Ned Evett Interview :
I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Ned Evett, a unique musician and the inventor of the glass fretboard fretless guitar. During Ned Evett’s opening set for fellow guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani, he pleased and intrigued the vast majority hard-to-impress crowd of hardcore Satriani fans. I look forward to being invited to see Ned play a longer set someday soon as his style is extremely unique. He is a quite interesting, creative and charming individual who is not afraid to deviate from defined musical norms and use non-traditional influences to mold his guitar playing and song writing. His new album “Circus Liquor” will be released in January of 2003 on Empty Beach Records.
Music Frisk’s Dave Dalka: When did you first get the idea to start playing your guitar without frets?
Ned Evett: In about 1986. I had a full ride scholarship as a classical guitar player that I walked away from, but I needed a project to do one semester and I had an idea for the fretless guitar, but I didn’t have enough money to actually have it professionally done. It’s at that point I realized that there is just no gear. If you wanted to this you can’t just walk into a store, or anywhere, and buy one of these guitars. I dropped the idea and then about four years later I was in a Reggae band, because I had moved on from doing the college thing, had joined the circus and had gone on the road and I just took a pair of pliers and I took an old Strat that I had and I turned that sucker into a fretless guitar. Since it was a Reggae band, it was easy to just step on stage with it like the second night that I had it. The music is fairly static and it is repeating for measures and measures and measures. It’s a great groove, so it’s conducive to doing nice, short solos in that context. So I had a good solid year of just getting down on stage in front of people. Learning by doing is always good too. So it’s never been an ivory tower lab experiment for me, it’s always been an in the field, having it up in real time for me.
MF: Most people struggle to master an instrument on its own, but yet you were able to take it to a further level. What made you decide to do this?
Ned Evett: That’s a great question. I think part of it has to do with the era during which I took up guitar, which is the mid-80’s. There was a technical renaissance at the point, so many guys like Stanley Jordan, Joe Satriani, Allan Holdsworth, they all reached this explosion of techniques. When you are a young guitarist and you are bombarded by these techniques, you have a choice: you can ape one of them decently well or you can ingest the sum total of their approaches and then try to do your own thing. I always felt a lot of people of in my generation missed that point entirely and would go just for the ape and assume ‘Well, someday I’ll get recognition from copying Yngwie Malmsteen or whoever cause I can do him so well.’ That’s never going to work now. I think that probably had a lot to do with it. Plus I’m just driven, I guess, naturally driven and pretty restless.
MF: I understand you make these in a small shop because of a friend of yours that does glass, other than this friend what led to the usage of glass?
Ned Evett: Total necessity! I had wood fingerboards and metal fingerboards, but they are both prone to wearing out and you have to take them in and have them re-planed and re-surfaced. It’s expensive and it’s a pain in the ass and I got tired of it. I said I wish there was a substance that would not wear out and it turned out to be glass. It never occurred to me because glass is so breakable, but when you stick it on the fingerboard it’s very stable, it’s cheap, which is key. If you break a fingerboard it costs you four or five bucks to get another one. It just turned out to be the best material for me. That’s because I play an insane amount on it. For somebody who plays just a little bit of fretless guitar, a wood fingerboard or metal fingerboard is perfectly adequate because they are never going to wear though it in the time that I would wear through it.
MF:There’s the part of you that is the musician and there is the part of you now that is the inventor and businessman that makes these. Which one is more important?
Ned Evett: Oh, the artist by far, the artist! Particularly because I began trying to make gear available because there was no gear, there was a vacuum. So, just through trying to push the envelope…
MF: One couldn’t exist without the other?
Ned Evett: Right, exactly. I have a very easy relationship with the business side of things with the internet. We sell exclusively on the internet. So, I’m not sitting in a guitar store twelve hours a day selling my guitars. Often times my company, the guitar company side of me and the artist side are transparent to each other, people often don’t associate one with the other and that’s the way that I like it. I don’t want to be known as a person who sells fretless guitars that would not be as choice of a gig.
MF: Somewhere along the way, Joe Satriani got interested in your guitars, purchased one and now you are here touring with him. Please share that story.
