Notes on tunings for guitar and banjo
Tunings for 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:
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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 GThis 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:
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.
There are actually two different versions of Open C. The one that most people usually mean is:
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):
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
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 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).
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.)
Move into it from Open G, and you'll only have to retune one string -- the B string -- a half-step.
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.
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
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
There are several of these dulcimer-alike tunings.
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 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.
February 13, 2004
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