Microtonal Maestro: Neil Haverstick

Neil Haverstick is a highly respected guitarist, author, and teacher. As a composer, Haverstick won Guitar Player magazine's 1992 Ultimate Guitar Competition (Experimental Division) with a 19-tone guitar piece named "Spider Chimes." As Guitar Player put it: "Bold and daring, Haverstick ventures into distant aural galaxies." Neil was also honored by GP recently when they included him among their 101 Forgotten Greats and Unsung Heroes.

IE: Neil, can you provide our readers a brief musical biography, the path you took to arrive at your current musical agenda, and what your musical trajectory is for the foreseeable future?

NH: Well, in brief, it's like this: as a young boy, I loved music (but didn't play an instrument until I was about 13), and always listened to all sorts of stuff, regardless of style. I liked Glenn Miller, Ravel's "Bolero," Buddy Holly, Elvis, The Coasters, Tchaikovsky, Bach, Marty Robbins, whatever. I didn't make any sort of distinctions between styles then, and today, even though I've played just about every style under the Sun, I STILL don't care about genre; it's the depth of expression that counts most, to me, and that can come from any culture, in any time period.

When I started playing guitar as a kid, I just putzed around a lot, learning "Louie, Louie," "Wipe Out," and whatever was on the radio. But, when I heard Jeff Beck play "Over Under Sideways Down," with the Yardbirds, my whole life changed, and I started to have more focus to my playing... I never knew a guitar could sound like that. So, as the 1960's progressed, I got into Clapton, Page, and Beck, the English trinity, plus the Doors, Cream, The Who, Deep Purple, and anything else that was cutting edge at that time. And, The Beatles were/are a guiding light, even though what I do myself is nothing like that sound. Oddly enough, I didn't really get into Hendrix till later, although I had heard him. I think he scared me a bit; pretty thick shit. And, the blues, about 1969, really became a big part of my life. I dearly love Wolf, Muddy, BB King, Albert King, and that whole scene; the blues is a profound and deep art form, and I get a lot of my inspiration from it, to this day.

In the early 1970's, Miles Davis was a huge influence, and then I was off into McLaughlin, Terje Rypdal, the ECM label, and about 1976 I started studying bebop real heavy with a great sax player, George Keith. I was also studying country, flamenco, classical, and whatever else I could absorb. Of course, Bach, Debussy, Bartok, Ravel, and many other great composers were/are a big part of my concept. You can listen to those guys till you fall over, and it just gets better. Plus, I've always liked Ravi Shankar, Indian and Middle Eastern music, Chinese music, whatever. I've played with a couple of koto players, and I want to get more involved with music from other cultures. And then, in 1989, John Starrett introduced me to the 19-tone guitar, and I was off on my current path.

IE: Which essential recordings do you suggest for players unfamiliar with the world of microtones but wanting to explore things further?

NH: Start with "Beauty in the Beast" by Wendy Carlos; it's been rereleased by East Side Digital, and is a monster experience, truly other worldly. She invented her own tunings, and is a great composer to boot, so it's some serious listening. Harry Partch, although not a personal favorite, has a lot of stuff out, and it's pretty unique. He had a 43 note per octave system. Jon Catler, a NYC guitarist, is very good, and has several CD's out in a 49 or 62 tone system. Just go on MP3.com and do a search for microtonal. I'll bet a lot of stuff comes up. And, if you can find Dan Stearns’s music, he's a monster guitarist/composer, in various tunings. Plus, I hope this is OK, I think my 3 CD's are pretty good intros into the world of microtones as well.  Actually, there's a lot of microtonal music on disc, it's just real underground still. If you go to my site and link to Starrett's site, you're in good shape. There's a wealth of info and links there.

IE: Listening to your acoustic disk, I found that the initial strangeness of non-standard tunings soon felt "right" or "normal" as if there was nothing unusual going on at all. Do you think that most people have the capacity to find non-standard tunings appealing if given the chance or enough exposure?

