An Integrated Color-Code for Microtonal Guitar Fretboards

fretboards titlepageThe first time that I visited Ivor Darreg (in 1981) he was living in Glendale, California. I was impressed by his amazing array of experimental instruments, but what grabbed me most was his re-fretted guitars. He had a large collection of them, guitars that he had carefully altered over the years. There were so many that it was a veritable feast to me! I had never played re-fretted guitars before, and it was almost overwhelming. Many of his guitars were pretty trashy – Ivor was not a wealthy man, but his dedication to the exploration of alternative tunings was quite impressive. A handful of them were pretty good – I think that I played all of them for a few minutes that unforgettable day. He had guitars in 19-ET, 22-ET, quarter-tone, 17-ET, and other odd divisions, but the sweetness of the 31-ET guitar impressed me most. It was also right at the `edge’ of the possible, or so it seemed to me. There were so many frets, so close together, how could you possibly put more frets on a guitar? Some years later I played a 34-ET guitar, and it largely confirmed the sentiment. From that day forward, I had an interest in 31-ET guitars.

Although I could `noodle’ my way around the fretboard, I soon found that it was almost impossible to play because I would invariably get lost. What fret am I on, and what chord is this? I then realized that the problem could be solved if some colour-cocle would be painted onto the neck for visual guidance. Ivor had a colour-code (rather complex) for his megalyra steel-guitar, but his `normal’ guitars were generally unmarked. On standard guitars, we generally use an inlay dot at the 5th, 7th, and 12th frets as the `colour-code’, and arguably this is adequate for 12-ET, but 31-ET is so complex (rich) that this traditional system no longer proves adequate. I began several years of experiment with alternative colour-codes trying to come up with an optimal design.

In fact, I caught the `guitar-altering bug’ from Ivor, and when I was back in Canada I acquired a semi-trashy electric guitar which seemed perfect for `experimentation’. (What is there to lose?) I had never done a guitar fret job before, so I assumed that the results would be pretty bad. To my surprise, the scale turned out to be pretty close to accurate, there was only a minimum of `buzzes’, and I now had my own 31-ET guitar! At this point, my irnerest in colour-codes intensified. By 1984, I had several designs which arguably have some consistent logic underlying them. The purpose of this little article is to lay out the reasons for my chosen design. Here is why I ended up with this particular pattern.

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