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Just Intonation
"Bending" the rules by Emmett Chapman

(first published in Sticknews, September 1999)

  Pity the poor keyboardist who can't play his scale notes in tune, though he can modulate to distant tonal centers to his heart's content. Debussy composed his orchestral music while improvising on piano. An orchestra later added an overlay of just intonation onto his musical outlines, according to the common practices of each musician on his or her particular instrument. Debussy himself was merely throwing switches from a linear array (with some passion, I should add), hurling hammers if you will.

Envy the Italian operatic vocalist who sings sharp, sings flat, and inflects his voice according to any desired mood or folkway, all the while maintaining complete freedom to modulate to other modes and tonal centers. Is this not the best of all worlds?

What other "instrument" rivals the human voice in this capacity? My answer, it's the guitar and thus The Stick as fretboard instruments that not only enable all of the above, but are chordal and polyphonic as well. Isn't that why people of such diverse musical cultures love the guitar?

OK, this is how I do it on The Stick. I love to improvise harmonically, not just melodically. I made The Stick for that reason (at least as concerns my music). Debussy is still my favorite composer. I have to modulate and relate given notes to shifting keys, both near and far along the circle of fifths.

At the same time, I can't sacrifice the expressive qualities of pitch variation. Now, when I'm confronted by a dilemma I choose both ways out. The direction is usually straight up, to the next higher conceptual level. At least, that's where my instincts lead.

To get any desired microtone within the perfect matrix of the twelve tone even tempered scale, I do what guitarists do - blues guitarists, rock guitarists, country pickers, Flamenco and other soulful ethnic guitarists (and then there's Steve Vai). I use "false fingers" and "false frets".

A "false" finger is one that's adjacent to the proper finger in your scalar routines. Conceptually, you remember the real finger for the note you're playing. That way, you can keep your place in whatever fingering system you prefer. It feels and sounds "false" in the context of your musical line as you play the note at the next lower pitched fret, bending up toward the pitch. Horn players use a form of this fingering/blowing technique. Vibratos add expression here. Or, play the note on the proper fret and bend sharp with vibrato (a normal occurrence for fretboardists).

You can get a huge variety of microtonal variations at any scalar tone and never bend more than a half step (especially good for Stick players using heavy gauges). You can drill your idea home repeating the same "treatment" of a particular note in the scale you're playing, adding a strong thematic element to your melody or bass line. This sub-technique is both conceptual and physical in nature, and soon becomes a reflex and therefor an intuitive element in your music.

It will build a better world, and war will become obsolete as people discover that guitar is more fun - Naaah!

All the Best, Emmett.

Emmett performs the John McLaughlin composition "Lotus on Irish Streams" in this video: