I have an oft-repeated mantra at the shop: “Intonation is a social construct”. Over the last several hundred years, western music has largely standardized into an equal tempered system, dividing the octave into twelve notes with a ratio equal to the 12th root of 2 (12√2 = 2 1⁄12 ≈ 1.059463)(12 tone equal temperament is also known as 12-TET). Basically this means that every note is equally out of tune in reference to all the others – but we as a society have settled on this as being acceptable. However, this isn’t necessarily the only way to divide an octave – we can divide an octave in any way we want, which could result in a whole new set of harmonic possibilities for a new kind of music. These new intervals can perhaps inspire different kind of emotional response beyond what we typically associate with the 12 tone system (i.e.: major 3rds sound “happy”, minor thirds sound “sad”). It’s up to our ears, our minds, and perhaps our souls to move past the notion that perhaps that which is uncomfortable can also be beautiful.
So yeah – I’m a nerd, and have been studying temperament theory for several years. For fun. I’ve retrofitted a small handful of microtonal guitars over the years for my own use (which can be heard on much of my solo work with UFO Death Cult), all of which, for some perverse reason, are pink. Behold, my latest creation: the Fender Hello Kitty microtonal Strat of Doom™!
This guitar was actually my first microtonal experiment, starting as a standard Fender Hello Kitty Strat, and then originally retrofitted to a 24 tone octave (24-TET), which allowed access to quarter tones. I ultimately wasn’t satisfied with 24-TET, as quarter tones just aren’t that interesting, and it was too easy to fall into familiar patterns. So I shelved the project for years, experimenting with other microtonal and xenharmonic systems, and only just recently revived the Hello Kitty project. Taking inspiration from the Dead Hand System (my old ambient industrial band) sticker on the body, I opted to go for a 15 tone (15-TET) system (5 fingers, 15 tone… yeah, I know). Here’s how it went down:
While I’m perfectly capable of building a neck from scratch, I’m a busy guy, and didn’t have time to devote to carving a neck. So instead I opted to order a fretless neck from Warmoth (our favorite after-market necks) and retrofit it.
I used FretFind2D software to calculate the fret positions, and printed out a template.
I measured out and marked out a centerline on the neck, and then taped the fretting template down on the neck:
Next I clamped the neck to the bench, and used a radius block as a fence to guide the fretting saw to cut through each line on the template. Now, I will say that this isn’t typically the best way to cut fret slots into a neck: they are usually cut before the fingerboard is radiused and attached to the neck, which makes it significantly easier to build a proper jig for. Building a jig to cut slots on a complete neck with a radiused fingerboard, in a non-standard scale would have taken forever, which didn’t make sense for a one-off neck. But this ain’t my first rodeo, and I know what I’m doing, and I am deadly accurate with a fretting saw. I am pleased to say that this turned out perfect.
With all the fret slots cut, now it was just a simple matter of adding side dots, pressing frets in, dressing the frets, making a nut, and putting the whole thing together. We’ve detailed our fretting process elsewhere on this blog, so there’s not much point in reiterating it here. Instead, here’s some shots of the final product:
Yeah, I know it’s completely ridiculous. It’s also completely awesome. It sounds really great, and provides some pretty wild intervals (neutral seconds and septimal whole tones! Woohoo!). Now I just got to figure out how to make music with it. Perhaps it’s time to get to work on the next UFO Death Cult record…
– Benjamin Strange