NH: Absolutely. You've opened up a can there. See, the 12-tone equal tempered tuning has only been a "standard" for a few hundred years, and then it was initially centered in European countries. China, Africa, the Middle East, and Native Americans, all these cultures, have tuned in different ways from 12 eq for thousands of years. And, it was because of the massive wave of colonization by Europe that 12 eq became so widespread. Everywhere the white guys went, they took their pianos and brass bands, so now, everybody thinks 12 eq is the shit. But, it's only one teensy weensy way, among thousands, of tunings. And, if people were allowed to hear other tuning systems, as you say, I'm sure that they would sound "normal" real soon. And remember, the 12-tone equal tempered system is way out of tune, anyway, with the natural harmonic overtones of Nature; most folks don't know that. How could they? It's never talked about in our musical education system. 12 eq is just taken as a standard -- which it's not.

IE: Recently, we had someone make the observation at our online forum that a lot of microtonalists seem to put math before music and that tunings became fetishized or displaced the practice of making music? Do you find any truth in this inversion of means and ends?

NH: Yow! This is one of my pet peeves. Yes, too often math and tuning theory is placed before excellent musicianship, and the music can, and does, suffer. There's absolutely nothing wrong with tuning theory; it's just not the same as great MUSIC. They can exist peacefully, and I know many great microtonal players. The trick is this: tuning is only ONE component of music, so if the chops aren't there, technically or compositionally, then the tuning doesn't matter, except as an academic exercise. And believe me, our group here in Denver has tried (successfully, I feel) to make music first. Without creativity and imagination, who cares what the tuning is? Using other tunings is a great stimulus to new horizons, but cannot substitute for basic playing and writing skills.

IE: Speaking of "math", does a person need to be a calculus major or rocket scientist to figure this stuff out?

NH: Geez, no. I am NO math guy, for sure; when Starrett gave me the 19-tone axe, I just started fooling around with it, looking for things, and I found a lot happening before very long. I just started with what I already knew, I took my knowledge of the many styles I play, and said, "What if I try this, or that?" I basically started out by messing with simple pentatonic scales, then blues progressions and some jazz changes. The SOUND of 19, as opposed to 12, started becoming familiar to my ear; then, things started happening much faster, until I felt real comfortable with 19. I also play in 34, which is a son-of-a-bitch to work with. I'm beginning to mess with 31 and I play a lot on fretless now, tuning to harmonically pure tunings, still looking for new horizons -- and they're out there, forever, really.

IE: If you could imagine a "Microtonal Starter Kit" what would it contain? I mean, I could easily see a 'Starter Kit' comprised of one of the new instruments manufactured by G&L, a copy of your book 19 Tones, and some key recordings. Do you think that would be a reasonable place to start?

NH: Wow, a very nice concept for sure. 19 is a great intro to microtones, because it's similar to 12, but can also be really different. Of course, it really doesn't matter which tuning you choose to start with. But, if one has little info on just what this is all about in the first place, doing a bit of research is a good idea. Again, Starrett's site has a lot of links. And, creative listening is always recommended. You know, whenever I learned a new style, I surrounded myself with recordings of the Maestros of that genre, to get it into my subconscious. And, today it's real easy to get a guitar built, or refretted, to just about any tuning, for not a lot of $$$.

IE: In terms of musical preparation, how deep should a person be in theory before jumping into microtonality? My impression is that you have to learn to play standard guitar, as a preparatory hoop, before moving on to microtonal guitar? Is this a mistaken impression? Can a person just jump right in? I can easily imagine a scene from a martial arts movie: "Master I have studied guitar for 20 years and I am ready for The Microtonal!" "You are not ready Grasshopper."

