Notes on tunings for guitar and banjo

Tunings for guitar

wg's Taylor guitar I don't really understand the phrase "standard tuning". For one thing, the tuning it usually refers to on guitar is one I *never* use. Honestly, I don't think I play a single song in:
1stE
2ndB
3rdG
4thD
5thA
6thE
I mean, I'm sure someone must play in it. Just like someone (else) must wear all those nylon stockings and high heels.

I wrote that, and then someone pointed me at this article, which details the tunings Nic Jones played in before his accident, and then also includes a little disquisition in which the author opines that tunings are a Bad Thing. In rebuttal, I will say that this is *silly*. You don't like open tunings? Fine, don't play in them. But experimenting with how instruments can be made to sound is what music is all about. These tunings are part of me now, and you will excise them when you pry them (along with my (unused) PGP key) out of my cold, dead fingers. Anyway, there is some useful stuff in that article about other modal tunings that Nic used. I've experimented with a couple of them but don't have much to add here about them, so haven't included them.

I think one reason tunings have always seemed natural to me on guitar is that by the time I was 20 I was learning to play banjo, and there is *no* doubt that you *have* to retune the banjo if you want to play in different keys. The engineering is physically impossible otherwise. There are (plenty of) guitar players who play in any key in standard tuning (though I defy them to make it sound exactly like what I play in open tunings) but I've never heard of a banjo player who took that route. This page has a few notes on banjo tunings.

Note that in these tables, the treble string is at the top. Because it *is* the highest-pitched string, I have a tendency to call it the "top" string. Thing is, if you play a guitar the normal way, it's on the bottom as you look down at the strings as you strum them. So it's not exactly logical.

One key to retuning the guitar frequently while people are waiting: pick one string to use as an anchor so you don't get hopelessly lost. The more strings you're going to retune at a time, the more important this is. If you have to actually retune all six strings, pick one string as your first anchor, tune as many strings as you can to it and get them in tune with each other, then pick a second anchor and retune the first anchor.

In general you want to pick as your anchor a string that will be, in the new tuning, in octaves, fourths, or fifths to as many of the strings as possible. So, for example, if I start in "standard" and want to go to Open G, I pick the D string as my anchor and tune the bass and top strings in octaves to it and then the fifth string in fifths. Finally, I check the tuning of the second string, the only third. The reason for doing it this way is that it's easier to hear octaves, fourths, and fifths accurately. Thirds are harder to tune precisely, so leave them until last, and don't saddle yourself with an anchor string that requires a lot of them. As another example, to go from Open G to Open C, I pick the G string as my anchor, and tune the Cs to it (fifths), and then finally tune the top string (the third). It is actually very quick once you're in the habit of it.

Learning chords

It's easier than you think.

Yes, you do have to learn new chord shapes in these different tunings. But it's a lot like languages. The second language you learn is the hardest. After that, each one you add gets easier because you see the similarities and develop the ability to see and use patterns. While you're at it, learn to play banjo as well. Because: at least some of the standard banjo tunings are the same as the top four strings of guitar tunings described below, so you'll get twice as much use out of those new chords.

Drop D

The first departure I learned to make was drop D -- same as "standard" except that the bottom E is dropped to D. The key of D sounds a whole lot nicer that way. There are certain things you have to work around to play in this tuning, most notably that to form a G chord you hit the fifth fret on the bass string and the third on the top string and you avoid hitting the fifth stringIn my Drop D phase I learned a lot of songs from Ed Trickett. On Roseville Fair One Morning in May is in Drop D, capoed up five.

1stE
2ndB
3rdG
4thD
5thA
6thD
This is of course the easiest tuning to adopt from "standard". Just tune the bottom string down and there you go. One thing that may not be obvious, though: it's a very nice tuning for playing in, of all things, a minor, because you get such a nice, full sound on the either D major or d minor, both useful chords in a minor. I use Drop D for an a version of the version of Mary Hamilton I learned from Sandy and Caroline Paton years ago; that is in a minor.

Open G

This was probably the second tuning I learned, and the first genuine "open" tuning, which means simply that if you strum all the strings leaving them open without fretting any of them, you get a full chord, in this case G.

