Guitar tuning onepager: a flexible, combinational approach

 


Quick summary of my Ultimate Tuning Guide article for Guitar World (Jan 2020), running through how to combine the best of four key methods – fret-matching, melodic phrases, chordal checks, and natural harmonics – while also warming up the ears, hands, and mind. Aimed to save time and effort! Feedback: george@ragajunglism.org


 

Part of RJ’s ‘World of Tuning

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What’s so special about tuning? Why all the fuss?

 

Tuning lies at the heart of broader guitaristic mastery. But how many of us really feel we do it as well as we should? We all fall into lazy habits, allowing the compulsion to jam right now to override our better judgement. Even Hendrix struggled with it sometimes.

 

Yes, electronic tuners are great, but developing the ear is the only way to really balance our guitar’s quirks with the demands of the music. This quick, ‘combinational’ approach is essentially my ‘highlight reel’ of the most useful bits from existing techniques. It’s an approach to tuning rather than a prescriptive method. Let me know what you think!

 

There’s nothing wrong with using an EADGBE sample as a ‘first run’ before fine-tuning with the methods below. The quality of these online can vary wildly – so here’s a pitch-precise one made from Guitar Pro’s sample library (60+ more on my Menu of Altered Tunings):

 

 

Pic RJ narrow

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Step 1: Overview

First, get a rough idea of where things are. Slowly go through the open strings in sequence, and then the 12fr natural harmonics, taking a deep breath and focusing in on the sound textures. What sounds off-colour? Where is the dissonance? What physical quirks might the guitar have?

 

IM Overview

 

Quickly move your ear ‘through the spectrum’, sweeping your focus from the lowest bass right through to the highest overtones. Also, think about what you actually need to tune to. Does the guitar need to fit with other instruments, or just be ‘in with itself’?

 

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Step 2: String Matching

Get your 5str A as ‘in’ as you need to (i.e. concert pitch or not), and tune the open strings to notes along it. Then, tune a selection of fretted As on the other strings back to the open 5str. Always use the ‘under-tug-up’ method – i.e. tune lower than the target, tug the string around slowly but firmly to remove slack, then raise the pitch.

 

IM Fretmatching Astr

 

+ Minimises error compounding (they don’t carry over between strings)

+ Quick to run through, and gives strong, clear volumes

+ Gives you an concise overview of the guitar’s intonation quirks

 

– Misleading if reference string is corroded, damaged, set too high, etc

 

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Step 3: Quick Checks

Next, we sample from three other methods to shore things up – melodic fret-matches, natural harmonics, and chordal checks. Find your own balance of them, and test out key passages from the music too. Stay flexible and let you ears ‘zoom in’:

 


—Check method: melodic phrases

 

IM Melodic Phrases

 

+ More interlinked than the ‘classic’ fret-matching approach

+ Avoids the familiar ‘tuning cliche’ with quasi-melodic movements

+ Opens up your general awareness of when open strings can be used

 

– Somewhat harder to play than the classic fretmatch method

– Phrases may never settle with each other on badly-intoned guitars

 


—Check method: natural harmonics

 

IM Harmonics Good

 

+ Even, N.H. resonances bring out overtone detail clearly

+ We avoid the 7fr harmonic, which is actually slightly sharp

+ ‘Sweeps’ at the end are great when you know the right sound

 

– Quieter, more complex: takes your ear a while to ‘zoom in’

– Can fail to highlight nuanced intonation issues

 


—Check method: chord shapes

 

IM ChordsNEWdone

 

+ Places the frequencies in a more musical context

+ Can add in key chords from your upcoming pieces

+ Usual major shapes aren’t ideal due to temperament issues

+ Increases your familiarity with high neck positions

+ Some of the shapes function as hand stretches too (e.g. 07×950)

 

– Complex for the ears, which can mislead in many ways

– Can get very chaotic on guitars with shaky intonation

 

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Step 4: Musical Focus

Notice how each method can produce subtly different results? This is inevitable – as explained in the full article, no instrument can ever be tuned perfectly. Anyway, things can often sound better with a little microtonal ‘spice’. So now, we check our tuning against the music at hand (absolutely vital on guitars with shaky intonation), and focus.

 

—Slowly strum the 12fr harmonics, and take another deep breath. Relax, acknowledge any nerves, and then calmly orient your full attention towards the music. Call to mind your first piece, and the sentiments you want to get across with it.