NH: Another great question, and, on the most basic level, one can start playing any tuning, at any time, with any level of knowledge. It all depends on what you're after as a musician. Most folks, of course, are comfortable, at first, copping licks from bands they like and listen to. This is a time-honored way for people to learn to play. If you get a 19-tone guitar, however, there's not a lot of role models yet, so you may be on you own more. Of course, that's a great thing, too, because you may come up with something very original. I have a 13-year-old student, real bright, and he wants a 19-tone guitar, precisely to be different, and, good for him. So, there's no reason whatsoever to wait. Since, as we mentioned, 12 eq is just a recent "standard" anyway, created by Europeans to play music with a lot of chord and key movement. Since we're not in Europe 250 years ago, the future is limitless for modern players.

IE: Do you modify any of your own instruments or is this something best left for professional luthiers? Can you tell us something about John Starrett? You mention his name a lot in conjunction with your own musical evolution.

NH: I can barely replace a light bulb, so having Starrett is a great blessing. He got me started by giving me a 19-tone electric he had built, and now we probably have 20-25 instruments between us. He can build them from scratch, or refret them, or modify them. He's a great luthier, one of the best musicians I've ever known, period, and a mighty funny feller to boot. I feel like no matter what I can think of, he can play it. Plus, he's a great composer himself. I also want to mention Ernie Crews, who's played percussion with us for years. He's a monster, and he and Starrett are unbelievable together. They have a blast messing with each other, and we all 3 have a marvelous time hanging and playing. That makes for great music, I believe.

IE: Can you explain what a "a 19-tone serial row" is?

NH: Sure. About 1920, the great composer Arnold Schoenberg, came up with the concept of a 12 tone serial row, which basically is very simple; you play all 12 tones of the chromatic scale in a melody, not repeating any notes until all 12 have been played. Then, you can do all sorts of things with the original row; reverse it, switch the intervals around, apply it to the rhythms of the piece, whatever. So, in my tune "The Spider" (on "Other Worlds"), I applied the same technique to 19 tones. I play all 19 tones in the octave, in the original melody, and then use the row in various ways in the rest of the piece. It's a technique that can produce some really strange, outside-sounding stuff. It's not real traditional sounding, I don't think.

IE: How did you come to host the Microstock festival and how many people get involved? Are you seeing a lot of growth in microtonal music over time?

NH: Microstock came about after I played at the American Festival of Microtonal Music in NYC, in 1994. After I got back to Denver, I decided I wanted to do shows, so there it was. The Microstock name, of course, is a takeoff on Woodstock. It doesn't mean tiny livestock, as some have suggested. We haven't had huge audiences over the years, but we've helped develop a real awareness of microtonal music here in Denver. I mean, I get people all the time asking about it, and I've made it an everyday part of what I do. All my students know about it, and all the musicians I play with are aware, and in a very positive way, too. Most folks think it's cool and interesting, and there's several 19-tone guitars in town, a 53 tone keyboard, and there's been some good press too. The last Microstock, number six, was very good; we had a lot of variety, from koto to waterphone to EWI to fretless guitar, and a good crowd. Yes, the overall awareness of microtonality is way up from 10 years ago, because there's yearly gigs in NYC and LA too, and El Paso has even had a couple of festivals. It will only get better from here.

IE: Of interest to me is audience cultivation or 'public reception' and related sociological matters. You mentioned, in your interview with Stearns, that when you made your album "The Gate" you were "playing it safe" to some extent. What kind of difficulties have you had in creating an audience especially in terms of live performance? My experience has been that getting unconventional guitar "over" in public has meant ‘hiding it under the Jello’ if you know what I mean.

NH: Boy, the public performance thing is tough, that's for sure. See, I don't like playing clubs that much anymore, because it's so insane, dealing with the owners and their basic perception that musicians are next to slaves in the scheme of things; enough of that. And, Denver, overall, is pretty conservative anyway, as is the whole music scene in general, at this point. It's worse than when Pat Boone sang "Tutti Frutti," because at least that was funny. The bozos on the scene today take themselves too seriously, and glamour and fluff is much bigger than musicianship and depth, I feel. So, I don't get to play my original music much, lately. But, you know, I feel like I'm getting a second wind, and I want to do a series of shows with other local original musicians and this is going to happen, soon. We'll just rent places, and start getting our music out there, regardless of who shows up. And, of course, I feel good press is very valuable, so I'm always sending promo around the world, trying to get magazines interested. But, the guitar magazines, especially, are very conservative now, and are not pushing much innovative stuff these days. But I did get a nice write up in "Electronic Musician" in December of 2001.

