Debashish Bhattacharya: The Sound of the Soul
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Jeff “Jahloon” Berg is an accomplished guitarist from Liverpool and is the creator of unfretted.com, which is the most comprehensive and leading resource for everything you want to know about fretless guitars and talented musicians. He studied with Bill Sullivan, a well-known guitar and banjo player from Litherland, and performed many gigs all over Liverpool. After nearly driving into a tree while listening to the “Fretless Guitar Masters” CD (yes, fretless music has that kind of effect on people), he created the unfretted.com website, which not only brought together fretless musicians and guitar makers from all over the world but has really helped to pave the “road to Damascus” for all the fans and aspiring musicians. Of course, whenever you put together a forum full of talented and innovative* musicians, as Jeff has done through his website, a big bang is bound to happen. Indeed, that’s just what happened with the release of the “Village of the Unfretted” album and the launch of the annual NYC Fretless Guitar Festival, the largest fretless guitar festival in the world. The accomplishments of Jeff and all the talented musicians, who made this milestone event possible, made huge waves in the guitar world, warranting a feature article in the February 2006 issue of Guitar Player Magazine. Throughout the years, Jeff has been a wonderful mentor, advocate, and a leader in this growing fretless subculture. Although Jeff has somehow managed to keep most of his recordings hidden, his passion and dedication to music are evident in his contributions to the fretless world. I thank Jeff for the opportunity to interview him and for adding all the personal embellishments that made this interview so much fun and a real gem for me.
Innovative: I should emphasize that fretless guitarists are not only notorious for inventing and experimenting with sounds and new ways to play their instruments but are also innovative in the ways they alter their instruments to synthesize new sounds. Nothing can fret them; many of them invented new instruments or made their own modifications to existing instruments, and Jeff is no exception to this. He created his own Baritone Fretless by modifying a fretted Hamer.
MT: I really like your philosophical take on becoming unfretted: There is a transition phase, from guitar to fretless guitar. It’s like walking all your life on Earth and then suddenly finding you can fly. All the fixed points, you relied upon are gone, you are; Unfretted Musically speaking, what is this newfound freedom when one makes the transition from a fretted to a fretless guitar?
JB: Well, the frets are missing, for a start, but what it does give you is an instrument you are already familiar with, but the rules have changed slightly. Suddenly all of what you previously learnt is flying out of the window and a whole new empty canvas is being laid out in front of you. Time to start painting.
MT: Given how amazing a fretless guitar sounds, I can’t understand why more musicians are not playing fretless guitars. In your opinion, why haven’t fretless guitars received more attention from musicians?
JB: Well, it’s not as easy as it looks. Plus it just hasn’t been available for that many people to try. Just walk into any guitar shop and ask for a fretless. They won’t have one. We are still in the pioneering phase; when the wave breaks, everyone will be selling them.
MT: In the world of the unfretted, what is it about the bass that makes it more accessible than the guitar?
JB: I would put a lot of it down to Jaco Pastorias. He really pioneered the fretless bass and that sound he got out of it was just mesmerizing. Many bass guitarists also play double bass, which is a fretless instrument, so they start from an advantage, already knowing the rules. Another thing, bass players are much more ready to accept new or different approaches to their instrument. For example, active electronics, never really took off on normal guitars.
MT: You are an accomplished musician yourself. You studied and played with Bill Sullivan, a well-known guitar and banjo player from Litherland. What was it like to study with Bill Sullivan? What was the most important thing that you learned from him?
JB: He was a great guy, very down to Earth and as wise as Yoda. He taught me how to form jazz chords from scratch, no need for a chord manual. Then how to make arrangements from just chords and a lead line. After a year he said “I can’t teach you anything more, now you must teach others.” Then he started sending me students, and that was the key lesson. To teach your subject, you need to know it inside out, it really moves your game up a few steps.
MT: You also played many live gigs all over Liverpool but performed your last one in 1980. Why did you stop?
JB: Family / Thatcher / Boredom / Couldn’t fit the gear in the new motor.
MT: Where can we find recordings of your music?
JB: I’ve managed to keep most of them hidden. Recent exercises are on the website and of course on the “Village of the Unfretted” CD. There are some ¼ inch tape recordings of early bands, but not fretless, so they’ll never see the light of day.
