Music News

Neil Haverstick Explains Microtonal Music in a New Book

As Neil Haverstick tells it, microtonal music isn't just for theory heads.
As Neil Haverstick tells it, microtonal music isn't just for theory heads. Kara Haverstick
When local luthier John Starrett gave Neil Haverstick a nineteen-tone guitar thirty years ago, the latter was faced with a challenge: what to do with seven additional notes per octave?

Like most guitarists, Haverstick had been playing standard guitars with twelve notes to the octave, a system that has been the Western standard since the days of Bach.

“Starrett gave me the guitar, and he left white lines on the fretboard where the twelve-tone frets had been,” Haverstick says. “He thought that would help. It was like looking at a strobe light. It was awful.”

So Haverstick got a new neck for the guitar. The first thing he did was figure out the minor pentatonic scale, the bread and butter of blues and rock soloing.

“It’s a six-note scale,” he says. “And I can get eight notes in the nineteen-tone system. So I can play your standard blues lick, everything dropped by one fret. And if you didn’t know, if you’re sharp, you might go, 'Wait a minute, what’s going on here?' I can do my B.B. King, Albert King, Jimi Hendrix licks, but they’re all off a little bit, and that’s the fun of it.”

Since he started playing microtonal music, Haverstick has never looked back. He continued experimenting with the guitar and read up on tonal systems and met musicians experimenting with them in New York and Los Angeles. He was astonished by what a vast field it was.

“I realized I could make music that didn’t sound like what everybody else was doing,” Haverstick says.

Over the past three decades, Haverstick has delved deep into the world of microtonal music, releasing ten albums' worth of material on which he plays not just nineteen-tone systems, but 34- and 36-tone systems, as well. A voracious reader, he's constantly studying the music and has even penned three books on the subject, including his latest, Hopelessly Microtonal, in which he covers theory and history, shares anecdotes and shares his collection of stringed instruments. The e-book can be purchased on his website,

“I don’t want to sound clichéd, but I’m getting older, man,” the 67-year-old Haverstick says. “And I’m kind of like, what am I leaving here? What am I leaving behind? And I feel if I write about what I’m doing, it could be useful to other people who might want to get into that. The reason I’m doing this is, I just think it would be cool if people started adding other tunings to their music. For some of us, all music sounds the same. I don’t mean styles — styles always sound different. But everybody’s using the same twelve notes, from classical to hip-hop. So there’s a kind of drabness that's there for me.”

And Haverstick has been searching for a way to sound different since hearing Jeff Beck’s guitar riff on The Yardbirds song “Over Under Sideways Down,” in the spring of 1966.

“I heard it on the radio and thought I had an Arabic station or something by accident,” Haverstick says. “I’d been playing six months. I said, ‘This is what I want to do, something different,' even at fourteen years old. I heard that guitar, this riff, and it sounded like an Arabic violin. It didn’t even sound like a guitar. And I go, 'That’s what I want to do.' It was because of microtones that I go in that different direction.”

Starrett’s nineteen-tone helped Haverstick find that direction. He now had more notes to work with. With a twelve-tone system, the note between G and A is called G sharp or Ab, but with the nineteen-tone, system G# and Ab reference two different notes.

“So now I’ve got just the more subtle shadings,” he says. “It’s simple. In nineteen-tone, the chords are a little better in tune because of the major thirds; those are a little better in tune in nineteen than they are in twelve-tone. The chords sound a little more relaxed, a little less tense.”

In Hopelessly Microtonal, Haverstick writes that the nineteen-tones' equal-temperament system is at least several hundred years old, and suggests that there are good reasons for seeing the nineteen-tone system as a logical step from the twelve-tone version.

“First, a nineteen-tone octave is very manageable, especially on guitar,” he writes in the book. “We now have seven extra notes, and the frets are not terribly close together, which has been an issue for some guitarists. Of course, and this is a big point, if a keyboard is retuned to nineteen, now all of the fingerings change. The octave is no longer in the same place, and neither are any of the other notes. This will happen with any re-tuning of a keyboard. It's just part of the instrument's design. One of the first things I realized when I started playing in nineteen was that many of the shapes and patterns I knew in twelve transferred quite easily to nineteen.”

Haverstick says that around the time that Bach and Mozart were alive, the twelve-tone system became solidified, and then everybody started using it.

“Before then, even the Europeans had hundreds, literally hundreds of different tunings that they were experimenting with,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe it — there are just hundreds and hundreds of mathematical tuning systems.

"And here’s why: Out of all the cultures in the world, the Europeans were the only ones that wanted to do — how do I put this? — chordal music that modulated. Mainly meaning like classical music — a lot of chords, and you’re going from key to key and all that,” he explains.

click to enlarge Neil Haverstick is obsessed with microtonal music. - NEELA LINGENFELTER
Neil Haverstick is obsessed with microtonal music.
Neela Lingenfelter
He says Arab, Turkish, Chinese and Persian cultures didn’t use chords, just scales and rhythm.

“That’s what a raga is in Indian music,” he says. “You could just take the purely tuned notes of the harmonic series, which I explain in my other book [Harmonics & Spirals] and use that. But once you want to start changing keys with chords...that sounds simple, but it really is the truth. Then say you’re in the key of C, and you’re playing something, and you want to go to the key of F sharp — you won’t be in tune then. You just won’t. It’s just the way the harmonics are set up.”

Haverstick says Europeans started looking for tuning systems that would allow them to do chordal modulations.

“That’s really what happened,” he says. “They started inventing all these different tuning systems, and they wound up with twelve notes to the octave that are mathematically equally spaced.”

Since moving beyond the twelve-tone system, Haverstick has never had trouble coming up with ideas for songs. He says melody is the most important thing: “In other words, if I’ve got a great melody, it should work in any tuning system, because the melody, the sound, the shape is more important than anything.”

He says he’s discussed this with other members of the microtonal community, some of whom are very intelligent but inclined toward theoretical investigations rather than artful compositions. Haverstick says a lot of the literature on microtonal music is really difficult because it’s so math-based.

“It turns people off,” he says. “In my book on the harmonic series [Harmonics & Spirals], I avoided as much of that as possible. For one, I’m not a mathematician, and I just talked about the structure of the harmonic series, how the notes are spaced, in very very easy-to-understand language.”

He says the math can sometimes overtake the music, and he tries to avoid that.

“I’m a musician first,” Haverstick concludes. “But I understand that math is a beautiful thing.”
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
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