 

—Try out some of its chords and phrases. Are undesired frequencies dampening the emotional effects? Focus on the music’s physical locations, and keep adjusting until you’re happy – everyone will ultimately be grateful for it.

 

—Pause for a moment once you’re satisfied, and rake the 12fr harmonics again. Take both your hands away from the strings, and empty your mind as best you can for a few seconds. Try out different meditative methods – slow breathing, silently counting a rhythm, visualising, etc…

 

Now, you should be ready to play. And next time around, focus on the most effective phrases, cooking up your own flexible ‘tuning recipe’.

 

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Full explanation and detail here (the ‘how’ and ‘why’). I hope these ideas will intensify your sound – gaining finer control over this area is one of the few ways to instantly sound better. Many thanks to Guitar World for such an open-minded commission. Try it on for size, let me know how it can be improved, etc.

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Raga Junglism’s ‘World of Tuning’

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rjgong4SHORT

George Howlett is a South London-based musician and writer. I play guitar, tabla drums, and santoor (Himalayan dulcimer), and write about topics loosely related to jazz, rhythm, and global improvised music. Currently I’m a musicologist for Darbar, write ‘Beyond the Repertoire‘ lessons for Guitar World, and release music as Rāga Junglism. See the site for more – or email george@ragajunglism.org

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raga – ‘that which colours the mind’

Raga Junglism’s ‘World of Tuning’

 


‘World of Tuning’ homepage: Lessons, resources, and ideas stemming from my tuning work for Guitar World in early 2020. A fascinating, underappreciated field, which offers up unique insights into the nature of music and sound. Everything will stay ad-free and open-access – questions and feedback welcome! george@ragajunglism.org


 

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Everything you didn’t realise you wanted to know about guitar tuning…fresh perspectives from ancient Chinese manuscripts to modern psychoacoustics via jazz, Hendrix, and Hawaiian slack-key.

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Audio ‘menu’ of 60+ altered guitar tunings – ‘palate expander’ of various 6-string tunings from around the world, with sound samples, listening links, technical discussion, harmonic interrelations, etc

 

Tuning onepager: a flexible, combinational approach – my ‘improved tuning method’ commission for GW, aimed at saving time and effort while also warming up your hands, ears, and mind (the ‘what’)

 

Guitar World’s ‘Ultimate Tuning Guide’ – more detail on the process, explaining how to combine four key methods: fretmatching, melodic phrases, chordal checks, and natural harmonics (the ‘how’)

 

The ‘impatient meditation’: guitar tuning in fine detail – in-depth exploration, approaching from many different angles: theoretical, physical, historical, psychological, spiritual, etc (the ‘why’)

 

Indian tanpura samples in all 12 keys – bathe your ears in the clashing, cascading colours of the overtone series with some HQ Indian drones, great for adding texture to your improvisations (free to download)

 

Musical puzzle: James Taylor’s ‘stretched’ tuning – is it possible to reach his microtonally-tweaked setup with no electronic technology, using a modified ‘harmonic beating’ method? (for frequency nerds)

 

Open canvas: Joni Mitchell’s visual imagination – how does Joni’s intriguing, ‘colour palette’ approach to composing in altered tunings draw from her lifelong passion for painting? (GW – forthcoming)

 

[—Soon: more global tuning ideas, including microtonal concepts from Arabic maqam and Javanese gamelan. Currently writing Darbar’s Index of Hindustani Raga, so plenty on Indian classical tunings too]

 

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Dedicated to my two tuning gurus – jazz master Guy Harrup from Bath, and Pandit Shivnath Mishra of the Benares sitar lineage. Questions & criticism encouraged – I’ll try and keep this project ‘in tune’, updating it continuously as more viewpoints come in. All contributions credited, all content to stay free. Tell me what I’ve missed, what else to add, etc!

