Ned Evett

It’s New Year’s Eve 1989, and Ned Evett resolves that this will be the last cover gig he ever plays. As the final song comes to a cathartic conclusion, he pulverizes his Strat into a million splinters. The neck dislodges from the shattered body, but is otherwise intact. The next day, in a stroke of inspiration, Evett removes the frets from the neck, and bolts on a new body.

“I debuted my new fretless in a reggae band, and the long modal vamps we played were the perfect training ground for getting my fretless guitar technique together,” he says.

Evett soon became a complete convert, adding fretless Dobro and fretless acoustic to his arsenal. Since then, he has toured the world several times (including a stint opening for Joe Satriani), won the 2003 North American Rock Guitar Competition, recorded with Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch, and founded in conjunction with Fernandes guitars. His latest release is Middle of the Middle [Empty Beach].

How did you go about transposing your fretted guitar licks to the fretless?
I learned to incorporate the microtonal properties of the instrument into my lead runs. For example, if you switch off fingers on the same note—try playing the E on the fifth fret of the B string with your first finger, then re-fret it with your third finger—you get this microtonal shift that sounds like a slight bend, or a tap on the whammy bar. I like to throw these kinds of ornamental grace notes into my lines. Also, the top three strings on a fretless don’t ring out as strong as on a fretted guitar, so to give them some shimmer, I use the fingernails of my left hand to stop notes. I thought this was incredibly original, until I found out sarod players have been doing it for thousands of years.

How do chords translate onto the fretless?
I find that you have to come up with different chord voicings—even in open positions—because things just resonate differently. For example, when I play a Bb chord, I play an open fourth-string D, the Bb on the third fret of the third string, and an added C on the first fret of the second string. I guess it’s actually a Bb(9)/D, but it rings better on the fretless. This grip also allows me to microtonally manipulate the Bb and the C. You can hear me work that voicing on “Do You Remember Our Life?”

You prefer to use a glass fingerboard on your fretless guitar.
That came out of necessity. I had a fretless guitar with an ebony fingerboard that kept getting torn up by my DR roundwound strings. Eventually, I had a friend who is a glassmaker experiment with a glass fretboard for my $40 Stella acoustic. It worked out really well, so I converted most of my guitars. I still play that Stella—it’s all over my new CD.

Is it fair to say you’d like to do for fretless guitar what Roger McGuinn did for the electric 12-string?
Sure. It’s a balancing act, because, on one hand, I’d like to show people everything you can do with a fretless guitar. But on the other, I’d like to be known for making good music. I feel bad for guys like Emmett Chapman, who was celebrated for inventing the Stick, but didn’t get a whole lot of notoriety for his playing—which he should have.