MT: What are some of your musical influences and favorite musicians?
JB: At an early age my parents locked me in a room with a radiogram and a selection of records. Music from the fifties; South Pacific, Oklahoma, Noel Coward at Las Vegas, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” album, and a few indecently rude Calypso records with titles like “Please Mister Don’t You Touch Me Tomato” etc. That kind of thing seriously messes you up. Favourite musicians, there are so many, here’s the top three: Frank Zappa, Jack Bruce, Francis Dunnery.
MT: In your lifetime, how many guitars have you played?
JB: No idea how many, but I did have a long-standing monogamous relationship with a Gibson 330, which I still have. Before that I had a Red Hofner Veritihn, and
MT: What are the instruments in your personal collection now?
JB: The main instruments are a Godin Multiac Nylon Fretless, a Vigier Surfretter and my home modified Hamer, the Baritone Fretless.
MT: Your first unfretted purchase was the Godin Multiac Nylon Fretless. How long did it take for you to make the full transition from fretted to the unfretted? What was the process like?
JB: For some time I thought I might have made an expensive mistake, but I persevered and one night everything fell into place. Another road to Damascus experience. I think it took about six weeks.
MT: What are some of your tips to an aspiring fretless guitarist?
JB: First send me all your money, you won’t need it, trust me. Second lock yourself away in your room with said fretless guitar. Don’t come out till you can play it. In those dark times when despair is close at hand, read the masterclasses section on the unfretted website, Tim Donahue’s book is there, you can’t buy it anywhere, but it’s here for free. (See what I mean about not needing money?)
MT: Do you ever go back and play fretted guitars nowadays?
JB: Not often, they are all in their cases. If there’s no one about I might have a quick twiddle, provided it’s a dark and moonless night. It is surprising how much fretless playing improves your performance on the fretted guitar.
MT: You launched the website unfretted.com shortly after you heard the “Fretless Guitar Masters” CD. This website has become a wonderful resource and supportive community for all fretless guitarists. What is your ultimate goal or vision behind this website?
JB: Oh dear, people keep asking that. They also ask if it is making money, which it was never intended to do. One of the key factors when starting the site was NO MONEY, that includes no pop ups, no adverts, just genuine content. Everyone has contributed free of charge, and that included the CD we made “Village of the Unfretted”.
MT: You are the producer of the “Village of the Unfretted” album, which is obviously an important milestone in the fretless world. How did it come about?
JB: Well about a year back on the Unfretted forum the usual suspects were kicking around an idea that we should have a pantomime / opera / continuous tale that anyone could contribute to and the storyline would take its own course. It was rather successful, and then some of the contributors added music. I can’t remember who suggested gathering the tracks into a CD but it happened. It was going to be a small circulation, just for forum contributors really, then it started to gain momentum. People started submitting tracks outside the remit of the forum thread. Then we made the decision to contact every fretless guitarist we knew and offer them the chance to contribute to the CD. Well I had reckoned on about a 30% positive response, blow me over with my socks on when we had a 95% positive reply. The small project was now a double CD, in four short months we had most of the fretless guitarists on the planet all on a single album. What’s more, they all did it for love, and the other key figures; Michael Vick on publicity, Tim Mirth on mastering and Emre Meydan on graphics, put an immense amount of work in to make it a success. The CD also comes with a 16 page booklet featuring pics of the artists and details of the tracks. I suppose this is one of the unexpected outcomes of starting the website, if you don’t have a plan, one will come along and surprise you.
MT: In November 2004, Guitar Player magazine featured your website. More recently, in the February 2006 issue, Guitar Player featured an article on fretless guitars and quoted you among several fretless musicians. What was it like to read about yourself and your website in Guitar Player?
JB: Oh, a tremendous buzz! Like all the hard work had been worthwhile and we, as a community of musicians, are finally getting some recognition.
MT: The fingerboards of fretless guitars can be made of several materials, including glass, metal, phenolic (type of plastic), and wood. In terms of the sound they produce, what are the distinctions between the different types of fingerboard?
