Tag Archives: open G

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.

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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.

Down Down – Status Quo (Rick Parfitt RIP)

2016 just won’t go quietly. Carrie Fisher in intensive care and Rick Parfitt dead on the same day. What a year. Status Quo are not favourites of mine, but I do think their best records are undervalued, so by way of tribute to Parfitt, here’s a piece about my pick of the Quo’s many records.

It’s been easy to take the mick out of Status Quo for, what, thirty years? In 1985, Bob Geldof asked them to play at Live Aid because in his mind they were almost a cartoon of the idea of a rock band, and they seemed to him like the only men for the job of opening the concert. But the public perception of loveable old salt-of-the-earth Francis and Rick – your embarrasing uncle’s favourite band – and the music they were capable of making at their peak are a whole world apart. Status Quo and the Beach Boys doing Fun Fun Fun in 1996 is one thing; Status Quo doing Down Down in 1974 is quite another.

Down Down is the sort of music that hooked many of Quo’s life-long fans: stripped-down, fuss-free rock ‘n’ roll, all sinew and muscle. Yes, it uses the Chuck Berry-once-removed boogie riff of several dozen other Status Quo songs, but the amount of variety and interest crammed into the song – the sparkling semi-clean guitar breakdown sections; the chromatic ascents from B back up to E halfway through each verse; the way that Rick Parfitt’s bass-string, Chuck Berry-style riffing in standard tuning complements Francis Rossi’s wiry open-tuned Telecaster – for me makes it the standout Quo single, and one of the best rock records full stop.

Down Down’s greatest pleasure, though, is the glorious texture of those guitars.

There’s something magical about the sound of an electric guitar that’s really cranked up loud, so it’s just on the edge between clean and distorted. That’s where Francis Rossi’s guitar on Down Down lives. It’s clean but with an aggressive edge to it, and when you play that kind of blues-rock riff at 180 bpm while the drummer plays big smacking quarter notes on the hi hat, it’s got all the rock ‘n’ roll attitude in the world without needing loads of gain to prove its point.

Rossi’s tone on its own is ear-grabbingly gorgeous, but what makes Down Down really great is the blend of Rossi’s sound with Parfitt’s. Parfitt’s tone is fatter, more distorted and fills in the bottom, underneath Rossi’s guitar. The extended intro keeps you guessing as to what kind of form the song will take when it properly begins, but when the drums and bass (yeoman work from John Coghlan and Alan Lancaster) come in along with Parfitt’s fatter and more distorted boogie riff, and the song proper reveals itself, it’s a glorious moment.

No wonder John Peel’s 45 of Down Down was in the box where he kept all his most treasured singles. If you needed a record to try to explain to an alien visitor what rock ‘n’ roll music is, you could do a lot worse that reach for Down Down.