Microtonal ManiacĀ 
Inside Jon Catler's Weird Harmonic Universe

Guitar Shop
March 1997
by Lisa Sharken

Guitar Shop photoJon Catler is not your typical progressive jazz guitarist. While most players are still trying to master standard 12-tone guitar (i.e., 12 tones per octave), Catler has excelled in microtonal music, becoming the foremost exponent of that guitar style today. In microtonal music, octaves are subdivided into more than 12 tones. "In 12-tone, you can play leads and bend notes however you want, but the notes and chords I want to hear are not on the 12-tone," he says, "They go way beyond that." So does his gear.

Catler's main axe is a Schecter Strat from the early '80s with interchangeable fingerboards. He has four fingerboards, but primarily uses a complex 49-tone fingerboard he designed himself and a stainless-steel fretless fingerboard. His 49- tone "just intonation" tuning system (yes, that's 49 notes per octave), is derived from the natural overtone series. "My tonal center is A 426.7 Hz, not 440 Hz, which makes B perfectly in tune with 60 cycles," explains the mathematically gifted guitarist. "Most guitar players are constantly fighting 60-cycle hum, and it's canceling anything they play because it's not remotely connected to any other note. We make the B the hum, so it's compatible and doesn't conflict with other notes in the chord. On a 12-tone guitar tuned at 440 Hz, the hum is a slightly sharp Bb, so it's in between the notes and not reinforcing anything."

Catler's other fingerboards are a quarter- tone fingerboard with 24 notes per octave and a 31-tone, which are both equal- tempered. His guitar is loaded with the stock Schecter Monster Tone pickups, and he prefers to play in stereo, using MESA/Boogie amplifiers and a variety of Roger Mayer distortion boxes to add higher harmonics. He also uses t.c. Electronic Chorus and Sustainer pedals.

Catler became intrigued by microtonal music in 1978, after reading an article about Ivor Darreg, who was pictured holding a guitar with 22 frets per octave. Catler, then a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston, called him to get more information. Darreg referred him to another player named Tillman Schafer, who lived fairly close to Catler and had a 31 -tone guitar he was interested in selling. "The guy who built it was a mathematician, but couldn't play a C chord on it," laughs Catler. "When I got it home, tuned it, and figured out a harmonic 7th chord, my life changed. When you stand in front the guitar amp and feed back on an A note, you get all those notes, but they're just not on a regular fretted guitar neck. They were on this guitar neck."

Microtonality occurs commonly in Eastern music, but people in the Western Hemisphere are not as accustomed to hearing those "in-between" pitches. In fact, the first time many people listen to the Catler Brothers' new Crash Landing CD (FreeNote Records, 2350 Broadway, Suite 240, New York, NY 10024), they may think that Jon is playing out of tune. Similar things were said about musicians John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, until people understood that these were the microtonal pitches they were striving to express. While both saxophonists were huge influences on Catler's style, he also admires the styles of several guitarists, including Hendrix, Beck, and Albert King, all of whose influences are apparent in his own playing. "Guitar players are used to hearing those microtones, especially pedal-steel players, who tune to pure intervals, not absolute pitches," says Catler. "Hendrix was the most micro-tonal guitarist, with all the whammy bar stuff. He took a lot from Albert King. And listen to Muddy Waters; at one point they used to call him 'Mr. Micro-tone,' especially on that record he did with Johnny Winter." Still, Catler's most significant inspiration is Harry Partch, who built his own instruments, devised his own tuning system, and wrote Genesis Of A Music, the book from which Catler bases his tuning.

"There is a simplicity and a beauty when you get into deep mathematics," believes Catler. "I think it's that way with tuning, as well. You can study the overtone series your whole life and never understand a fraction of it. It's an infinite thing that's as deep as you want to look into it."

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