Ed Powell’s Fretless Guitar thoughts…

Ed Powell – Fretless Guitar Thoughts

Two Articles from Edward Powell

Edward Powell –  October 2004 & November 2005.

Edward Powell is a pioneering musician who specialises in the Sitar, Oud, and Fretless Guitar, and making unique fretless instruments.

ed powell fretless guitar

Edward Powell, with his fretless guitar.

The Philosophy behind the Fretless Guitar

The philosophy behind the fretless guitar is very simple. It is an attempt to go back in time to when music was played “in tune”. It may seem a strange purpose; to play an instrument which is so difficult to play in tune, with the idea of being able to actually play more in tune. The reason why the fretless guitar is ideally suited to playing in tune, and the fretted guitar is not, is that although it may seem very easy to play the fretted guitar in tune, this is actually an illusion. It is virtually impossible to play the fretted guitar in tune. It may very difficult to play the fretless guitar perfectly in tune, but it is possible, whereas with a fretted guitar it is not.

It took me a very long time to realise that it is not possible to tune a fretted guitar perfectly. Honestly, for years I thought my ears were defective, although the truth is the opposite – I was able to pickup on the fretted guitars tuning limitations before I could intellectually understand the underlying reasons for that.

What I mean by going “back in time” to when music was played “in tune” means going back to a time before the invention of the equal tempered tuning system. The piano is the perfect example of an instrument designed to be tuned in equal temperment – thus the piano also is an “out of tune” instrument.

So the key point here is really a question of tuning systems; equal tempered vs. natural tuning. The equal tempered tuning system was invented as a way to play music which uses “harmony” on just one instument (guitar or piano for example). So you may be asking; what is “equal temperment”? and, what is “harmony”?

Harmony is when music uses chords and is able to modulate into different keys. Music which uses the “pre-harmony” or “natural”, or “untempered” tuning systems, like the Indian musical system, is and can only be played in one key. This is the major drawback – that is assuming that you are addicted to hearing chordal movement in music. Indian music has no chordal movement and therefore is grounded in one key permanently – therefore all of the intervals can be placed exactly where the ear wants to hear them without the risk that if you modulate into another key, a particular note placing might not then sound good in the new key.

It seems really incredible but God didn’t intend for semitones to be exactly the same distance apart. If you look closely at a fretted guitar you will notice that the frets are exactly the same distance apart—or getting closer together at exactly the same rate. If you look very closely at a properly tuned sitar (on a sitar you must also tune your frets! They are moveable!), you will notice that, aside from some spots where frets are “missing”, the remaining are not exactly equal distance apart – or getting closer together at exactly the same rate. This basically proves, by ear, that semitones are not supposed to be an equal distance apart.

It is also possible to prove this mathematically. Take a perfect 5th… A to E for example. E is vibrating 1.5 times faster than A. This means that if you tune an E from an A so your ear feels it is perfect… the result will be that the E is vibrating exactly 1.5 times faster than the A. So, if A is 440, then the E will be exactly 660. So try this as an experiement with a calculator. Go around the cycle of 5th (A, E, B, F#, C#…. etc) starting at A and eventually finishing at A. With each 5th multiply by 1.5. You would guess that by the time you would finally get all the way around the full cycle, back again to A, you would have for that final A a number which would be perfectly divisable by 440, right? Meaning that you would have an A which would be some octaves higher than the A that you started with….? Try it and you will see clearly that you will NOT end up with a number for A which will be divisable by 440… you’ll get something quite close, but not the perfect thing!! That little exercise should lay all your doubts to rest – the fretted guitar is an “out of tune” instrument!

All this means that once you remove the frets you are no longer restricted by them. You can play perfectly by ear and place your fingers slightly lower or higher than where the fret would have been, thereby playing with much much more potential tuning accuracy.

How did the tempered tuning system develope? It developed very gradually over hundreds of years. It did not just suddenly appear. European music began as music in only one key (and therefore in the perfect/natural tuning). But then some very clever composers began to experiment with music using just two keys. They discovered that if you just change the tuning very very slightly of only a few notes, so slightly that it wouldn’t be really noticable, then a new catchy gimmick of music with MODULATION was born… thus our addiction began. This new music was obviously so successful and seductive, and since those new composers realised that they had managed to get away with manipulating the natural tuning system, they went further, and further, and further until they had managed to simple create a tuning system in which all the semitones are the same distance apart, thereby making to possible to play equally in tune (or equally out of tune) in any key you desire.

Of course this new music was mostly written to be played by groups of fretless instuments (violins etc), and it was left to the individual musicians to adjust the note, so as to “re-tune” them and adjust them to be back in tune. So groups of violins can play this new music in tune… but a piano or fretted guitar can not.

As a side note it is very interesting to note that about the same time when new modern composers where manipulating with natural tuning systems, scientists were discovering new clever ways of manipulating nature, natural elements, molecules, atoms etc… with the results we have today… genetically modified foods, super medicines (which only control disease symptoms and not the real causes), and atom bombs etc etc etc. We must ask, was it really a good idea to start tampering with nature?? Was it really a good idea to start tampering with natural tuning systems.

