Composer Bernhard Günter talks about his music and enthuses
about fretless instruments in this exclusive Q&A
Fretless guitar improvisation
First a little about yourself
I have a solid worldwide reputation as a composer of electro-acoustic music. I began playing the electric guitar at 17 years of age, which will be 50 years ago next year! Originally listening to rock and blues music I soon discovered John Coltrane, Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders along with contemporary classical music and “ethnic music”, in particular, traditional Indian, Arabic and Japanese music along with modern jazz. African music followed later, and in the meantime, classic Persian music has become one of my favorites. All of the latter include microtonal scales and fretless instruments.
Photo by Michael Elzer
What initially inspired you to consider fretless guitars?
I cannot say exactly when I discovered Arabic Oud music, but I immediately fell in love with it. I listened to Anouar Brahem a lot, and later discovered Munir Bachir, whose album “Meditations” reminded me of Keith Jarrett’s solo improvisations. He was one of the great masters of the Oud. Of course, I wanted one, but they were difficult to source at the time. So I took a small-sized classic guitar, removed the frets, filled the fret slots and sanded the finger-board flat. Strung with Oud strings and tuned to the most common Arabic Oud tuning. I enjoyed playing it very much and started to learn the “Maqamat” scale of Arabic music. (the “Makalamat” system used in Turkish music is nearly identical)
I later managed to find an affordable Oud. To cut a long story short, I soon discovered the Oud is best used for music in the classical Arabic tradition, which can take a very long time to master. Having learned my lesson, I sold my Oud.
Where did your fretless journey lead you next?
This experience resulted in my wish to have a fretless guitar that would let me play the microtonal scales of non-Western traditions, and also allow me to apply my playing technique and experience on fretless bass. I got hold of an acoustic steel string guitar, defretted it and tuned it down to B standard to become a baritone guitar, bringing in a kind of fretless piccolo bass vibe. This worked quite well but left me needing more. Eventually, I played it less and less.
…and this led to wanting a quality fretless electric guitar?
Yes, which brings us to a clear case of Good Karma: I was invited to perform at a Festival in Pori, Finland, to play a solo improvisation set and perform some of my own compositions. Because of the hassle of transporting a guitar to Finland, I decided I would buy, borrow or rent one when I got there. This led me to research guitars in Finland and become aware of Flaxwood guitars. Finding that they sell their composite guitar necks separately, I wrote them an email asking if they could provide me with a fretless neck. Roderick Welch, their master luthier, was absolutely into it, we found ourselves on much the same wavelength and have been in contact ever since.
Yes we have, and an inspiring voyage of discovery it is.
I ordered a fretless bolt-on Flaxwood neck for my own build with a customized body from Guitar Build UK. Without going too much into detail here, the fretless guitar sounds absolutely great! The composite neck and the roasted alder body gives it a fast response and rich resonances, and I have never experienced such superior sustain on a fretless guitar. It plays effortlessly with a very low action and sound-wise reminds me of an Indian Sarod with a warmer tone. I love how my fretless guitar plays, sounds, and responds to my playing. It sounds warm, transparent, and detailed with a great dynamic response – it is a pleasure to play!
Great to hear Bernhard, what’s next?
What’s up next? Well, I thought that having a kind of jubilee guitar made on the occasion of my playing the electric guitar for 50 years would be a nice idea. Roderick and I are currently taking the first steps in what may be a rather long-term project. I have come up with a basic design for the body shape, determined what the hardware and electronics are going to be, and found the right pickups. The jubilee guitar will be fretted/headless and equipped with a tremolo. Really looking forward to it!
The headless guitar and I go back a long time: I used to play the original Steinberger guitar, then moved on to a couple of Steve Klein Custom headless guitars. My main guitar these days is a wooden-bodied Steinberger Spirit GT-Pro Deluxe, I extensively modified the guitar to fit my needs, changing pickups and electronics and sticking a FOMOfx Virtual Jeff Pro digital tremolo system on top of the original Steinberger R-Trem. The tremolo looks more than a bit weird, but it does work great!
Bernhard Günter, Koblenz, Germany
If you are interested in any further information and insights about Bernhard’s build and ideas on Fretless, Headless and Microtonal guitars please contact him directly through his website or email:
We’ll be working towards the development of Bernhard’s “Jubilee” guitar over the next few months so watch this space for developments… Thanks again Bernhard for your time and dedication!
The Fretless Guitar in Depth
- The fretless guitar is able to produce any note or interval (i.e. distance between two pitches/tones) and any scale based on these intervals.
- The fretless guitar is capable of providing perfect intonation for every note that is part of a Western or any other scale all over the fingerboard. This is not possible on the fretted guitar. The intonation on fretted instruments is always a compromise, as is the tuning of a piano, for instance.
- Playing and practicing the fretless guitar will give the player a better musical ear (a better relative pitch) As in all fretless instruments, the player has to constantly correct their intonation, which becomes perfectly unconscious over time and practice.
- The fretless guitar is extremely expressive –it invites the guitarist to make it their own personal voice.
- You have to be aware that you cannot directly transfer the things you do on the fretted guitar straight onto the fretless guitar.
- Bending strings, commonly done on fretted guitars, is not really necessary on the fretless guitar. Bends and vibrato are played glissando, sliding parallel to the neck.
- As with learning to play any musical instrument, there is of course a learning curve.
- Playing chords on a fretless guitar is perfectly possible, but one should not expect to use the exact chord shapes as on a fretted guitar. The more fingers you have on the fingerboard, the harder correct intonation becomes. It is therefore preferable to adapt the way chords are played on the instrument. Open strings are your friend!
- The fretless guitar is basically compatible with all genres and styles of music. Experiment and see how they fit together.
- Playing the fretless guitar you will help you discover new approaches to musical form and style and develop an innovative personal playing technique.
- Fretless guitars can be more demanding to play than fretted guitars. They usually put out less signal than electric guitars, and also tend to have less sustain than fretted instruments. Fretless fingerboards have been made of metal, glass or wood covered with a layer of epoxy resin (especially for fretless basses) for that reason.
- My personal fretless guitar features a composite neck and fingerboard made for me by Flaxwood Guitars, Finland, and does not have any of these issues. It may well be even easier to play than some of my fretted guitars, and provides a very lively response and great sustain up to the highest notes. I play round wound strings on my fretless, and there are no traces of wear and tear on the fingerboard.
My thanks go out to the folks at Flaxwood Guitar who not only did fulfill my request for a fretless neck but didn’t even charge me for the extra work.
“There are no real disadvantages to the fretless guitar and any guitar player looking for new musical territories should have one.” Bernhard Günter, Koblenz, Germany
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