We recently acquired a singular instrument – an experimental meantone guitar made by the great French luthier Daniel Friederich in 1976. As you can see, the fretboard looks a little crazy. Fortunately, we have the world’s authority on what is commonly referred to as microtonal guitar right here in Santa Monica – John Schneider. We called John to get some information on this guitar and others like it, and discovered that he’s been working with our friend Mak Grgic on music written for, let’s say ‘differently fretted’ guitars. In fact, Mak is currently working on a CD of microtonal music (we’ll keep you posted on that).

In the videos John and GSI president David Collett discuss what microtonal music is, how composers and musicians have looked at tuning over the years, and how the meantone guitar works. We also have some great performances of music by Lou Harrison, played by John, and of music by Francesco da Milano and Silvius Leopold Weiss performed by Mak.

Since not all microtonal guitars are the same (as John explains in the videos), they brought in a couple of John’s instruments, too. One is a 1988 Walter Vogt that features a “Fine-tunable Precision Fret-board” invented by the maker [U.S. Patent # 4,981,064] that consists of one individual moveable ‘fretlet’ for each note on the instrument. The 110 individual frets are also slightly U-shaped shaped pieces of fretwire, designed to counteract any mistuning by inadvertent bending of the string. The instrument also uses Vogt’s specially designed compensating nut. The other is John’s 1982 Bob Mattingly with custom Interchangeable Fingerboards by Novatone.

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21 Responses to “Microtonal Guitar – John Schneider & Mak Grgic (1976 Friederich)”

  1. Interesting, but unnecessary? Is it necessary to play in tune? Of course! We basically do. If this was so vital I am sure, Julian Bream, John Williams, Andres Segovia, the Romero’s bros, Christopher Parkening and all the other great guitarists would have found it imperative to have one of these guitars. The world of music will do just fine without these guitars, just as it has done for a long time. Fine players are able to fine-tune their guitars according to the key they will be playing in. Also, slight manipulations of the strings (such as slight bending) can be made where needed. Our world is not perfect. It has tension and unrest. The tuning we use today is more than sufficient, even if it contains an insignificant amount of imperfection. It’s sufficiently in tune. Our modern guitar can practically do it all. No need to change it. Nice playing by the artists in the vids, and the quality of the recordings is nice, too.

  2. Vincent Wong says:

    Tuning on a classical guitar has always been a source of frustration for me. I love the instrument and have been a life-long player with years of post graduate training. I am also a piano tuner and player. Equal temperament by default is out of tune but it’s the necessarily ‘evil’ in ensemble music in which other instruments must also comply to the same tuning method according to the specific key(s) of the music being played. After the Baroque, key signature changes within a movement are common and they make Just or Mean tone almost unplayable. If ‘corrected’, Just or Mean tone guitars will only be confined to solo performances and in certain keys, unless the frets are moveable – but then the time required to adjust the numerous individual frets in between pieces inevitably renders a recital far too ‘technical’ and arguably less enjoyable from the audience’s point of view. Having multiple Mean or Just tuned guitars could be a solution but practicality will prove burdensome let alone the expenses required to have such a collection of guitars. Equal temperament was invented for all the practical reasons despite its flaws. Analogous to our Western democracy, it works for most despite its flaws. Until a better system comes along, it’s probably the most useful we have. I am aware and have experimented with electronic music in which tuning can be adjusted on the fly in ensemble playing. The results have always been less than ‘perfect’ as our human auditory nerves cannot adjust to changes in harmonics as quickly and it produces disorienting effects. I surmise that this is a reason why composers, at least in the pre-modern era, always choose to start and finish in the same key. Non-freted string players and vocalists should consider themselves lucky in this regard.

  3. Ken Hatfield says:

    This is very interesting. What is said, played and demonstrated is absolutely true. I feel that we should all be aware that these phenomena are acoustical aspects of nature, and all instrumentalists have to deal with them. We guitarists have lived in a world where we do not interact with enough other instrumentalists to be made constantly aware of how common these issues are and of the many means of dealing with them which players of other instruments have developed.

    The easiest way to comprehend why (as John demonstrates) we have to pick our poison …. in other words do you want your thirds, sixths and tenths in tune or do you want your fifths in tune…. because you cannot have both….. is to look at our circle of 5ths and its origins and do a little math.

