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About Tunings and Tuning Environments

by Harvey Reid

I have been studying the musical possibilities of partial capos for over 40 years, and have reached a vantage point where I feel compelled to try to share some observations. I recently published my life's research in THE BIG BOOK OF PARTIAL CAPOS, where in 600+ densely-packed pages I try to show the musical value of over 170 different partial capo environments, in almost 50 different tunings. All these ways to manipulate the guitar fingerboard's set of possibilities are not at all equivalent, and I would like to try to save others some effort in finding the good music amid the myriad possibilities.

Primarily I am speaking to solo guitarists, both troubadours & singer-songwriters, and especially fingerstyle players, for whom the goal is to create a complete piece of music, with melody, harmony, rhythm, bass notes & chords all working together. One more open string ringing, or a haunting resonance to the guitar can be a big deal when you are playing solo, but can quickly vanish in the context of a band or multi-track recordings, where the subtleties of the guitar voicings can easily get buried. I have always felt that tunings and partial capos had significantly more value to the solo player, and also to a musician who was not just playing melody lines or strumming rhythm chords. The open string resonances and the ways they weave themselves into the scales and chords in various keys and modes is the essence of a great deal of solo guitar playing, and the largest advantage of using either tunings or partial capos.

The style of guitar that has spawned the most academic study and chord books in my lifetime is jazz, and it is deeply engrained in the guitar marketplace, though until recently it has focused almost entirely on closed-position scales and chords played in standard tuning. (It's odd and interesting that one of the founders and visionaries of jazz guitar was a man named Carl Kress who developed a new tuning over 100 years ago because he felt it was better for playing jazz guitar music. His tuning never caught on, and there is even wrong information on the web about what his tuning was. It was Bb, F, C,G,B,D) The jazz guitar style, in which Mel Bay and others teach players to play chords and solo in all keys in standard tuning, is of course laudable, but it largely ignores the quirky and fascinating ways that open strings can be integrated into the music. What have come to be called "fingerstyle jazz" players (who owe a great deal to players like Lenny Breau and even Chet Atkins) have begun to embrace and explore the deeper possibilities of not only open strings, but also of playing deeply and using extended chords and more complex harmonic structure in non-standard tunings. Unless you have looked deeply into a number of tunings, you can't really wrap your mind around the mathematics and strategic choices that present themselves when you try to play guitar music in an unfamiliar tuning environment.

An over-riding thing I have learned is that the guitar fingerboard, with its 6 strings, accessed using our various fingers, factored across the secondary landscape of possibilities that tunings and partial capos offer, presents a much deeper and more varied set of musical choices than any of us ever realized. Here is a simple example: if you really push it, and use awkward fingerings, there are about 23 different voicings of an A  major chord in standard tuning on a 12-fret neck. In my research I have built a database of almost 20,000 chords in about 200 tuning environments, and thus far, without trying to be exhaustive, I have identified 136 usable A major chords, without including impossible fingerings or unmusical voicings. It's reasonable to estimate that there are also roughly 6 times as many voicings of every kind of chord, and my research, though significant, still does not represent a complete map of all the possibilities. This means that the guitar fingerboard is capable of generating a much bigger set of musical possibilities than any of us can wrap our minds around. A team of people with a big computer might be able to map out all the possibilities, if they could find a system that factored in the ways that our fingers can reach some left-hand shapes and not others, and the fact that some voicings of chords don't sound very good. There is much more going on that just permutations of the notes in the chords, and an A chord with a C# note sounding on 4 of the 6 strings isn't a very good A chord, though technically it is one.