I think that most guitarists who change from being fretted player to unfretted players probably don’t consciously realise it, but are hungering to make a statement about not only music, but about the dangerous and arrogant direction our species is taking in our determination to “play God”. I think that we all feel that it is time to return to something more “simple”, “more real”, “more pure”, and “more beautiful”.

Listening to and playing music in the natural tuning system definately has a relaxing and healing effect on us. There was an experiment done on plants in which plants were place near speakers in 3 separate rooms with 3 different kinds of music. The first were given loud Rock music, the second were given Western classical, and the third were gived Indian classical (this is NOT a plug for Indian music… it is only to say that Indian music is one system, among many that still uses the natural tuning system). So what happened… the plants which were given Rock music all died, the plants given Western classical stayed the same, and the plants given Indian classical music literally wrapped themselves around the speakers!

Edward Powell – October 2004.

Genetically Modified Music and the Fretless Alternative.

To be aware, truly aware, of the nature of life and our world, it has been said, is the key to enlightenment. However, awareness can often bring depression, skepticism, and hense a desire and tendency not to look deeper than the superficial. It is my feeling that this can be the result of “looking” only slightly below the surface… I feel that to look very deeply reveals that even the things which seem terrible, finally can have positive meaning when seen in the GRAND scheme of things. I wanted first to make this point before embarking on a description of something which might appear frightening.

First of all, let’s face it – we live in a very modern world. We are surrounded with technology. Surrounded by machines and products of very advanced industry and science… in fact, it has reached the point where our very lives have become dependent on technology. Human life has not always been this way. Think and try to imagine what life was like 200 years ago, 500 years ago, 5000 years ago, 5 million years ago. Life was very different back then, but why? What was the real difference? What happened in the last 2000 years which ignited the changes which resulted in the world we now live in which is a world only vaguely resembling what was in our not so distant past?

In the course of our daily life, how often do we stop to think about the nature of what is around us? For example, when we buy fruits and vegetables in the supermarket, do we take a moment to reflect on the fact that none of the plants we are purchasing and eating are plants which exist naturally in nature? None of them. All vegetables available now were created by scientists in laboratories. When at home with our dogs and cats, or in the country witnessing our farm animals, do we stop and reflect on the truth that these beloved animals which nurish us with love, or as food, also would never be seen today without the existance of bio-experimental science. Pigs, dogs, horses, cows, etc. never existed before in the form we now know and love them.

Again, we may ask; how did this happen, and why?

We may also ask; what other areas of life have been “modified” and “de-naturized” by science, and industry?

How many people are aware that even music, our beloved modern music, has been affect by the industrial mind-set. Of course we all are aware of recording studios and the possibilities of sound modifications, equalisation, and special effects etc… but who is truly aware that at the fundamental level, the deepest level, the actual rate of vibration of the most basic musical pitches, as we now know them, like the denatured tomatoes and kittens, are also modern creations never before existing naturally in nature! Yes, modern Western musicians, composers, scholars, and instrument builders have actually, gradually, over the last 500 years, profoundly altered the speed of vibration of the fundamental musically pitches as we know them now. It means that the music we grew up with, that we hear on the radio everyday, that we studied in school, is out of tune.

What does this actually mean, “out of tune”? To be “in tune” means to be in harmony. In harmony with what? In harmony with life, and the grand forces of nature and the universe of which we are a small part. Every child is told that no two snowflakes and no two leaves are identical. No two drops of water, no two clouds, no two sunsets, and no two people are exactly the same. What this means is that in nature, no two things are exactly the same. This is also true with musical notes. In nature, no two musical intervals are exactly the same. But look at the fingerboard of a modern fretted guitar… it is immediately clear, from looking at the equally distanced fret placings that this is an instrument intended to produce semitones of exactly equal distance from each other. But as we just determined, nothing in nature is identical, and to be truly in tune, semitones must NOT be equally spaced. Observe the fingerboards of instruments designed to play music which does not employ the modern system of “equal temperment”, instruments such as the sitar, the oud, or the saz. Either the frets are tied on with moveable (hense, tunable) strings, or there are no frets at all. When there are frets, look closely, they are NOT spaced equally.

So, our music is out of tune… our vegetables are out of tune… our animals are out of tune… our air and water are out of tune… could it be that the result (or the cause), is that “we” are out of tune?

Please let me refer back to the first paragraph of this article, and let’s be reminded that in the GRAND GRAND scheme of things, nothing is out of tune, nothing is bad or good, everything has a purpose — and no matter what will happen on earth, 20 trillion years from now the universe will destroy and then recreate another one just as wonderful as the one before.

So just for the sake of awareness, let us simply face the fact that yes, we are “out of tune”. Life is music, and music is life… we can be forgiven when we are ignorant, but when we have awareness then it is our choice— we always have choices. We do not have to play equal tempered music on equal tempered instruments. Wonderful alternatives exist.

Edward Powell – November 2005.

Fretless Guitar Extras