    Beginning with C (as our circle of fifths does), we travel clockwise in ascending 5ths for 12 fifths to get back to where we began (which is a C that is seven octaves above where we began, in our circle of 5ths). The ratio for the proportions between the vibrating frequencies that are a perfect fifth apart is 3:2 (or 3/2); conversely, the ratio for a perfect octave is 2:1 (or 2/1). Well, if you multiply the 3:2 ratio times the 12 fifths that gets you to the C that is 7 octaves above the starting note (C) which completes our circle of 5ths, you get 129.746. Yet if you multiply the 2:1 ratio by the 7 octaves that should yield the same pitch, you get 128. By the way, this anomaly is known as Pythagoras’ comma…… because he discovered the ascending 5ths that are the basis for all our music, and he quickly realized this problem in the 6th century B.C.

    Well, since 12 ascending fifths produce a C that is sharper than the one 7 ascending octaves produce, yet they are supposed to be the same pitch, we got a problem. This is an acoustical/physical fact … it is irrefutable. Yet all tuning systems fail to eliminate such anomalies. Equal temperament, irregular temperament, meantone, regular meantone fifth etc. not even the non-keyboard methods developed by string players solve all the problems…….none achieve perfection……..they merely mitigate different anomalies.

    So pick your poison …. or your apothecary of remedies (which is my preference), because perfection across all keys and tonalities with one system or method is unachievable …. acoustically. And even the digital manipulations create their own set of “issues”.

    No self driving guitars in this acoustic universe….. we have to play as attentively as the composers that write the music are/were 🙂

  4. fascinating ;fine playing

  5. larry says:

    For period pieces, I can definitely see the charm of this. However, for doing a variety of pieces, it would be a challenge, especially if varied tuning is required or when playing with different instruments. I still choose to cheat the tuning to satisfy prominent notes that would exaggerate the effects when standard tuning is slightly off. Splitting the difference, but I find it easier to tug a flat note up in pitch and find that I do it naturally when I notice it. What we need is harder finger tips so we can get the same sound out of fretless guitar, which I cannot.

  6. “A 7th chord with teeth!”—love that line! John Schneider has a true gift explaining alternate tuning systems so that anyone can understand. The Harrison pieces are beautiful, and beautifully performed. Thanks for these wonderful videos.

  7. Raymond Cousté says:

    Unequal temperaments are for a repertoire that is not the guitar repertoire – up to now at least. Basta. Grab a lute (or a viol), move the frets the way Da Milano, Dowland, and Gautier did, watch closely baroque ensembles on TV, listen to Louis Couperin’s Pavane en fa# mineur – le ton de la chèvre – played by Christophe Rousset, et dormez sur vos deux oreilles. It’s as simple as that !

    A bientôt, R.

  8. larry says:

    I would love to hear a concert of early music by either one of these gentlemen, it is rather addictive.

  9. tom says:

    Well, that’s 26 minutes of my life that I won’t be getting back.

  10. Carla says:

    I love music, what a wonderful sound of this violation, Congratulations, very beautiful.

  11. David says:

    How does one do a bar? They picked songs that does not use bars. Or did I miss them? Please let me know.

    • Kai says:

      Hey David,
      I sent your question to John Schneider and here’s his answer:

      “the short answer is, “carefully!” – but really no different from any other standard guitar, unless the frets are way out of line for that barré, in which case, some notes are individually fingered. That rarely happens, though…”


  12. Roland Spiehl says:

    I would not call this (DF 437) a microtonal guitar per se – it is designed to be finetuned in halftones. One could use such a guitar in three ways: temperamented, just and microtonal.

    Of course one could add fretlets like for example Tolgahan Çoğulu does and go microtonal. This is great melodic and becomes difficult to use poyphonic.

    One probably uses this kind of guitar by tuning every single fretlet to a desired temperament like equal, meantune, phytagorean, Werckmeister, Kirnberger, …. It would be interesting to use the ETP entropy piano tuner (there is an app)to find a certain optimized temperament (probably near equal temperament) for a certain guitar/string-combination (not done yet as far as I know).

    If you want to go “just intonation” with pure intervals, than you have to go enharmonic and double the frets of the first octave – with every step in the circle of fifths notes get sharp/flat.

  13. Cassio says:

    Very good post, congratulations.

  14. Roland Spiehl says:

    A main reason for wanting a fine-tunable guitar has just vanished somwhow. New production methods for ultra precise strings develeoped around 2000 provide us with incredible homogenious strings. Today correcting fret positions with respect to strings tension in combination with nut and bridge compensation takes away most of the differences between the actual tones produced by a a guitar and equal temperament on conventional guitars.

    Regarding equal temperament (ET) beeing the gold standard for tuning fretted and keyed instruments: no piano is tuned that way. Due to string inharmonicities bass strings are tuned lower and discants higher than ET (Railsback curve) to achieve for a piano, as John Schneider explains in the first clip at 2:50 min, that “in tune” means that the harmonics of two tones ring into one another.

