Adjusting to the sound of microtonal guitar can be hard at first. It is often complicated by the type of music played on these instruments, which can be complex and “difficult,” requiring the ear to adjust to two things at once.
With one of his projects, the band Willie McBlind, Jon Catler plays blues on a guitar fitted with extra frets that allow a radically different intonation than the one used by Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, yet the music sounds somehow “right.” Whether because the blues masters often played their own style of “out-of-tune,” or because the genre and its forms are so familiar, the sound of Catler’s microtonal instrument seems easier to assimilate.
Then again, a quick viewing of Catler’s video demoing the 12-Tone Ultra Plus guitar reveals that, viewed in a certain light, his instrument is actually more “in-tune” than a standard guitar. In this informative interview the microtonal master explains his journey and philosophy.
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?
I had a teacher who showed me some chord melody arrangements, but I also had a band that was playing heavy music like Hendrix and Cream. Later, I switched to a classical music teacher.
What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?
Back then, Hendrix and Cream were experimental AND mainstream. Jimi had the long feedback breakouts, avant-garde sound effects, backwards guitars, and trippy panning. Cream had fuzz guitar choirs in 5/4 like White Room, and long extended improv sections. Led Zeppelin had the Theremin/echo section in Whole Lotta Love. These were the biggest bands of the time.
So did I become more experimental, or did the mainstream become less? The corporatization of rock in the ’70s certainly flattened out the music, so by the ’80s there was a real separation between mainstream and “experimental.”
One early incident led me to the path I am still on today. As a teen, my rock band practiced in the drummer’s garage, which had been converted into his bedroom. One day I was practicing there by myself at full volume, working with feedback, and I was playing a low E through a Marshall Major. The pitch feeding back sounded like a D, but when I went to find the same note fretted, I realized that the note feeding back was flatter than a fretted D by quite a bit. This flat D was incredibly strong and harmonious, and I couldn’t understand why such a powerful, majestic note was not represented on my fretboard. I sensed I was glimpsing some secret information, but as this was decades before the Internet, I could not find the answers right away.
In 1978, I saw an article in Guitar Player Magazine on Ivor Darreg. He had long white hair and was holding a guitar with more frets than I had ever seen. At this time, I was a senior at Berklee in Boston. I called Darreg in California, he was extremely helpful and told me about a guy named Tilman Shafer in Bedford, MA, who had a guitar fretted to 31equal steps in the octave. I met Tilman, who was kind enough to lend me this classical guitar, as he didn’t play it.
31-tone Equal Temperament has major thirds and harmonic sevenths that are almost pure. I figured out the fingering for an A harmonic seventh chord and played it for ten minutes straight, feeling the vibrations resonate through the acoustic guitar body. Here was a perfectly in-tune 7th chord that didn’t need to resolve and the answer to the flat D note from my garage feedback days (it’s the seventh harmonic). I rested the guitar on my lap and realized that my life had changed. I recognized I had been lied to about what was in tune and what was not. I saw that the frets were giving me 12 notes, but there were many other notes that were undeniably pure and in-tune that were not represented by frets.
Whose music inspires you?
Hendrix, Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, John Coltrane, Harry Partch, La Monte Young, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Wes Montgomery, Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Carlos Santana, Leslie West, Blind Willie Johnson, Albert King, Robert Johnson, Duane Allman, Igor Stravinsky, Olivier Messiaen, and Ornette Coleman, are some.
How did you get better at your current style?
Playing and writing consistently every day, as well as gigging and recording with other musicians and then listening to the results. I’ve learned to be pretty black and white over whether something I’ve played sounds good or not, and if I don’t think it’s good, I work to improve it, or move on.
What are you trying convey with your music?
I’m trying to express my experiences of what it’s like to be a human living on earth at this time. Also, as a composer, putting your life into music helps you deal with all that goes on in life, it really helps keep you sane.
But I’m also trying to learn about the universe and what makes everything tick. The Harmonic Series is a naturally occurring series of pitches that is infinite. Each step up the series is an entirely new interval, different than what came before. This is in contrast to standard 12-Tone Equal Temperament tuning, in which there is only one interval, the 1/2 step, which is added up to make up all the other “intervals.” In fact, the only interval in standard tuning that is really in tune is the octave, all other intervals are tempered to be out of tune.
