FreeNote 12-Tone Ultra Plus

January 14, 2008

Catler’s quest for these notes and his fascination with “just intonation”—the series of pitches derived from the natural harmonic series—led him to design the wild instrument you see here. The 12-Tone Ultra Plus ($1,199 direct) gives you all the “normal” notes you’re used to, plus 12 extra frets—resulting in 36 different pitches per octave. Wow!

First, a note to all the “Isn’t this a solution in search of a problem?” doubters out there: This guitar clearly isn’t for everyone. What it does offer, however, is a fascinating way to learn about intonation, which should be of interest to any player who has ever wondered why only fourths, fifths, and octaves—power chords, if you will—sound good with tons of distortion. That’s because of the beat frequencies that arise from equally spacing notes in our standard Western “equal temperament” scale. Let’s take a real-world example. Play a G power chord through a viciously distorted amp. It sounds pure, solid, and, well, powerful. Now play a G7. Hear all those clashing overtones? It sounds rough, unsettled, and kind of curdled. That’s because the seventh degree is more than 31 cents sharper than the harmonic seventh. The harmonic seventh is what is found in nature and it produces a beatless chord when played with a root and a fifth. The FreeNote 12-Tone Ultra Plus gives me access to that note, in the form of what they call “F half-flat,” found at the new first fret. After struggling just a bit with the fingering, I hit the chord through a heavily distorted amp. What I heard was like a G7, but with no beating. It’s essentially a power chord, but it has a seventh in it. It’s a pretty amazing thing to experience. The FreeNote manual says that if you want to compare this chord to an equal tempered G7, just raise the F half-flat to an F (which is now at the second fret). All the clashy overtones reappeared and it just didn’t sound good. I played some D7, A7, and E7 chords in the manual and I really dug the consonance and stability of them. The sound seemed foreign at first but it was addictive, especially with tons of gain. Finding the proper voicings and fingerings took some getting used to—there are a lot of frets and some are pretty close together—but I found it worth the struggle. To be honest, a couple of the chords in the manual were too weird for my ears—strangely dissonant and not particularly musical—although I admit the sounds were intriguing.

This guitar would not be my first choice on a four-set bar gig. Many of these new pitches and chords struck me as a little funky when played against equal-tempered guitars and pianos, although they sounded great with a bass holding down the bottom. And, obviously, any fretless instrument could play in tune with these notes. Some of the sounds I discovered are so evocative that I could absolutely see basing a movie soundtrack around them. It would be easy to say you’ve never heard anything like the FreeNote, but you have, because these intervals are all found in nature. And the next time you’re complaining that no one is doing anything new, remember the 12-Tone Ultra Plus.

Kudos Well made. Wildly innovative.

Concerns Steep learning curve. New sounds can be off-putting to some.

Contact  FreeNote, (212) 580-0602; microtones.com 

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