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Toning Up

Guitarist Neil Haverstick makes music with plenty of options.

Though the guitar is exceedingly common, Denverite Neil Haverstick's approach to it is anything but. Rather than using the 12-tones-per-octave scale that links Western music from Beethoven to the Beatles, Haverstick regularly lays his skillful hands upon a custom-built 19-tones-per-octave guitar. The result of efforts like those found on his new CD, Acoustic Stick, is so-called microtonal music that's more than capable of shaking up the old world order.

Few of Haverstick's early influences are esoteric; they include Cream, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Doors, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and much of the Seventies ECM Records catalog. But as time passed, he developed a passion for more exotic material. "I've always loved Indian music and Arabic music," he says. "But I hated playing it with the 12-tone guitar. It just wasn't subtle enough."

In an effort to solve such problems, Haverstick began looking beyond the traditional chromatic scale--which features 12 half steps from one note to the next higher or lower version of any given note--and soon discovered a universe of possibilities that most players don't bother to explore. In his view, microtonal music accommodates a larger set of compositional possibilities in roughly the same way that a 21-speed bicycle allows a rider to maximize propulsion over a range of terrain that would leave someone on a simpler two-wheeler eating dust. He believes that the finer grades of microtonal systems offer a performer greater choice and control.

Haverstick isn't the only contemporary musician working this territory; he cites a Uruguayan fellow who plays a 53-tone guitar complete with impossibly crowded fret boards, as well as a harpist from San Diego whose scale of choice encompasses 100 notes per octave. Furthermore, he admits that microtonality is hardly a new concept. According to Haverstick, "There was a guy who built a 31-tone keyboard in, I think, 1560 in Italy--so it's been around for 400 or 500 years." Part of the reason the 12-tone mode has survived, he believes, is its design simplicity. As he puts it, "Think of the extra wire and extra wood it would have taken 300 years ago in some drafty shop in Germany to make a goddamn clavier--and this guy wants 31 notes to the octave?"

Today such instruments are considerably more accessible: Haverstick owns 31-tone and 34-tone guitars in addition to his 19-tone ax. But while he argues passionately on behalf of the microtonal method, he's not on a one-man jihad against 12-tone conspiracists. With his long hair and close-to-the-surface enthusiasm, he may seem like an eccentric to some, but his mentality is very much down-to-earth. He's simply interested in making the best music he can--and as Acoustic Stick demonstrates, his music is very good indeed.

The CD features some of Haverstick's most intriguing compositions. "From the West," for example, is marked by the inspiration of Eastern music, and its modal--as opposed to chordal--structures. The 34-tone effort, which is highlighted by the tabla playing of Ernie Crews, didn't flower overnight, however. "I've been working on that tune for 15 years. I've got a version from 1988 on my 12-tone acoustic--same piece, but it just wasn't happening," he says, adding, "I'm not going to go study Indian music, man. That's a whole lifetime. But I want to know some of the fundamentals of Indian music, especially the tunings. Those guys have really investigated tuning for thousands of years. They're the masters."

Another Acoustic Stick offering, "Birdwalk," extends the blues format via the 19-tone scale without descending into inaccessibility; at a recent Skyline Cafe gig, the song inspired several clubgoers to dance. "Mysteries," meanwhile, touches on jazz. The circling 54-chord meditation, which Haverstick has been refining for nearly two decades, recalls "Naima" by John Coltrane, an artist the guitarist admires. He's rewritten Coltrane's classic "Giant Steps" for the 19-tone technique. "I can't play it yet," he admits. "I can play rhythm on it. The original is 16 chords; it's a 16-measure piece. Now it has 28 measures, because I've added passing chords."

When he's not involved in experiments like that one, Haverstick is apt to be teaching at the Swallow Hill Music Association, writing about music theory, recording "space music" (he has hours of the stuff on tape) or jamming with John Starrett, his adept bassist and primary instrument builder. (He says of Starrett, "I wouldn't consider using another player, ever.") He also takes the occasional for-hire session--he was part of the orchestra for the world premiere of the play Eliot Ness in Cleveland--and actively seeks to play his own songs in a variety of live settings. His tendency to genre-hop has sometimes made landing showcases difficult "because a club owner may see me play a blues gig, not realizing I can play a whole night of jazz as well," he says. "I might not get some gigs because they pigeonhole me." Likewise, Haverstick's fondness for touting microtonality has given more than one band booker pause. "People think it's some guy with a white coat in a lab, spinning knobs," he confesses. "I coined a term--'micro-doodling'--which pissed a bunch of people off. But a bunch of other people understood it."

Haverstick confesses that in the past he was sometimes guilty of micro-doodling, too: "I was so concerned with which note goes with which chord and scales and arpeggios that I hear tapes of me, and it was good playing, but it didn't move me." Now, however, he realizes that "feeling is the word here...and if I follow my intuition, I'll be fine. If my music doesn't move in the heart, then it's worthless."

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