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rjgong4SHORT

George Howlett is a South London-based musician and writer. I play guitar, tabla drums, and santoor (Himalayan dulcimer), and write about topics loosely related to jazz, rhythm, and global improvised music. Currently I’m a musicologist for Darbar, write ‘Beyond the Repertoire‘ lessons for Guitar World, and release music as Rāga Junglism. See the site for more – or email george@ragajunglism.org

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Few except Nigel Tufnel give tuning its due respect


 

Tanpura Samples: HQ Indian drones in all keys

 


Some high-quality practice tanpuras in all 12 keys, each pitch-corrected and cut to 25 mins – fantastic for improvisation, meditation, calming focus, etc. Free to use, and I’ll add more over time: george@ragajunglism.org


 

Part of RJ’s ‘World of Tuning

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BlackLineNARROWERSa-Pa Tanpuras

C:

 

Db:

 

D:

 

Eb:

 

E:

 

F:

 

Gb:

 

G:

 

Ab:

 

A:

 

Bb:

 

B:

 

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Superdeep:

 

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More on the tanpura itself: India’s droning lutes provide texture rather than melody or rhythm. Their intricate cascades of frequency interaction are an ever-present sonic bedrock for the other musicians, compared by some to a prism refracting white light into different colours. Its tones bring out the ‘harmonic series’ – the mathematically ‘fundamental’ notes of the universe. Let your ear zoom in…

 

Read more about the tanpura on the Darbar website (I’m currently their part-time writer and musicologist – see Living Traditions: 21 articles for 21st-century Indian classical).

 

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rjgong4SHORT

George Howlett is a South London-based musician and writer. I play guitar, tabla drums, and santoor (Himalayan dulcimer), and write about topics loosely related to jazz, rhythm, and global improvised music. Currently I’m a musicologist for Darbar, write ‘Beyond the Repertoire‘ lessons for Guitar World, and release music as Rāga Junglism. See the site for more – or email george@ragajunglism.org

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Altered guitar tunings: audio ‘menu’ of 60+

 


‘Menu’ of 60+ altered tunings for 6-string, stemming from my tuning work for Guitar World. Listed by common enharmonic spellings, with name variants and listening links. Clips prepared from pristine Guitar Pro samples, compressed for a steadier resonance. Feedback welcome! george@ragajunglism.org


Standard | Drop | Open | Interval | Misc.

MicrotonalBy Artist | Resources

 

Part of RJ’s ‘World of Tuning

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BlackLineNARROWERSTANDARD TUNINGS


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Guitarists have turned to countless tunings over time. None are the ‘best’, but ‘standard’ remains deservingly popular for its balance of geometric clarity and harmonic versatility. Naturally, all transpositions below take the ‘tuning pattern’ of 5>5>5>4>5 from string to string, giving (with open 6str as the root) the intervals 1-4-b7-b3-5-1:

 


E-A-D-G-B-E (standard)

0|0|0|0|0|0

    • ‘EADGBE standard’ has roots in Renaissance Europe – the Italian guitarra battente (‘beating guitar’) was tuned to ADGBE in the 16th-century, with the low E possibly being added by Spanish luthiers a few generations later. (n.b. See GW’s Ultimate Tuning Guide for my thoughts on how to efficiently reach standard while also warming up your ears, hands, and mind.)

Eb-Ab-Db-Gb-Bb-Eb (down a semitone, ‘Eb standard’)

-1|-1|-1|-1|-1|-1


D-G-C-F-A-D (down a tone, ‘D standard’)

-2|-2|-2|-2|-2|-2


Db-Gb-B-E-Ab-Db (down a min 3rd, ‘C#/Db standard’)

-3|-3|-3|-3|-3|-3


C-F-Bb-Eb-G-C (down two tones, ‘C standard’)

-4|-4|-4|-4|-4|-4


B-E-A-D-F#-B (down a perfect 4th, ‘Baritone’)

-5|-5|-5|-5|-5|-5


(Ẹ-Ạ-Ḍ-G̣-Ḅ-Ẹ – down a full octave…is effectively a 6-string bass)


BlackLineNARROWERDROP TUNINGS


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A few ‘drop’ tunings, centred around lowering the 6th string. Quick, versatile, and great for modal music – try tuning your 6th to the song’s root. (n.b. c=capo, and +/- indicate transpositions of the same interval ‘pattern’):


 

D-A-D-G-B-E (drop D)

-2|0|0|0|0|0 (7>5>5>4>5)


D-A-D-G-B-D (‘DDD/Double Drop D’, ‘D modal’)

-2|0|0|0|0|-2 (7>5>5>4>3)


C-A-D-G-B-E (drop C)

-4|0|0|0|0|0 (9>5>5>4>5)


C-G-C-F-A-D (‘full drop C’)

-4|-2|-2|-2|-2|-2 (7>5>5>4>5)


A-A-D-G-B-E (drop A, the ‘slack thwack’)

-7|0|0|0|0|0 (12>5>5>4>5)

