Paul Rubenstein’s movable fret instrument

Paul Rubenstein is a long time fretless guitarist who has built some innovative instruments, here he shows us his latest creation, a five string, three course, instrument with movable frets.

Paul Rbenstein's instrument bowed

Paul Rubenstein – In his own words….

I built this instrument in 2012, or maybe late 2011, but I still don’t have a name for it. I don’t really feel it needs one, actually. It does what I need it to do, and that’s what matters. I’m a musician first… the instruments are in service to the music, not the other way around. They’re not intended as sculptures or a marketing gimmick or anything like that. I don’t care what they look like, just what they can do. I don’t even mention them on music releases usually anymore… I don’t want that to distract people. I get more honest evaluations of the music this way, though as a way of marketing myself, it’s the absolute wrong way to go about things. That doesn’t bother me. I think of making music in terms of what Albert Camus called, “absurd creation”. (Albert Camus was a French philosopher who contributed to the rise of the philosophy known as absurdism.)

The instrument has five strings… one individual low string, and two double courses. The middle course is two strings an octave apart, starting from an octave above the low string, the upper course is two strings in unison, the same as the higher partner of the middle course. So all three courses are an octave apart. The frets are both movable and removable, and because I’m tuning in octaves, I don’t need different frets for different strings, so there are no fingerings to learn. So technically it’s a kind of dulcimer. Not having to think about fingerings frees me to focus on the content of the music, which is mainly improvised. I played fretless for many years but I’ve found that movable frets are better for what I do…I can experiment with different tunings and scales without having to worry about intonation. It also has an electric doumbek (arabic drum) of sorts built in, so I always have accompaniment. Besides bowing and plucking, I can get santoor (hammered dulcimer) sounds with a device that I’m working on getting a patent for.

While fretlessness allowed access to all kinds of microtonal tunings, to actually play in these tunings required either inhuman intonational ability (which I lack) or little marks on the fingerboard, and complicated and unwieldy scale fingerings. So I ended up going in a different direction… back to where I started (to some extent), returning to movable frets, and fewer strings. It took years of experimenting with different designs before coming up with the frets I use now.

The first instrument I made was an electric guitar with movable frets. The second one was an electric, fretless bowed instrument with a neck the length of a guitar neck, and same scale-length as a guitar. That was the Viotar, made in 1992, and became my main instrument. I wanted more range, and kept building new fretless bowed instruments with more strings each time… the Viotar had four strings, the Invisitar (made from a clear acrylic tube) had five (I think… it’s been a while), the Cellotar (made of walnut wood) had six, the Ubertar (steel tube) had eight melody strings, tuned in fourths (all of these were tuned in fourths) and two internal, motorized drone strings. The last of this family of instruments was the Alumitar, made from an aluminium tube, with 11 strings and the full range of a piano.

Besides the stringed instruments mentioned above, I’ve made some electric, tuned percussion; some other automatic drone instruments; my latest instrument is a wind instrument that sounds something like a sax and has continuous pitch, kind of like a slide flute but with a reedy sound. I’ve also come up with a modification to slide flutes that makes it possible to play scales accurately without giving up the slide aspect or having insanely good intonation. Functionally, it’s like having frets on the slide flute, but physically it’s a totally different thing.

Paul Rubenstein's instrument plucked

Paul Rubenstein, Queens, NYC, USA



2 thoughts on “Paul Rubenstein’s movable fret instrument

  1. We are trying to come up with ideas for moveable frets for a guitar we are designing. Yours look really good. Would it be possible for you to describe briefly how they work? We are complete amateurs, but very keen to have a go, so any advice you can give us would be much appreciated. Many thanks. Trish

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