Guitar tunings and partial capo configurations are like languages, where you can try to express your thoughts through the vehicle of the tuning or language. The analogy is especially applicable in that if you only know one language, you cannot even understand what the whole idea of a language is, and how it can be possible to say things in one language that cannot even be said in another. The vast majority of guitar players only use standard (E A D G B E) tuning, and the percentage of those who have a deep understanding of the fingerboard geometry is very small. In many ways the guitar fingerboard is more like a hieroglyphic alphabet, or perhaps it could be likened to Asian languages, which do not function like an alphabet, where words are built from a small group of letters. Rather than truly thinking on the guitar, most players memorize scales, shapes, chords and patterns, usually within the boundaries of a particular style. Jazz players have a working library of jazz tools, and bluegrass pickers tend to call on their bluegrass tools. The irregular and quirky nature of standard guitar tuning is much more of an impediment to fluid musical thinking on guitar than is the piano keyboard, or the violin or bass, that are tuned in regular intervals.

For so many years we all have been using tunings as the only way to change the landscape of possibilities, which is leading us astray in 2 important ways. Most of us are missing the new set of opportunities that partial capos offer, and those of us who are trying to take it to another level are trying to use partial capos in common altered tunings (like DADGAD) but not realizing that by just retuning a string or two and using a partial capo there are "super-charged" new environments that present themselves.

Each time you try to play in a new tuning, you are faced with a new musical vantage point. What kind of geometry of scales, chords and resonances does the tuning offer? What kinds of music sounds good in this tuning? The vast majority of players who use new tunings merely create certain pieces of music they can only play in that tuning, and a player who uses dozens of tunings may have a handful of performable pieces of music in each tuning, that are painstakingly created. A small group of players, such as Pierre Bensusan, Keith Richards, Robert Fripp, Stanley Jordan, Albert King, El McMeen, Carl Kress and others have devoted large parts of their careers to a particular "non-standard" tuning.

To some degree, different tunings are fundamentally equivalent, and it's just a matter of getting used to them, and learning their strengths and weaknesses. With a lifetime of effort, it seems to be possible to push the boundaries, and skilled players have shown that it is possible to do much more in a tuning that we might think at first. Obviously, if you tune the guitar to a D chord, it will allow you to play in the key of D easily, at the expense of playing in other keys. Most common tunings use this thinking, and they are primarily used to "trade away" some of the versatility of standard tuning in exchange for a richer sound in a particular key.

Players who only use one tuning learn to play a wider and wider variety of music in their chosen tuning, and a good tuning can keep a good guitarist busy for decades. If you listen to a classical guitarist (like Segovia) playing in standard tuning, and compare that to something by Oleg Timofeyev, who plays in the 18th century Russian 7-string Open G tuning (DGBDGBD), they don't sound all that different. Banjo players all tend to play in banjo G tuning (GDGBD), and really good ones can sometimes play comfortably in many keys, though they tend to use capos to play in keys like Ab or Eb. Pierre Bensusan is building his whole career around finding as many things as possible to do in DADGAD tuning.

After a lifetime of studying the fingerboard quite deeply, and of playing complex solo guitar music, I have found, among the hundreds of tunings and partial capo-ings, a few "special" environments that stand out above the rest. (I should add right up front here that most of the really exciting things I have found involve combinations of those two ideas, where a partial capo is used in a non-standard tuning.) It's difficult to express what happens when you focus on a new tuning, and you try to see what bass notes, chords & scales become available or not available. I really don't think that software could ever grasp the subtlety of this– the fact that we just have four fingers, and we can only reach certain things, and our hands can only reach across the fingerboard in certain ways. And even fuzzier, harder to describe in words, yet of paramount importance is the set of possibilities that connect the ideas to each other. Some tunings allow you to smoothly transition through the fingerings as you play piece of music, and others feel disjointed and frustrating. You have to be a really good player and spend quite a bit of concentrated time in each tuning to get a feel for how "friendly" it is. It is very time-consuming, and we all shouldn't have to do this independently. I guess I am urging those brave souls of you who might be reading this to pay attention to my suggestions when I say a tuning environment is good one.