    But completely independent of string inharmonicities the very idea of “equal temperament” is developing. The understanding of what it means that “harmonics ring into one another” has deepened and led to the development of so called “stretched equal temperaments”.
    By changing the constraint from pure octaves to pure duodecimes 3:1 (B. Stopper 1988) one gets a slightly different equal temperament, which is invariant under key shift, same as with the perfect fifth 3:2 (Cordier 1995). A more radical approach these days by A. Capurso, Messina, Italy, demands key invariance without constraining any interval to be pure.
    H. Hinrichsen (11/2015) suggests a “harmonic equal temperament”, taking into account the number of notes produced by an intrument (e.g. 88 on a grand piano), spectral richness (how dominant the harmonics are) and the “line width” (how broad is the frequency range, that the human ear accepts for a certain tone to be in tune with another one)”. His findings, based on minimizing the spectral entropy of the whole tone spectrum, give a subtle stretching of ET with a strong argument, that (for now) this is the most harmonic scale possible, that is invariant to key shift.

    The ratio of the frequency succeding halftones, which in ET is strictly the 12th root of 2 (~1.0595..), oscillates in the bass region around this value with converging to it in the highest octave. The differences are barely audible with lower notes, but have noticable effekt in minimizing beats of the higher harmonics of chords.

    I calulated the geometrical effects on guitar frets to be smaller that the fret width and may so be taken into account for by just changing the fret profile from string to string with otherwise
    fixed whole frets, as it is common to do on a compensated bridge of an acoustic guitar.

    • Rene says:

      I am not understanding your comments as to how this would apply to the guitar. The piano has dedicated string(s) for each note so you can apply different stretch tunings to improve the overall sound. On the guitar this just doesn’t work because the same note played on different strings would no longer be in unison. It seems to me that equal temperament is the only option for the guitarist if they want to play in different keys.

      • Roland Spiehl says:

        For one there is more than one temperament, that is invariant to key shifts – some constrain certain intervals to be pure, some don’t. Stretched equal temperaments refer to the overtone spectrum of an ideal string – no inharmonicity, all partials are integer multiples of the fundamental.

        This stretching of the temperament itself has nothing to do with the “Railsback curve” of a piano, where the bass strings are tuned flat and high octaves are tuned sharp, because the harmonics have slightly higher frequencies than integer multiples of the fundamental.

        Now think of a finetuneable guitar as a piano, where you can play maximal six notes at a time out of some 44. First the strings are tuned to pitch, then you tune every fretlet on every string with a precision tuner independently to the exact frequency you want , and of course a certain note has the same frequency on played on any string. This takes also care of string-stretching from pressing down, string inhomogenities, frequency shifting due to feedback from the non-linear admittance of the top, vibration of the bridge etc.

        Does this help?

        Why don’t you try it out yourself? It’s fun (not difficult at all, interesting and inspiring, easy and cheap and, if you don’t like it, reversible) to build a finetunable guitar – here is how it goes, the idea bases on a patent for an adjustable bridge from 1909.

        Buy a cheap but reasonable good guitar on ebay, pull the frets 1 – 12 out, drill small (~1/10 inch diameter) vertikal holes into the fingerboard, between the strings, where the frets were, six in every fret-slit. Take some fretwire (~72 inch), cut to pieces (=fretlets) about one inch long (adjust to string spacing). Remove – clip it off and sand flat – the vertikal part of the fretwire, that goes into the slit for half of the lenght of fretlet. Bend it to a right angle and put the part with the underwire in the hole, so the rest rests flat on the fingerboard. The pivoting hole should be around 1/3 of the string soacing away from the string.
        There you are, voila! Should cost you about 200 $, if you have some DIY-tools at home.



      • Roland Spiehl says:

        The comments refer to “finetunable” guitars like the ones in the videos above, built by Daniel Friederich and Walter J. Vogt, and the implications and inspirations caused by this type of instrument. Here every note can be tuned individually by dividing each fret into six sliding “fretlets”, which can be moved up or down the fingerboard independently.

        Did this help?

        Greetings, Roland

  15. Jason Stidd says:

    The sound of the guitar is great, the sound of the tuning is very sweet, they players, performances and recordings are up to GSI’s great standards. I am glad we get to hear these microtonal guitars. To answer the question about if these guitars are necessary, yes. It is through the experimentation of composers, musicians and instrument makers that we get so much wonderful variety and progress in music.


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