BlackLineNARROWEROPEN/SLIDE TUNINGS


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Important open/slide/blues tunings – the ‘core’ maj, min, and sus4 shapes for open D, G, and C, along with common transpositions of these patterns (open E, A, F), and an ‘all 12 keys’ guide:

 


‘Core’ open shapes: D, G, C


D-A-D-F#-A-D (open D maj, ‘Vestapol’)

-2|0|0|-1|-2|-2 (7>5>4>3>5)


D-A-D-F-A-D (open D min, ‘D cross-note’)

-2|0|0|-2|-2|-2 (7>5>3>4>5)


D-A-D-G-A-D (open D sus, ‘Celtic’)

-2|0|0|0|-2|-2 (7>5>5>2>5)


D-G-D-G-B-D (open G maj, ‘Taro Patch’, ‘Spanish’)

-2|-2|0|0|0|-2 (5>7>5>4>3)


D-G-D-G-Bb-D (open G min, ‘G cross-note’)

-2|-2|0|0|-1|-2 (5>7>5>3>4)


D-G-D-G-C-D (open G sus, ‘Sawmill’)

-2|-2|0|0|+1|-2 (5>7>5>5>2)

    • [resembles Asus4 chord shape] Nicknamed for the ‘sawmill’ tuning of old-time banjo (GDGCD), although it has many possible origins. Now used by Martin Simpson occasionally, e.g. on Betsy the Serving Maid

C-G-C-G-C-E (open C maj)

-4|-2|-2|0|+1|0 (7>5>3>5>4)


C-G-C-G-C-Eb (open C min, ‘C cross-note’)

-4|-2|-2|0|+1|-1 (7>5>3>5>3)

  • Mystifyingly rare, although used superbly on Carlo Domeniconi’s famous Turkish-inspired classical guitar composition Koyunbaba (+2)

C-G-C-G-C-F (open C sus)

-4|-2|-2|0|+1|+1 (7>5>3>5>5)

Pic RJ narrow


TRANSPOSITIONS: E/A/F, all 12 keys


E-B-E-G#-B-E (open E maj)

0|+2|+2|+1|0|0 [open D+2]


E-B-E-G-B-E (open E min, ‘E cross-note’)

0|+2|+2|0|0|0 [open Dm+2]


E-A-E-A-C#-E (open A maj)

0|0|+2|+2|+2|0 [open G+2]


C-F-C-F-A-C (open F maj)

-4|-4|-2|-2|-2|-4 [open G-2]


C-F-C-F-Ab-C (open F min)

-4|-4|-2|-2|-3|-4 [open Gm-2]


Open shapes for all 12 keys: The three ‘core’ patterns – D, G, C – can be transposed to cover all keys (although a capo will often serve you better). Electrics tend to be able to go higher than acoustics – e.g. open E usually works fine on a light-strung electric, but is too tight on most acoustics:

  • Open A: G+2
  • Open A#/Bb: C-2
  • Open B: C-1
  • Open C: ‘Core’ pattern
  • Open C#/Db: C+1 or D-1
  • Open D: ‘Core’ pattern
  • Open D#/Eb: D+1
  • Open E: D+2 / G-3
  • Open F: G-2
  • Open F#/Gb: G-1
  • Open G: ‘Core’ pattern
  • Open G#/Ab: G+1

If you want some texture behind your explorations, try matching them to some overtone-rich drones from India – HQ samples on my tanpuras page, covering Sa-Pa (perfect 5th) in all keys.

BlackLineNARROWERMISCELLANEOUS TUNINGS


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Selection of other useful and/or interesting ones I’ve come across – beautiful, odd, illustrative, bizarre, speculative, pun-based, etc:


G-G-D-G-B-D (‘Overtones’, ‘Banjo’)

+3|-2|0|0|0|-2 (0>7>5>4>3)

    • Open Gmaj with 6str tuned to G (upwards or downwards) – which resembles the first six tones of the harmonic series: 1-1-5-1-3-5 (and also the common GDGCD banjo tuning). Variants used by Bad Company’s Mick Ralphs (Hey Hey), Joni Mitchell (For the Roses, Electricity, This Flight Tonight +1), and most Eagles of Death Metal songs (e.g. So Easy, c1). Similar to Keith Richards’ 5-string setup.