By adding partial capos to the mix, I have discovered almost another dimension to the guitar fingerboard. Tthose players who have only used common tunings or partial capo configurations have missed the hidden new set of possibilities that come from working simultaneously with these two ideas. In my Top 10 list of personal favorite tuning environments, only one of them (Esus: 022200) uses a single partial capo in standard tuning. The others either require retuning strings, using more than one capo, or both. Many of the most powerful ones only involve a common partial capo and retuning a string or two, but are not that cumbersome. No doubt there are others that I have failed to find that will emerge once guitarists get used to this kind of thinking and explore this "hidden continent" more thoroughly.

I have also found many environments where I began to play happily, and was excitedly arranging songs, only to find that I could not find a reasonable way to play something basic like a flat 7 or a 2 minor chord. The real test of any tuning is to play every song you know, and see what happens. I have done this more than most people, and some of these tuning environments are much better and more interesting than others. I tend to try to play nursery rhymes, simple folk melodies like Woody Guthrie songs first, and if they work well, I'll try a Beatles song or try to play a fiddle tune like St. Anne's Reel, or a 12-bar blues.

A group of factors all combine to form the set of musical possibilities and parameters that determine what we play on our guitars. The tuning itself presents a map where the notes lie on the fingerboard. That's the simplest factor, and what some might think is the only thing that matters. The ways that the open strings weave themselves into the music is a second crucial factor. If you study the famous guitar compositions by Leo Kottke, Chet Atkins, Fernando Sor or Villa Lobos, for example, they all take maximum advantage of open strings. This is well-known to skilled guitarists. The ways that a tuning environment puts lingering resonances into the music is a mysterious factor, and it combines with the set of limitations that are determined by how our fingers can or cannot reach across the fingerboard, form scales and chords, and make barre chords or partial barre chords. The factors that affect the ways we can transition to new positions in the course of playing a song are also a part of this subtle landscape that we traverse when we play guitar. You feel it more than you understand it, and I have come to notice that some tuning environments make me work harder than others. Sometimes the notes just "fall" underneath where your fingers already are, sometimes you have to reach for them with some difficulty, and sometimes they are out of reach and impossible to execute transitions smoothly.

It also takes a long time to calculate the ways that new tunings allow you to voice many chords in new ways, and all of us who have studied guitar deeply know that feeling when we finally find a workable way to get a piece of music to play "properly," after struggling with fingerings or voicings. No doubt some of this is personal taste, and some of us can use certain stretches and shapes that others don't care for. It's more than that, and I think that the tuning environment itself is responsible for a big part of the strategic map of possibilities.

The complexity of how 4 fingers can manipulate 6 strings is mathematically vast in and of itself. The more I study the guitar, the more I am drawn to a handful of tuning environments that seem to have a magical quality to them, where things fall into place under your fingers, sound good to your ears, and are also reasonable to do with a normally-strung guitar. It reminds me of what we used to call in mathematics an "elegant solution" to a problem, and as you might expect, certain configurations of strings and notes cause music to fall under our fingers in either easy, hard, elegant or clumsy ways. No doubt there is another group of tunings that offer great music advantages, but that cannot be done with standard string gauges. If you search the internet, you will find a number of these that are touted by certain players, such as Robert Fripp's favorite: C-G-D-A-E-G.

I am now 60 years old (in 2014) and raising two young children in a world that now does not seem to want to pay for music, and will not be able to explore this much further. However, I feel a strong urge to share the idea that if you are interested in helping to push the boundaries of the guitar and find new music, you might want to pay attention to this small group of new tuning environments that seem to be exceptional. Standard tuning is certainly one of them, but it is not the only one, and if you confine yourself to playing guitar in only one tuning environment, and ignore the new possibilities offered by tunings and capos, you are missing some amazing music. I plan to find time in the next couple years to create, record and film as much of this new guitar music as I can, to illustrate what I am merely talking about here. I may even publish a book of my "Top 20" favorite partial capo environments. (May 2014)