The tuning goes:
1stD
2ndB
3rdG
4thD
5thG
6thD
In other words, you tune both the top E and bottom E down to D and the fifth string down to G from A. If you're moving to Open G from Drop D, therefore, you only need to retune two strings. Considerations like this do play a part in what order I play songs in. I try not to put myself in the position of having to retune four or five strings in one song break, although I will do it if I think there's a good reason to do so. But in general, unless you're a tuning virtuoso, it's probably not a good idea to decide to retune from, say, Open C to Open D, which requires changes to all six strings, in that one two-minute break while you're introducing the next song. Open G is a little bit limited as a tuning in that most of what you play in it tends to sound all the same after a while, but it's commonly used because it does sound nice, especially if you like progressions of sixths and tenths. On Roseville Fair, A Scarborough Settler's Lament is in Open G, capoed up three or maybe four, and so is Turning Toward the Morning, capoed up two.

Open C

There are actually two different versions of Open C. The one that most people usually mean is:
1stE
2ndC
3rdG
4thC
5thG
6thC
This is a good bit more radical than the others so far. From "standard" you leave the first string, tune the second string *up* a half tone, leave the third string, tune the fourth and five down a whole tone each, and tune the bass string down two whole tones. It's tunings like this that led me to adopt the extra-heavy bass string.

Like Open G, this tuning's a little bit limited, in that you're stuck with that top third all the time. But it still sounds nice for Roseville Fair, capoed up one.

The other version of Open C, which I actually don't see used much although I used to sing Bill Staines's Sampler Song, whose tune is somewhat similar to Roseville Fair, in it (I've since realized this song goes a lot easier on the autoharp):

1stC
2ndG
3rdE
4thC
5thG
6thC
This is even more radical than the first version of Open C, in that you wind up tuning the first three strings down two whole tones, the 4th and fifth down a whole tone each, and the bass string down two whole tones again.

But of course it all depends where you start from. If you're in Open G, moving to Open C is retuning 4 strings no more than a whole tone each (although the second Open C is still more work).

Open D

Open D is the same as that second Open C tuning, only a whole tone higher, and is much more commonly used than that one. I don't have anything recorded. But if you catch me live and want to hear it, ask for Norland Wind, Waiting for Dawn (Bob Zentz), or, if I can remember that far back, John o' Dreams (Bill Caddick).

1stD
2ndA
3rdF#
4thD
5thA
6thD
From standard, four strings are different. Top two down a whole tone, third down a half-tone, fourth and fifth stay the same, bottom string down a whole tone. But again, depends where you start. Don't try retuning from either Open C to Open D on stage (unless you're very practiced at this kind of thing).

Open g minor

I have no idea why I suddenly started playing in this tuning, but I do know when it was: it was 1981, and I was learning Jean Ritchie's One I Love, and it just suddenly struck me that why couldn't you have an open tuning in g minor if you could have one in G major? Again, nothing recorded, but One I Love still sounds very nice in it, and it seems to lend itself to all those odd types of chords (augmented, diminished) that make music sound very moody. Mary McCaslin uses this tuning a fair bit, so you can probably find some recorded examples among her work. (But no, I didn't learn this tuning or any of the others from her.)

1stD
2ndG
3rdD
4thG
5thBb
6thD
Move into it from Open G, and you'll only have to retune one string -- the B string -- a half-step.

DAGDAD

I also know exactly when I learned this tuning: Archie Fisher, 1975. British performers say it backwards -- DADGAD -- but that's just being perverse. Arguably, a better term for it would be "D modal", in that because there are no thirds in it you can play it as either major or minor. I think this is its appeal for a lot of musicians because thirds get awfully cloying after a while. Seven Gypsies is in DAGDAD, capoed up five or maybe six. It's a little hard to get the flavor of this tuning from this particular cut because of the lead guitar (played by Paul Mills), which was in "standard". But you'll hear DAGDAD on almost any recording made in the last 30 years by a British or Irish guitarist, so it's not hard to find.

1stD
2ndA
3rdG
4thD
5thA
6thD
DAGDAD is reasonably easy to move into or out of from a variety of other tunings: Open D, Open G, Drop D, so I guess you can add that to its assets.

