Modern advances in technology are not evil

About non-piano instruments.

Many of them are deliberately made to be more difficult to manipulate than they need to be. I see the reason why there are no raised frets on a string instrument, definitely. They alter the sound, adding a screechiness that I dislike. Fretless instruments have a much mellower, less pungent sound to them. Plus, raised frets lock you into tempered tuning.

But I see zero reason why inlays are not used on string instruments. They are on basses, and people use them without shame. They don’t control your brain. They don’t force you to put your finger down right there on that very inlay. You can ignore them if you like, or use them as a rough guide. And yet, they are never allowed, and it seems to me that it’s purely to make sure that as few people as possible play the things. It’s a deliberate attempt to make the instrument unwelcoming.

Acoustically, they are about as perfect as an instrument can get. But the lack of inlays is just plain old hostile. I’ve seen and heard too many good bass players who use inlays, even just the marker dots that a typical N-string bass will have. And I’ve heard from too many classical bass and cello players who cheat with dots of black gaffer’s tape to think that it’s not done in that world as well.

There is absolutely zero reason why inlaid frets are not on a typical instrument. Maybe not all the way up in the frostbite region of fiftieth position, but just overall.

Contrast that to a piano (or to most other instruments really), that embraced the industrial revolution with open arms. The piano wouldn’t even exist without massive industrial technology. Wind instruments gained the ability to play chromatically; no one ever implied that a truly good trumpet player should be able to manage on an instrument that only played the harmonic series. Technology was welcomed by those instruments, and applied in ways to make them more flexible and better manipulable.

What is it about the medieval attitude of string instruments (and some others) that makes them think that their device, alone among all others, cannot be improved upon by modern technology? Carleen Hutchins caught the same attitude when she started with free plate tuning; the luthiers hated her. “I was putting numbers on their mysticism,” she had said.

And yet, there’s the piano. 30 tons of tension on a frame that wouldn’t exist without modern manufacturing techniques. Not to mention the massive advances in digital pianos that can’t be told apart from acoustics in blind listening tests. .. no matter how much the piano’s fewer medieval devotees insist they can.

I’m too much a tinkerer. My first instinct when I see any device is to think of how it can be improved. Acoustically, string instruments are perfect. But they could be made more user-friendly, and there’s an unwelcoming intransigence in that world that refuses to admit it. They fear moving forward from the past. There is value in the past, and in tradition. 400 years of pedagogy is not to be chucked into the dump. (Although parts of it certainly are.)

It’s also to be built on. Not just left in a case gathering dust while the people that use it are frightened to alter it for fear of displeasing the gods. Progress means building on the past, not chaining oneself to it. Do that, and you’ll never move ahead.

I wonder if I can bring my viola to a guitar luthier to have inlays put along the neck, now that I think about it. Auto-detail tape isn’t sticky enough, and those stupid finger tapes are too wide and hence useless. I don’t need to be told which note I’m hitting. I already know that. I don’t want a little pink circle that says “Bb.” Of course it’s a Bb. It’s a step and a half up from a G. But a nice, razor-thin, perfectly flat inlay might be neat.

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