G-B-D-G-B-D (‘Dobro’, ‘Hawaiian slack’)

+3|+2|0|0|0|-2 (4>3>5>4>3)

    • Dobro resonators, banjos, and 7-string Russian guitars often take ‘repeated open G’ tunings, that ‘loop’ GBD in sequence to cover the strings. Used widely on 6-string in Hawaiian kī hōʻalu (‘slack-key’) music, by guitarists such as Ledward Kaapana.

C-G-D-G-B-E (‘Wahine’, ‘Three Bouzoukis’)

-4|-2|0|0|0|0 (7>7>5>4>5)

    • Used in Hawaiian slack-key as ‘Wahine‘ (or ‘Keola’s C‘, after Keola Beamer). Elsewhere used by Pavement (Zurich is Stained), Fleetwood Mac (Never Going Back Again, c6), John Butler (Spring to Come), and Soundgarden (Mailman, Limo Wreck). Dr. Costas Kyritsis points out that it simultaneously covers two Greek Bouzouki tunings (G-D-G and D-G-B-E) and one from the Irish bass Bouzouki (C-G-D-G), as well as a common low configuration for the Bağlama (C-G-D).

C-G-C-G-A-E (‘Mauna Loa’, ‘C6’)

-4|-2|-2|0|-2|0 (7>5>7>2>7)

    • A ‘balanced’ Cmaj6 voicing, known in Hawaiian slack-key guitar as ‘Mauna Loa’ – the world’s largest volcano, which has now been erupting continuously for over 700,000 years. Popularised by great master Gabby Pahinui (Mauna Loa), and also used by others around the world, e.g. Fahey (Stoll). (n.b. ‘Old Mauna Loa’ tuning is C-G-C-G-A-D.)

C-G-D-G-C-D (‘Orkney’)

-2|-2|0|0|+1|-2 (5>7>5>5>2)


C-G-E-G-C-E (‘Atta’s C’)

-4|-2|+2|0|+1|0 (7>9>3>5>4)

    • Associated with Hawaiian master Leland ‘Atta’ Isaacs (1929–1983), who used it to access jazzier voicings than were often associated with the slack-key style of the era. Also used by his contemporaries including Cyril Pahinui (He’eia), but otherwise seems to be bewilderingly rare.

Ė-Ȧ-Ḋ-Ġ-B-E (‘Nashville’, ’12-string-in-6′)

+12|+12|+12|+12|0|0 (5>5>5>4>5)


E-A-Ḋ-G-B-E (‘Mi-composé’)

0|0|+12|0|0|0 (5>15>5>4>5)

    • Same intervals, but D3 is an octave high (strung with a top E). Possibly invented in the 1950s by flamboyant Congolese guitarist Zacharie Elenga, also known as ‘Jhimmy the Hawaiian’ – after his (not-actually-Hawaiian) thumb-and-forefinger style, and country star Jimmy Rogers (listen: Andila and Na Kombo Ya Jhimmy Putulo, meaning ‘sweep Jimmy’s dust’). He disappeared into obscurity around 1952, but variants of his tuning can still be found in soukous and other African popular styles.

E-B-E-F#-B-E (‘Esus2’)

0|+2|+2|-1|0|0 (7>5>2>5>5)

    • Seemingly quite rare, but its characteristic maj 2nd interval offers unique possibilities. Used superbly on a few tracks, e.g. Something’s Missing (John Mayer), Causeway (Alex De Grassi), Only Shallow (MBV)

G-B-D-F-G-A (‘Overtones 4-9’)

+2|+1|-1|-3|-5|-8 (4>3>3>2>2)

    • My ‘squeezed’ arrangement of tones 4 to 9 of the harmonic series – if ‘squashed’ to equal temperament, they spell out a 9th arpeggio as an ordered stack of thirds: 1-3-5-b7-9. Theorist William Sethares’ variant adds a register-jump in the middle as C-E-G-Bb-C-D.

D-A-D-A-A-D (‘Drone’, ‘Zen’, ‘Megadad’)

-2|0|0|+2|-2|-2 (7>5>7>0>5)


E-B-G-D-A-E (‘Lefty flip’, ‘Mirror standard’)

0|+2|-7|-5|-2|0 (7>8>7>7>7)

  • Spare a thought for lefties everywhere – though they can count Hendrix among them, this comes as little solace when people hand them a ‘normal’ guitar. This ‘mirror of standard’ is one workaround, creating strange inversions from ‘lefty’ chord voicings. Try out some shapes you think you know…

E-A-D-F#-B-E (‘Lute’)

0|0|0|-1|0|0 (5>5>4>5>5)


D-A-D-G-B-C (‘Icarus’)

-2|0|0|0|0|-4 (7>5>5>4>1)

    • Forms a voicing of 1-5-1-4-6-b7, with a fantastic, floating resonance derived from its four ‘clustered’ scale tones (4-5-6-b7). I used it to write messy folk instrumentals as a teenager (Icarus, c1), but can’t possibly have been the first…an incredible tuning, and not even so far away from standard. Almost like a ‘mirrored’ drop tuning.

