Alternate Tunings for the Guitar – Rich Simmons

Old timey, open back banjos produce tone in a different way.

Most old time players prefer natural skin for the head. Drawbacks to natural skin include an extreme susceptibility to humidity. High humidity can result in a loose head and poor tone. Low humidity can actually cause the head to crack and tear. For that reason Fiberskyn, a synthetic material, is gaining greater acceptance in old time circles. It approximates the tone of natural skin without the humidity concerns.

Most old time banjos do not have a tone ring. In fact, a tone ring produces a richer tone that is undesirable in old time music. A few models offer a scalloped tone ring as a middle ground between an old time banjo and a bluegrass banjo.

Old time banjos do not have a resonator. This is probably the easiest defining characteristic of these two instruments. Banjos in old time music provide a rhythmic background, whereas bluegrass banjo tends to be out front of the band playing lead lines.

Just like the bluegrass banjo, the tension hoop is made of steel and is used to provide even tension on the head.

With the myriad of moving parts and the real potential to do damage to your instrument, we recommend that all adjustments be made by a qualified technician or experienced players.

It was these British pioneers in the early 1960s that launched the modern revolution of alternate tunings. Guitarists such as Davey Graham, Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, and Bert Jansch used alternate tunings to present more challenging guitar arrangements and push the limits of commonly accepted steel string guitar technique for the right hand as well. For instance, Davey Graham is said to have “invented” DADGAD. While that claim may be a stretch, it is certain that he was among the masters of this tuning in his day. Bert Jansch’s work with the British folk group Pentangle was key to popularizing the alternate tunings for a wider audience including those on our side of the Atlantic.

Alternate tunings in the States took several parallel paths starting in the 1960s. For instance, John Fahey led the charge for the fledgling guitar style he called “American Primitive” but more commonly is known today as fingerstyle guitar. Fahey’s contribution cannot be understated. Reaching back for the strong right hand techniques used by pioneering delta blues players and coupling them with alternate tunings, he created a style previously unheard. To further his music and re-introduce people to the original performers he adored, Fahey founded Tacoma Records.

One of Fahey’s protegés, Leo Kottke, took the style to the next level in the late 60s and early 70s with his aggressive right hand attack and an arsenal of alternate tunings from which to work. Kottke’s compositional style and successful forays into ensemble work broadened the audience still again. Both Fahey and Kottke were unique in other ways – each played most of their songs in alternate tunings and each worked primarily as a solo guitarist. Together, these two guitarists paved the way for today’s fingerstyle masters ranging from Windham Hill founder, Will Ackerman, to acoustic pyro-technician Michael Hedges to the neo-classical prowess of Muriel Anderson.
Crosby uses tunings as part of the songwriting process. For instance, Guinnevere is in EBDGAD. In My Dreams is in DADDGC.
Nashville got in on the magic as well when Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed began using alternate tunings in some of their work. Chet Atkins used alternate tunings in the early 50s on tunes such as “Blue Gypsy.” Long considered one of Chet’s best albums, 1973’s “Chet Atkins Alone” is a hallmark of solo guitar work and features several different tunings. Jerry Reed’s star rose through many of intricate and unusual arrangements that were made possible by alternate tunings.

Singer-songwriters in the 60s and 70s realized the power and beauty of alternate tunings as well. David Crosby and Joni Mitchell were strong proponents of alternate tunings. Crosby has been called a “guitar thinker” by his contemporaries. He uses literally dozens of different tunings and tends to think through the intervals each tuning provides as a way of accenting elements of the melody and rhythm. Most of Crosby’s songs are written in an alternate tuning. Joni Mitchell may have been one step ahead of Crosby in her thinking. Her early songwriting style depended upon the tuning to define the emotional feel of the song and was an elemental part of the creative process for her. In talking about her work with ensembles, Joni felt most bands didn’t “get” her arrangements due to her unorthodox writing style. Paul Simon was another proponent of alternate tunings and incorporated them in songs such as “Scarborough Fair.”

The current popularity of alternate tunings among a segment of guitarists has been fueled by the increasing availability of guitar tablature. The advantages of tablature are enormous. First, complex pieces of music can be rendered accessible to guitarists who cannot read standard music notation. Second, tablature, with the secret of the actual tuning displayed at the beginning of the score, allows the guitarist only to concentrate on where to place their fingers, not on what tone to play.
By now, you’d probably like to get a feel for what alternate tunings are common. We’ll group these tunings into five categories, open tunings, modal tunings, regular tunings, instrument tunings and miscellaneous tunings.

Open Tunings
As mentioned above, open tunings create a chord when playing all six strings. Benefits of open tunings include unusual chordal combinations and interesting tonal clusters by utilizing drone or sustained strings. Of course, using a first finger bar across all six strings results in a major chord. Slide players adore open tunings for the ease at which they can ply their trade. Open G, by the way, is often referred to as slack key or Hawaiian tuning. Note that there are minor chord tunings as well.

Open C C G C G C E
Open D D A D F# A D
Open D Minor D A D F A D
Open G D G D G B D

Modal Tunings
In a sense, modal tunings are open tunings as well. The tuning in this instance spells a suspended chord that includes the root, 4th note, and 5th note of the scale. The most popular modal tuning is:

D Modal D A D G A D
G Modal D G D G C D

Other modals are possible by following the same pattern of intervals. These tunings are especially adept for Celtic music.

Regular Tunings
In the regular tunings, the strings are tuned in the same intervals. In these formats, a small number of chord forms is easily transferable up and down the neck.

Minor Third C D# F# A C D#
Major Third C E G# C E G#
All Fourths E A D G C F
Aug Fourths C F# C F# C F#
Minor Sixth C G# E C G# E
Major Sixth C A F# D# C A

Instrument Tunings
The instrumental tunings adopt the tuning of other string instruments. There are lots of unique intervals, drones, and patterns available to the adventurous guitarist.

Balalaika E A D E E A
Cittern C F C G C D
Dobro G B D G B D
Pentatonic A C D E G A

Miscellaneous Tunings
There is a world of other tunings embraced by various individuals. Perhaps the most common is double drop D (DADGBD). Other tunings, like DADGBE, are favored by Leo Kottke. David Crosby, for instance, often writes is EBDGAD and DADDAD. Of course, there are a myriad of resources in book form or on the web as well. The point is that alternate tunings are only limited by your imagination, the ability to think with a new set of rules, and what sounds good to you.

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