Alternate tunings

I’m in recording mode at the moment, and thinking a lot about the use of acoustic guitar in recording, which is what prompted the post about Nashville tuning the other day.

Altered tunings are where I live as a guitarist. For the first few years after I discovered them, they felt like my secret thing. I became serious about songwriting and extending my range as an acoustic guitarist in the late 1990s. At the time, the biggest band in the UK was still Oasis, and Noel Gallagher took a decidedly meat-and-potatoes approach to the acoustic guitar: strummed open chords and barre chords all the way. Consequently, that’s how kids of my generation learned to play acoustic guitar. Gallagher and Cobain between them offered up 90% of what 90% of young guitarists wanted to know.

While some more adventurous electric players went down the prog/metal route to learn about the likes of Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and so on, young guitarists looking to learn about fingerpicking and alternate tunings had a harder time of it finding teaching materials. I can’t even remember where I first learned about using open tunings for fingerpicking rather than slide, but I do remember that the first songs I wrote in non-standard were in open G, and it would have coincided roughly with picking up my first Nick Drake album in 1999 or early 2000 (it was before I went to university in September 2000, I know that much). After finding alternate tunings, I felt a sort of ownership of them; easy, when no one else I knew used them, and few songwriters I ran into at open-mike nights did either.

But of course, it wasn’t just me learning about this stuff. For me, and I suspect many others at the same time, Nick Drake opened up a new world of tunings. The increased profile of his music that came as a result of the Volkswagen ad that used Pink Moon meant that he was now being discussed by mainstream guitar magazines (again, this was still an analogue world – in 1999, only 13% of UK households had an internet connection).

One of the first things I did when I got online was go to OLGA (the On-Line Guitar Archive – again, the hyphen in “online” tells you how long ago this was) and find a list of Nick Drake tunings and tabs (I was more interested in the tunings than the transcriptions themselves), which is where I came across tunings like CGCFCE.

Any Drake-loving guitarist will probably recognise that as the tuning he used on Pink Moon, Which Will, Parasite, Hazey Janes I and II, and Introduction, the instrumental that begins Bryter Layter.

It’s a lovely tuning for the keys of C, Am, Dm and F, and isn’t really very adaptable beyond that, but what’s nice about it is the range it spans: two octaves plus a major third, which is just about as much as is practical without having bass strings that are too floppy and treble strings that are too tight and liable to break.* The tuning works equally well on a twelve string, where the added octave strings make the range of the tuning even wider (two octaves plus a fifth).

The approach that Drake took on Pink Moon (and Place to Be, which uses a similar tuning with the B string tuned down to G rather than up to C) is to fret the lowest three strings and play the top three strings open: 222000, 555000 and so on – an approach that works equally well strumed or picked. In this tuning, those two shapes will give you a D minor and F respectively.

D minor, you say? But it’s got a G in it! And a C and an E! And no F! But that’s really the point of alternate tunings. You can create wide, harmonically extended chords that would be near-impossible to play in standard, and have fingers left over for melodic ornamentations. Purists who insist that no chord you can’t play fretted in standard tuning is worth playing (and that a capo is cheating, and similar nonsense) are dead wrong about this. And fortunately this kind of idiocy is rarer now than it was when I was 18, but you used to hear from a lot of people that open/altered tunings were Not Proper Guitar Playing.

Anyhow, in the context of Pink Moon (and Place to Be), the ear hears 222000 as a more-or-less minor chord built on the second degree of the scale. Which is to say, the ear hears D9sus4, as no minor third is present, but interprets it the chord as minor rather than major – closer to Dm9add13. The beautiful expressiveness of these kinds of chords – richly sonorous and full of harmonic ambiguity – is what made Drake’s guitar playing so influential, and what attracts so many of us to alternate tunings in the first place.

I picked up other tunings along the way, but these days I pretty much only use two, other than standard, to write in: DADEAD (or it’s step-down equivalent CGCFGC), which I learned as a variation of DADGAD, and CGDEAD, which I came to via open G, first tuning down the lowest string C to extend the bottom end, then tuning down the G string to E to facilitate minor keys and suspended seconds. Nowadays, CGDEAD is my de facto standard tuning if I’m playing acoustic, and I’ve found (and used) improbable voicings for chords that would make a classical guitar teacher wince, using my left thumb to fret as many as three strings.

Tunings are a rabbit hole for many a guitarist. I got pleasantly lost down mine nearly 20 years ago. I’m still down here, still burrowing.

011 crop
Don’t look now, classical guitar teachers: I’m coming to your town with chord shapes like this! [insert evil-laugh sound effect. Photo from my recent duo show with Mel at the Oasthouse Theatre, Rainham, Kent]

*Some sources list the tuning as DADGDF# (with the capo two frets lower, where used) but I find the idea that Drake routinely tuned his B string up to D and E to F# a little improbable.

1 thought on “Alternate tunings

  1. Frank Hudson

    I love getting the lowest string down to C, but it does tend to be a bit too floppy to sound well on sub 25 inch scale guitars with light gauge strings (what I tend to play). Joint issues with my distal joint on my fretting hand index finger lead me to explore a tuning I thought I devised some years back: CGDGBE, which of course was known and used before (“Vincent Black Lightning”).

    The “discovery” of altered tunings in “semi-popular music” is a history that someone should write. someday. The slide tunings and other blues tunings seemed to have some antecedents in popular parlor guitar pieces (e.g. “Vestapol” tuning) and they were surely an influence on John Fahey in America. Davey Graham went to North Africa and came back with DADGAD and changed things in the British Isles, and from Graham you get Jansch and Renbourn, and then Nick Drake and so on. Where Joni Mitchell picked up her approach to playing almost exclusively in altered tunings I really don’t know (David Crosby? Like I said, I don’t know).

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.