Stu Mackenzie, frontman of the ever-prolific and experimental King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard, has discussed the process that led the band to explore microtonal music, using specially-fretted guitars.
So far, King Gizz have released three albums driven by 24-tone equal temperament, with a few other tracks from their discography also making use of it. It divides an octave into twice as many divisions as most western tuning systems, with quarter- and three-quarter-tone intervals used alongside semitones.
Speaking to the Tape Op podcast, Mackenzie was asked about the origins of the idea. “This serendipitous connection moment happened to my friend around the same time, he said. “He hit me up and said, ‘I’m building guitars at the moment, and I’m going to make you one – you got any ideas?’
“I was like, ‘Yes, I do. Let’s make a microtonal electric guitar, let’s fret it similar to a bağlama. We’ll make it practical and in the King Gizzard’s kind of guitar world.’ So we fused these two things together, this electric guitar and this bağlama kind of thing, worked out a tuning that made sense, worked out a fretting fretboard system that made sense and kind of like dreamed this guitar up.”
He then revealed that playing the guitar with extra frets gave him a creative refresh, and inspired him to write even more. “A few months later, this guitar was ready. We called it the Flying Microtonal Banana, and I just instantly just was like, ‘Holy shit, I can write again, I feel free. Everything feels new on this thing, everything was fresh and exciting, I can play this note. It’s in between other notes, and it just sounds different, and it’s blowing my mind.’”
After demoing song ideas using the guitar to the rest of the band, they then embarked on getting microtonal instruments for the rest of the band’s guitar players. “I set a budget for Cookie [Craig] and Joey [Walker] and Lucas [Harwood] to go and buy two electric guitars and a bass,” Mackenzie explained. “$400 each – Australian dollars, which doesn’t buy you much over here – but that was the point… we’re gonna kind of ruin these guitars, we have to punch a bunch more frets into them. So we bought these super cheap, funny instruments, two Telecaster copies, which Joe and Cookie played.”
“One’s like a Grecko thing; one was, I can’t remember, might not even had a brand on it. Lucas got a Givson – with a ‘V,’ which I think is an Indian Gibson copy from like the ’80s or something. It’s actually a very cool-looking, horrible-sounding instrument. We’ve re-fretted all of these to match with the Flying Microtonal Banana. We got together, we started jamming, and we did a thing we hadn’t done before, which we have done since, but we hadn’t done it before, at this point.”
The lightning-fast recording and writing process the band then embarked on allowed Flying Microtonal Banana to become one of the five albums they released across 2017. “We just set up mics on everything, and we recorded on this little 8-track, on a little half-inch TASCAM reel-to-reel machine. “And then each day we would jam a new song from scratch, and then by 4 or 5 o’clock, we would tape it, and that was the tape. Every single song is that, every single song is like – we learned it that day, and by the end of the day we recorded it.”
The tracks were then later refined with vocal takes and harmonica, to become the album that kickstarted King Gizzard’s set of Microtonal experiments.