Ned Evett: It’s a great story. San Francisco, this would have been 1996, when I was getting the glass fretless guitar business off the ground. Through a personal connection, I knew Joe and he had a JS model sitting in the closet that he never played. I can’t remember what the reason was, something wrong with it, it just never played right. I customized a guitar for him, which presented some technical challenges and I gave him the guitar. I wound up moving away from San Francisco at the point, but always have kept in touch with him. When I put out my first record, “An Introduction to Fretless Guitar” I of course sent that to him. Joe is the kind of guy that gives you feedback if you like something. If you don’t hear back from him, it’s because, ya know, it’s that kind of a critique, which I think is awesome, because you should figure out your own issues. So to wrap that story up, I kept in touch with him and when I was on tour in Europe this summer, they were also on tour; I did the opening spots in the UK with them that was four dates. Then I got asked back for this run. How much he plays that guitar, I don’t know, but he has many guitars in his collection.
MF: Who are some of the guitarists that influenced you the most as you developed?
Ned Evett: It’s a pretty narrow field for me. Doug Marsh from Built to Spill, who I also have a side project with and I’m on a Built to Spill record, they are on Warner Brothers, like and indie rock band. Joe (Satriani) had a big influence on me. The elements of my style which are jazz rock, I got directly from Joe. When Joe came out, he had a lot of magazine space in the guitar magazines explaining his approach. His approach is heavily influenced by jazz and jazz theory, so I really intersect with him at that point and I derive a lot of my thinking from that. But I’m as much of a song writer as I am an instrumental guitar player. In a lot of ways, if I’m looking for inspiration, often times I’ll get it from a Nick Drake or Richard Thompson rather than listening to a John Scofield record or something like that. Michael Hedges was a big influence as well.
MF: Of the music that is out there is the world today, what are some things that you just enjoy listening to?
Ned Evett: I love Indian music. I have an incredible 4-CD set from Nimbus Records called The Raga Guide. I listen to Ravi Shankar, I listen to Norah Jones, who is Ravi Shankar’s daughter, she’s on Blue Note, and she is amazing. I listen to my little bother Joe Evett, who is an artist back home. Built to Spill, which I mentioned and Radiohead.
MF: You mention back at home. You are the first person I’ve ever met from Idaho. How was getting recognition and exposure living in such a remote place?
Ned Evett: It didn’t really happen for me there. I moved to California for that in the early 90’s and then I recently relocated for family reasons; I had a child I didn’t want to raise my child in LA. Now I have the best of both worlds, I have a good list of contacts and action outside Boise. I am able to continue to ply my trade without having to live in a music town.
MF: What other things do you like to do when you aren’t making or playing guitars?
Ned Evett: I sculpt a bit and I raise a two year old child. Not a wide range of hobbies, I work out to stay in shape.
MF: There’s this festival in France every other year for Fretless guitar players, tell me a little bit about that whole enterprise?
Ned Evett: It’s incredible! I had no idea it existed and I got an e-mail from the promoter. At first I almost didn’t believe him; I was like, “Really?” It’s not just fretless guitarists; it is sarod, fretless bass, so the fretless thing can mean a few different things. It’s evolved now into more of a guitar thing. Initially it was not. It’s in Mende, France, which is sort of the south-central France and it has the most incredible food and the most beautiful scenery you will ever see. I think the next one is this February, the La Nuit De La Fretless festival. Because it’s a major festival with the fretless guitar thing, I won’t do it very often; I’ll rotate in every few years. But it’s an incredible gathering of people that do what I do.
MF: Is there anything about Ned Evett that the world should know that they don’t know?
Ned Evett: At this point, I’m really comfortable when people encounter me at a show. I do what I do, I write songs and I play a freaky guitar. It’s rare you are missing part of the equation because that’s pretty much what I do. I’m comfortable with that. Some artists, a lot of guitar players, feel pigeonholed, it’s like “I play guitar, but nobody knows that I write songs!” Or nobody knows I do this, I paint, I sculpt, etc. I feel it’s important to unify your musical abilities, to synthesize, to not just do the lowest common denominator. Honestly, it took me a lot longer to develop my song writing and singing than my guitar playing. I was reasonably proficient at a reasonably young age at guitar. A lot of people squish down the things they want to do in favor of something else for various reasons. It’s been a hard road, it’s not easy, but I feel great about the combination.