Interchangeable Fretboards

 From left to right: Pythagorean, 1/4-comma meantone, Rameau's  temperament ordinaire , J.S. Bach 1722 (interp. O'Donnell)

From left to right: Pythagorean, 1/4-comma meantone, Rameau's temperament ordinaire, J.S. Bach 1722 (interp. O'Donnell)


It all started when...

I was hired to play archlute basso continuo in the University of Oregon's production of Henry Purcell's "Dido & Aeneas" in 2009. The conductor (illustrious musicologist and baroque cellist Marc Vanscheeuwijck) casually remarked the night before our first rehearsal: "Oh yes, and by the way, we'll be performing the opera in quarter-comma meantone tuning. That's OK with you, right?" Well, I had been playing plucked period instrument for many years at that point but in all the treatises I had studied had not ever heard of quarter-comma meantone. After a series of late-night emergency texts with Los Angels-based lutenist Jason Yoshida, I came to understand that this was a method for tuning instruments from the Renaissance through mid-Baroque, and was most likely the tuning that Purcell would have employed for the performance of his opera.

Short on time, I arrived the next morning two hours early to sit with my archlute and adjust the fret position for each pitch so that it matched the tuning of the harpsichord. With some invaluable advice about attaching partial frets (tastini) from Yoshida, I eventually arrived at an utterly bizarre, but strangely beautiful setup for the frets. Some were very close together, while others were far apart. Most spanned the entire width of the fingerboard, while others had little tastini glued on nearby. I did not yet have any idea about the underlying theory of the tuning system, but when I played... WOW, the lute was louder, more resonant, with longer sustain, and all the Major and minor 3rds and 6ths were perfectly in tune (unlike the beating I had become accustomed to in Equal Temperament).

 1/4-comma meantone theorbo.

1/4-comma meantone theorbo.

I found the sound of this tuning to be completely intoxicating and instantly addictive. I could not stop playing for the sheer beauty and euphonious quality of the sound. And, like Neo in The Matrix, I felt that I had suddenly taken the proverbial red pill, forever changing me as I slid into the world of historical tunings and temperaments. Equal Temperament is still a wonderful tuning system, but for me, it is itself a historical artifact, appropriate for music of the late 19th century and beyond, but not for earlier music.

The study of tunings and temperaments became an obsession during my years as a doctoral student at USC, and I led various ensembles I performed with to drop certain anachronistic approaches to tuning, in favor of ones that would have been used at the time the composition was written.

Through all of this, however, I felt increasingly like I wanted to bring these sounds back to the modern "classical" guitar. So, over the last several years, I studied 3D modeling, CNC code (for precision robotic manufacturing tools), and lutherie to create my interchangeable fretboard guitar.

The photos at the very top of this page are my 3rd-generation prototype - a retrofitted Alhambra 9P with four different fretboards:

  • Pythagorean (Ancient Greece and Medieval Europe).
  • 1/4-comma Meantone (Renaissance through Mid-Baroque).
  • Jean-Philippe Rameau's 1726 temperament ordinaire.
  • J.S. Bach's tuning, as derived from the elaborate drawing at the top of the title page of Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier (based on the interpretation of musicologist John O'Donnel).

There is still some work to do in refining the engineering details to the design, and I'm excited about the upcoming 4th-gen prototype, which will be a retrofit of a concert-quality guitar.

However, even the Alhambra student guitar sounds remarkably good, and with the four fretboards I currently have, I can play music from Perotin, to Machaut, to da Milano, to Rameau, to Bach in a single program, taking only 10 seconds to swap out fingerboards in between pieces. Here are a couple rough videos made in my shop and in my home practice studio testing out the 1/4-comma meantone fretboard. More coming soon - stay tuned!