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 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
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
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
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.
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.
If you are thinking of providing a link to this site, why not use this banner,
we will love you forever. - Err.. OK, we know right clicks
are disabled on the site itself, but we are working on auto-download, try a left click here.