JB: They all have very different sounds. The glass fingerboard gives a lovely singing resonance, listen to Ned Evett’s work for example. Metal boards give a great bright sound. The Vigier Surfretter is a beautiful example, offering amazing sustain and balance across all strings. Wood and phenolic are more mellow sounding. Given all that there is also tremendous influence from the individual players, fretless players tend to pick up a signature sound very easily, so while Tim Donahue and Ed Degenaro are both storming guitarists when they turn their hands to heavy metal, you can still tell who’s playing, even at fifty notes per second.
MT: Which kind of fingerboard do you prefer? Why?
JB: Well it’s a hard one to call but I think I would go for an ebony fingerboard. It just seems right for my everyday playing, I seem to get more control over the tone and accuracy.
MT: The NYC Fretless Guitar Festival is the largest festival featuring fretless guitarists around the world. How did this festival start?
JB: Well it was an idea that a few of us tossed around on the forum, there had been festivals in France, but none for a couple of years. Then when the CD “Village of the Unfretted” came along we combined the album launch with a festival and hey presto, success! Michael Vick worked incredibly hard to bring everything to fruition in New York and now he is running this as an annual event.
MT: Will we be able to see you perform live at the next NYC Fretless Guitar Festival?
JB: Yes, along with a lot of really great players.
MT: I read your interview with Ned Evett, which I thought was just awesome; it was both informative and fun to read. Some of your questions are so good that I just have to use some of them here. If I have your permission, I would like to turn the table and ask you some of the off-topic questions (with a few modifications) that you asked Ned.
JB: Hoist by my own Petard eh?
MT: What are your hobbies when you are not playing your guitar?
JB: Most of my hobbies are lapsed at the moment. There’s cycling (lapsed – flat tyres), Scuba Diving (lapsed – lost me weight belt and bobbed around for a while), juggling and some circus skills (lapsed – lost comedy red nose), flying (a between marriages pastime that crashed along with my wallet) oh yes and gadgets (not lapsed) I’m a terrible sucker for things new and geeky, my two sons are 25 and 26 years old and I bought them the Star Wars genuine light sabers for Xmas, a tad expensive but very cool. Well after five minutes the youngest one had chopped the eldest one’s head off and I had a two metre hole in the side of the house. Kids eh?
MT: Do you play any sports?
JB: Too old for squash, too young for golf.
MT: What makes you laugh?
JB: Generally the absurd and ridiculous, the dafter it is the more likely I will giggle over it for a week or so.
MT: Can you be more specific, as in comedians or TV shows?
JB: Comedians: Peter Cook, Tommy Cooper, Alexei Sayle
JB: TV shows: “Red Dwarf, League of Gentlemen”, “Men Behaving Badly” (UK version)
MT: Your house is being consumed by fire, and you have only one chance to dive in and rescue one guitar. Which one would it be?
JB: It’d be the Gibson 330, it’s a lucky guitar.
MT: Given the same situation, you can only rescue one guitarist, whom would you rescue?
JB: Zal Yanovsky, though he died a couple of years back so I’d be toting out his coffin. Zally was a great inspiration to me in the early years, a lot of people say what? More say who? Yet I was watching a documentary last week about the making of “Disraeli Gears” and Eric Clapton was talking about musical influences, he mentioned Zal had been a huge influence and the song “Summer in the City” had inspired “Tales of Brave Ulysses” so thanks Eric, I now feel totally vindicated. (Eric would have saved Zal too.)
MT: Coke or Pepsi?
JB: Neither, now that’s like saying; “What do you want? A bee or a wasp?”
MT: Beer or wine?
JB: Beer, anything 5% plus, none of your kids stuff.
MT: Pizza, burger, or fish and chips?
JB: Well it has to be fish and chips, a culinary masterpiece. Do you know it’s exceedingly rare to get food poisoning off fish and chips? The fat it’s cooked in is so hot it finishes off most of the e-coli before it has a chance. Must be swilled down with Dandelion and Burdock.
MT: What’s your favorite dessert?
JB: Crème Caramel. Can always fit that in even after a blowout meal.
MT: Is there a dream guitar that you would like to add to your collection?
JB: Vigier’s Anniversary edition fretless surfretter. But it’s just a tad out of reach price wise, this week.
MT: If you were not a musician, what other career path would you take?
JB: Well I sort of done that already with a day job, but if I could choose a lifestyle career, I’d be a writer.
MT: Thank you very much for the interview!
JB: Thank You!
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