Most musicians do not know this. What we are taught about being “in tune” is a lie. I would advise all guitarists to see what it sounds like to tune their open strings to a pure Harmonic 7/9 chord, which is Harmonics 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 12. In the key of A, this is E, A, C#, G half flat, B, E, where all pitches are harmonics of the A string. You can even tune the high E string to the 11th harmonic. If you do this and strum all six strings, you will hear a pure harmonic chord. You can add tons of distortion, and the chord will still hold together. That is because distortion consists of added harmonics, which are usually in conflict with the standard non-harmonic frets, which cancels resonance. Once you tune Harmonically, you get harmonic reinforcement instead, and all kinds of crazy things happen. Then you can translate these Harmonic pitches into Harmonic Rhythm, where every pitch has it’s place in time, and hear the clockwork of the Universe.
I also tune my fundamental to Natural frequencies. I use C = 528hz, which is the frequency of the yellowish green color of chlorophyll, and of hemoglobin, and could be a so-called Cosmic frequency. Since all is vibration, it makes sense that everything has a fundamental vibrating frequency. There is lots of information on the web about this 528hz, and it is nice to see a microtonal frequency getting such worldwide attention. Some people report instruments in this tuning have a more resonant quality and stay in tune longer, and that it makes singing easier.
There is also info about the current standard of pitch, A = 440hz, and how that came to be the standard—it’s shocking! Since most everyone has to tune to something, I think it’s important for people to know what they’re tuning to. Otherwise, no matter how original and creative your music is, you’re letting someone else determine what pitches you play. With my music, I am trying to offer some answers and convey the fact that Nature holds the key.
Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?
I plug into an old Fulltone Wah, and from there into a Radial Tonebone to split the signal. The first output goes to my TC Sustainer, then into an Ernie Ball Volume Pedal straight to a Marshall 50-watt Plexi head, into a Sound City 4×12” cab, or for smaller venues a Bogner 1×12″. The second output goes into a TC Chorus/Flanger to split the signal again. The first out of this goes into a Fulltone Plimsoul, which is nice because you can blend two types of distortion. Then it hits a Roland Space Echo and a Digitech JamMan looper, and this goes to a Marshall 18-watt combo. The other out from the Chorus hits an Xotic RC Booster, a Tech 21 Comptortion, an Electro-Harmonix Superego, and a TC delay, which is sent to a Vox AC15HW, or an old brown Fender Princeton. I use the same rig live or in the studio, and when recording I’ll just pull pedals out of the signal path if they’re not used for that song.
For guitars, I use FreeNote necks, usually on G&L bodies like the S-500’s. For fretting systems, I use 64-tone Just Intonation, 12-Tone Ultra Plus, 24-fret JI, and Fretless guitars. And if I need 12-Tone Equal Temperament, I use my old Gibson ES Artist with a Bigsby Triple Palm Pedal.
Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?
My favorite is recording a live gig. You can get the best of both, and there’s only one take per song! Most of my recordings are done live in the studio, with all band members playing in the same room and only minimal overdubs. My most recent release, Fretless Brothers Live at ShapeShifters, was recorded at a live gig in Brooklyn.
How have you built up an audience for your music?
There are people scattered around the globe who are interested in playing pitches that are different than the spoon-fed versions. Since 2000, FreeNote has been the only company offering pro level guitars and necks in various useable tuning systems. The 12-Tone Ultra Plus tuning is now the most popular alternative tuning.
I’ve also put out over a dozen CD’s of original music, from power jazz trios to guitar with orchestra. I like many different styles of music, and enjoy infusing these styles with new pitches, chords and melodies. I’ve done tours supporting the music, gotten some grants, and some folks may be aware of my work with La Monte Young, as we recorded and performed throughout Europe.
With whom would you like to collaborate and why?
Would be nice to work with Robert Plant, I know he was aware of and interested in other pitches from way back.
What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?
The newest release, Fretless Brothers Live At Shapeshifters, has just come out in digital format, and is available here.
We also shot video at the gig, are putting some of that out soon. The band is Dane Johnson and myself on guitars, Hansford Rowe on bass, and Brian Chase on drums.
I’ve been playing with 13 O’Clock Blues Band, which is a new thing that takes the blues to other places, and I’m working on the One Note Orchestra, which is focused on the concepts of Cosmic Frequencies and Harmonic Rhythm mapped to a larger ensemble.
I just recorded a duo record with drummer Ra-Kalam Bob Moses. He had some drums tuned to my C tuning, and it was a liberating experience to play with just guitar and drums.
FreeNote Guitars has a new fretting design out, the 24-fret Just Intonation, which works great in any open tuning and gives pure 13-limit Harmonic pitches.