Dulcimer-like tunings

When I was first on the road, I traveled with a lot of instruments: guitar, banjo, autoharp, dulcimer, concertina, even bamboo flutes. At some point, it got to be too much hassle, and I cut the whole mess down to guitar, banjo, and concertina. (This was actually a mistake; I should have made it guitar, banjo, and autoharp in the UK. Had I but known.) But the thing is, I actually *like* the mountain dulcimer a lot, and I missed the spare sound and the drones. So I began experimenting with guitar tunings that would capture some of that sound while still relieving me of the need to carry a dulcimer. (Although I still have the very nice one that Tam Kearney made for me in Toronto in the 1970s.)

There are several of these dulcimer-alike tunings.

In C:
1stC1stC
2ndC2ndG
3rdG3rdG
4thC4thC
5thG5thG
6thC6thC

In G:
1stD
2ndG
3rdD
4thG
5thG
6thD

The double strings are what remind me of dulcimer. Again, I don't have anything recorded in any of these, but I do "Leela" (learned from Jody Stecher) in G Dulcimer, and Dave Carter's "When I Go", Pete Coe's "Joseph Baker", and Bob Zentz's "This Old World" in the first of the C Dulcimer tunings. Bill Steele's "Spread Out Your Feathers and Fly" goes well in the second C Dulcimer tuning. These tunings tend to encourage you to use thirds sparingly, so the sound you wind up with is, like dulcimer, modal with lots of octaves and fifths. When you do play a third, it sounds a lot richer because there are so few of them.

My guitar

My current (and probably last) guitar is a Taylor I bought used from the Ithaca Guitar Works in 1984. It's a 615 jumbo with curly maple back and sides, and it has a clean, bright, bell-like sound. At the time, Taylor was pretty much unknown; how things have changed. To accommodate my tuning habits, I do two things. First, I use medium gauge phosphor bronze (usually D'Addario, acquired in bulk from Thin Man with a custom .059 heavy gauge bottom string. It's rare (possibly unheard of) that I'd tune a string up, so adding to the stress on the instrument isn't an issue, and using the heavier strings, particularly on the bottom, ensures that they don't buzz, even if I tune the bottom one down to Bb. Since I have a tendency to wallop instruments, this is a good thing. I also change strings a lot because the retuning does stress the metal -- every other night if I'm doing full concert gigs, at least once a month if I'm just playing at home. Elixir strings, which are often recommended as lasting longer for people whose hands sweat a lot, are *not* longer-lived if the stress you place on your strings is retuning. This is a shame, as the Teflon coating really does eliminate a lot of squeaks. The one string I've ever had persistent trouble with breaking is the G string, which gets the brunt of the retuning; it's the one that's changed most often. Accordingly I buy three extras G strings per dozen custom sets, and that seems to work out pretty well. I find it a good idea to keep my right hand out of the line of fire while turning the peg with my left, though.

If you have never thought about how you put on your guitar strings, it's worth taking a look at the FAQs and information on the Taylor site. In contrast to their advice (and based on advice from John Ellis, former owner of Ithaca's Guitar Workshop (now Ithaca Guitar Works), I remove all six strings at once so that I can oil the fingerboard and clean between the bridge and the soundhole (I also find it quicker and more efficient to do it this way rather than one at a time). I use a pegwinder to put the new strings on and tighten them most of the way so I can ensure there are plenty of turns on each peg. Then I tune each string in turn up to pitch (starting with the A string, because that's the only pitch pipe I have or use), pulling on each string to stretch it and then tuning it up again several times. I find this runs the strings in well enough that if I then go out and play a set the strings hold tune. The bass E and treble E need the most stretching. The other benefit to this procedure is that if you do by any chance have a defective string you find out right away, rather than on stage in the middle of a song.

Update 2010: The massive hassles of air travel convinced me to finally get a second guitar to keep in the US. The curious twist is that when I bought the Taylor I was looking for, I thought, a very good Guild jumbo; I bought the Taylor on the basis that it sounded like one. This time, I went to the Guitar Works in Ithaca and asked for a Taylor like the one I have. They didn't have one - but they did have a very good old Guild jumbo. The two guitars have never met, of course, since one lives in London and the other in Harrisburg, but if you put their photos together the Guild looks like the Taylor's long-lost, slightly road-wearier, older brother. I use the same custom string sets on both.


Wendy Grossman
London
February 13, 2004

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