path for a while until my thoughts led to a different type of richness…that of freedom of pitch. Equal temperment is fine in that it allows musicians with a wide variety of instruments to play together without much fuss over intonation; it may be a little reserved, but it is automatically sonorous. I was looking for something a bit more challenging.

I acquired a fretless 7-string electric guitar in 1997 and learned a few things immediately. One, the distance between, say, B and C, is not that great. That is, we have to learn how to hear the difference. Sure, in relation to a fixed-pitch instrument, there is inherent instability, but this new-found flexibility brings up more philosophical questions than musical. Two, fretless fingerboards absorb vibrations quickly; there’s a quick attack and even quicker decay. Do I continue in the same pre-fretless playing fashion? Three, playing “Western” music meant playing “in tune”: the fretlessness had to be ignored to keep the band (and audience) pleased. It was fairly simple to color in the lines with a few technical adjustments and some additional muscle memory, but then what’s the point? Why not remain fretted?

Again I gave unfretted a shot with an expanded range 11-string fretless Warr guitar, hoping the longer string length would somehow offer answers. In the final analysis it seemed little more than a physically taxing (wide neck!) version of what I had with the comparatively modest 7-string fretless.

A chance encounter with Ale Möller and Lena Willemark’s fine ECM album Agram proved a turning point in my musical (and spiritual) development. Here Ale plays Swedish folk instruments with additional fretting to accomodate traditional scales and harmonies. I was captivated and knew my next course of action.

Working with luthier Fred Carlson my goal was to retain the culturally familiar equal temperment and add a new set of possibilities through quartertone fretting. This would allow me to travel in and out of conventions at will. The end result is an acoustic instrument called the H’arpeggione. The name is a combination of the Hardanger fiddle from Norway (a violin with sympathetic strings) and the 18th century Italian bowed guitar called the arpeggione.

There are many other customizations in addition to the quartertone frets; the instrument has 6 played strings tuned primarily in fifths, from a contrabass Eb to Eb (like a guitar’s high string). The body is smaller than a ‘cello, larger than an acoustic guitar. The H’arpeggione has 12 resonating sympathetic strings which run through the neck and emerge over the body and run to a separate ‘buzzing’ bridge. There is an arched fingerboard and bridge for plucking or bowing and a spike for upright playing position. All of these features contribute to limitless music-making potential, perhaps none more so than the quartertone fretting, certainly the defining characteristic in playing technique.

Since the frets are closer together than those in equal temperment, there is the issue of precise finger placement. Sliding this way or that can easily lead to a “fretting-out” the growling reminder of poor technique. In short, it’s difficult!

The best way to approach quartertone fretting is to first concentrate on ignoring the additional frets and getting smooth execution in a variety of playing situations. In short again, it’s difficult! I found purely fretless necks an easier transition and I was less prone to nasty sounding “mistakes”. Indeed, to this day, much of my practicing revolves around clean execution in equal temperment.

In composition and performance, however, my intonation casts a wider net. Quartertone slides have a vocal quality, as the added notes mimic the fluidity of natural systems. And tension can be created through deliberate over- and under- stepping; I love exploiting the interaction and “beating” between adjacent quartertones.

A wonderful side effect of quartertone fretting is a reconceptualization of finger placement. A whole step falls nicely between my first and fourth fingers; now I have visual confirmation of this interval. I am no longer compelled to digitally hyper-extend in the “cover of Guitar Player” manner. My register leaps occur through comfortable arm movement up and down the neck, not tarantula like mimicry.

If fretlessness is a desirable system, I can also (as can any equal tempered guitarist) operate on this level. Gripping a string with fretting hand thumb and first finger creates a stop as would a fret or nut. Plucking this string creates a pitch, albeit muted and with quick decay, though it makes for distinctive staccato lines of complete pitch freedom.

There are additionally other ways to create the illusion of fretlessness. A slide. String-bending. Pushing the string down behind the nut. And with a bow, any pitch is available. (This works for all guitarists. Think Jimmy Page. Think E-bow.) Be creative and there are many pathways available.

The above covers the basics of how. The much larger issue in playing non-tempered music is that of intentionality, the why of artistic expression. What is hoped will be accomplished. All musicians draw upon a vocabulary informed by years of practice, enculturation, preferences, criticisms, loves, hopes, fears, and the full range of human experience. The sounds swirling in my head need a combination approach to unleash: I have over the last several years devised a unique organizational plan called “Appalachian Trance Metal”, incorporating the sounds thus described, adaptive to allow improvisation, avant-garde, free jazz, and other inspirations to enhance my output.

Coupled with my worldview is using the appropriate technology. For me, that was extra frets. For you? We all hear and sense differently. Find your own way. Tear out your frets, add more. Whatever you do, be yourself freely.

Erik Hinds – 9th February 2004 – for Unfretted

Fretless Guitar Extras