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Xenharmonic and microtonal guitars? (long)

Dave M

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Our fusion project has included some alternate tuning systems recently. We are currently exploring the 19 tone and 31 TET systems (19 or 31 notes per octave, evenly spaced out, like standard scale.) I also really enjoy the sounds possible with the 43JI (Just Intonation) system (43 tones per octave, unevenly spaced, all based on true fractions ) but that is very difficult to play in, and if we get a great chord, it is usually by accident. There are other JI tunings with far fewer notes, that would be easier to play in.

Except for keyboards (With special software) we play infinitely tunable instruments. (Trombone, Violin, Fretless bass, Slide guitar, fretless guitar, etc) They are nice, because they can play in any scale we need, but they are also very difficult to play in perfect tune, especially when you have to play by ear in unfamiliar scales and tuning systems. I plan to build some instruments dedicated to alternate xenharmonic systems, starting with an 8 string stick style guitar, that I have the parts for, but haven't started the fretboard on yet. I am thinking of doing it in a 31 note per octave tuning. I am also thinking of making a harp that could be tuned to different scales, but that is a bit outside of my realm right now.

The other thing I was thinking of was making an electric guitar with interchangeable fretboards. I was just wondering what would happen if I made the main neck really stiff, and designed the fretboard to fit on top of the neck. It could either slide in from the side, into dovetail style grooves, or fit on with a couple of screws, or bolts. This would allow swapping of fretboards between tunings, without even loosening the strings. Is this a really stupid idea, or would it be possible? My other thought was to find a way of making the frets moveable. This way, I could just slide the frets up or down the neck into their proper positions, and clamp them tightly into place. This would rule out a tapered fretboard, or a compound radius, but would make for an infinite number of possibilities. I forsee a lot of technical problems with moving frets though. What I am trying to avoid is having to build a separate set of instruments for each tuning system.

Has anybody here stepped outside of the world of standard western tuning yet? At first it feels like falling off a cliff. There is just nothing to grasp as you play. You keep looking for familiar notes, chords and structures, but they aren't there. The results can be really incredible though. There are a few instruments available, but I like to make my own. Anybody here dealt with the string intervals for alternative tuning systems? This is probably a bit too "Outside the box" for this forum, but this is the stuff that gets my creative juices flowing. Please feel free to comment.


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I've been thinking about doing my own vertions of the Novax system on occation

That might work out well in an Equal Temperament scale. It would especially help where the frets got a bit tight, with 31 frets per octave. It sure would make a bigger job out of laying out the fretboard though.

I have decided to start with a 19 Tone Equal Temperament setup, and to do it with a six string, instead of a stick with 8 strings. There are a couple of people who have done this already, and there are already some tunings, and chord charts that people have worked out, as starting points. (For a real kick, check out Neil Halverstick on MP3.com, and listen to his Swing 19. it takes a few times listening to it, to adjust to the difference in scales, and to start to dig the notes between our normal notes.) This scale seems to lend itself to jazz grooves quite well.

The other thought, is Just Intonation, where the notes aren't evenly spaced. There are large and small gaps between them. The problem here is that any sequence of frets only works for one root note within the scale. That means that each string will need its own fret intervals, requiring seperate short frets under each string. This could be a nightmare to calculate out, and when it was done, the guitar could only be played in one key. I even found a webpage about a player who convrted a guitar to 21 tone JI. It has a bunch of small partial frets and the like. He has some neat tunes as well.

Any further thoughts? anybody at all tried microtonal music?



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Dude's I'm havin a hard enough time mastering all of the standard scales , what would be the advantage of screwing stuff up by adding something like that to a guitar? :D

You ever bend a note? If you have then you, my friend just messed around in a very slight way with microtonal music. The advantage is you can play the noise you hear in your head.

Dave - I've seen a removable microtonal fretboard done before. the guitar was a Schecter but I can't for the life of me remember who the player was, but he specializes in that kind of stuff.

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heres a link with some peoples thoughts on what your looking for

hope it might help


Also seen that guy with that schecter before, I believe his name is Jon Catler.

Yeah thats it, heres another page for you to look at the scales


and these are pictures of the different fretboards for those that are interested in what they look like http://www.organicdesign.org/peterson/guit...#staggered_bent and http://www.organicdesign.org/peterson/cust.../catler_ji.html i could not find much on info on the on the fly interchangeable ones but I know they exist, happy hunting

hope it helps


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Thanks Jeremy. I had seen the bent fret guitar before. That is nice. Great info too. I had not seen the thread on the first URL you posted. There is some practical stuff there. I am still not sure if I want switchable fretboards, or a bunch of instruments. (G.A.S.?)

I hadn't thought much about John Catler's 24 tone scale. I guess I had my head set of Partch's 43 tone JI, because I had heard some of Partch's music, and liked the possibilities. The basic concept would be similar, but the 43 Ji is going to be about four times as hard to implement. I'll have to do some serious soul searching on that front. The 43 may have more harmonic possibilities, but the 24 tone JI would be better for our first forays into JI scales. OUr synth player is very well versed in 43 tone though, so he might not be so thrilled with the switch.

http://www.microtonalsynthesis.com/scale_partch.html (Partch 43 tone scale)

Just imagine a 43 Tone JI guitar with 8 strings, layed out in a Novax style fan pattern. Only 520 or so frets to lay out!

Thanks again. I appreciate the links.


Also this link seems to be a good starting point for microtonal music. Check out some of the MP3 files too. (Halverstick's "Swing 19" is on there too.)


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