IE: In talking about 34 TET guitar in a previous interview you mentioned "The dreaded comma is present, as 34 has 2 sizes of whole step (at 176 cents, and 211 cents), so you have to learn how to juggle that feature...and it ain't easy, I assure you." Can you expound upon this statement?

NH: Yow, that's tough because it's such a foreign concept to most musicians. Okay, here's sort of how it works with the comma: if I have a G triad, which is the notes G-B-D, and then I have an E triad, E-G#-B, in 34, the two B notes are DIFFERENT. They're NOT the same note, they're one fret apart, which is quite unlike 12 eq, and many other equal temperaments as well. Also, 34 has TWO separate cycles of 5ths, with 17 notes each, so that's rather bizarre, as well. So, from chord to chord, you may have to alter certain notes by ONE FRET, so the chord is in tune. Weird, and difficult. Believe me, 34 is a strange trip, and I only have a few tunes in it now -- although my next CD ("If the Earth Was a Woman") has two mighty heavy 34 tone rock pieces on it. The comma is an integral part of the harmonic series concept, and further reading is highly recommended to get into this. Again, it basically means that there is more than one size of interval for the same note, and, in Indian and Arabic music, this is a natural part of the system. A major 3rd, for instance, can be in an "area," of sorts, that may range from 384 cents, to 408 cents or more. So, the 3rd you play depends on the effect you're after. A more natural 3rd (one closer to the harmonic ratio of 5/4, which is the pure 3rd) is more relaxed, and restful, while a 3rd at 408 cents is tense, and not as "in tune." Read Alain Danielou's excellent "Music and the Power of Sound" for more on this concept.

IE: Do you find fretless guitar to be the most 'open-ended' instrument? I think most people would consider the total absence of frets the ultimate solution to musical constraint? Or does the fretless contain it's own set of limitations?

NH: Well, sure, without frets, the sky's the limit for tunings. Catler can do some amazing shit on fretless, as can Erkan Ogur, a Turkish
dude who's really good. And, I feel the only limits to art are the human imagination. That being said, I think music with a lot of chord changes is easier on fretted instruments, cause it's easier to keep track of where you are. Bebop, or Bach fugues, would be a bear on fretless. But, who knows what the limits are? There's some monster always ready to go the next step, and far be it from me to say where those limits are. A major problem on fretless is sustain, but Ned Evett, another great player, works with Fernandes guitars, and I believe they have a sustain device built in to help out. I do a fretless slide solo on my next CD, and it sustains like crazy, great tone.

IE: Simply pulling the frets out of a guitar is sufficient to "go fretless." What kind of fingerboard material works well for a fretless guitar in your opinion? What unexpected factors going fretless?

NH: Sorry, better ask Starrett for fingerboard info. I know Catler uses stainless steel, and Evett and Stephen James Taylor have glass (!) fingerboards. The hardest thing about fretless for me is, the notes are then a tiny bit off from where they were with frets, so you have to compensate. It's hard, but no biggie, just practice and use your memory.

IE: For people who want to explore the world of H-Stick what's the best way for them to find your music and how can they order your book?

NH: My email is microstick@msn.com and a permanent phone number is the Denver Musician's Union at 303- 573-1717. And, I love to chat with new folks and see what's happening, so give a call or post and I'll do CD swaps as well.

IE: Neil, is there anything else you'd like to say that I've failed to ask?

NH: Man, it's great to have folks like you doing these interviews. I'm a big believer in the power of the press, so doing interviews is a great thing, it's much appreciated and keep it up. And remember, as Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." I couldn't agree more.

Learn more by visiting Neil's Home Page

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