C-G-D-A-E-G (‘New Standard Tuning’)

-4|-2|0|+2|+5|+3 (7>7>7>7>3)

    • Robert Fripp, famed for his work with King Crimson and Brian Eno, devised his fifths-based tuning in the early 1980s to maximise melodic freedom. He has used it near-exclusively since 1984, showcasing its unusually wide range in his various guitar ensembles and other projects while also teaching it on restrung Ovations at his Guitar Craft academy. Fascinating, but requires thinner high strings or a big downward transposition.

A-D-G-C-Ẹ-Ạ (‘Gambale’)

+5|+5|+5|+5|-7|-7 (5>5>5>4>5)

    • An odd, restrung arrangement of the ‘standard pattern’ – the whole guitar is raised up by a fourth, but the top two strings are then tuned down an octave. Developed by fusion virtuoso Frank Gambale for chord-melody playing (via “messing with a Nashville tuning patch on a Roland VG-88”). He describes it as a “revelation”, opening up many new 4-, 5-, and 6-note voicings – see this interview, and watch him demo it to Rick Beato.

D-A-D-F#-B-E (‘José González’)

-2|0|0|-1|0|0 (7>5>4>5>5)


C-G-D-A-B-E (‘Cello’, or ‘Haircut’)

-4|-2|0|+2|0|0 (7>7>7>2>5)

  • Resembles a cello’s four stacked 5ths, and can perhaps serve as a no-restring taster to Fripp’s NST layout above. Associated with Cut Your Hair by Pavement, also used on Weenie Beenie (Foo Fighters).

F-Ab-C-Eb-G-Bb (‘Alternating Thirds’/’Harmonic Tuning’)

+1|-1|-2|-4|-4|-6 (3>4>3>4>3)

    • ‘Stack of thirds’ proposed by Dr. Costas Kyritsis, who mathematically analysed how to optimise access to every basic diatonic chord shape. His ‘harmonic tuning‘ places a different note on each string – but is otherwise deceptively simple, moving in a regular ‘loop’ of ‘minor 3rd > major 3rd’ (i.e. 3 frets, then 4 frets…or start the other way round). The idea is enticing, but hard to trace in the wild.

D-D-D-A-D-F# (‘Wind of Change’)

-2|-7|0|+2|+3|+2 (0>12>7>5>4)

    • An alternate form of open D maj showcased on Peter Frampton’s track of the same name. He recounts coming across it while browsing George Harrison’s guitar collection (“It’s a very strange tuning, but oh my God, it sounds huge…”)

F-C-F-Ab-C-F (‘Albert Collins’)

+1|+3|+3|+1|+1|+1 (7>5>3>4>5)


E-E-E-E-B-E (‘Bruce Palmer’)

0|-5|+2|-3|0|0 (0>12>0>7>5)


D-A-D-D-A-D (‘Papa-Papa’)

-2|0|0|-5|-2|-2 (7>5>0>7>5)


B-F#-B-G-B-E (‘Karnivool’)

-5|-3|-3|0|0|0 (7>5>8>4>5)

  • Curious collection of notes, with three Bs and three other notes that overall resemble a strange inversion of either Em9 or Gmaj13. Used on most of Australian rock group Karnivool’s output – e.g. Shutterspeed, Simple Boy, New Day.

D-D-D-D-D-D (‘Ostrich’)

-2|+5|0|-5|+3|-2 (12>0>0>12>0)


C-A-Bb-A-G-E (‘Nutritious’)

-4|0|-4|+2|-4|0 (9>2>10>10>9)

    • Rob Scallon’s 7-string CABbage is surprisingly tasty, if rather impractical

B-A-G-D-A-D (‘Iraqi’)

-5|0|-7|-5|-2|-2 (10>10>7>7>5)

  • ‘There was once a mysterious guitarist from the Middle East, who would only teach in his local tuning…’

BlackLineNARROWERINTERVAL TUNINGS


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a.k.a. ‘Regular’, or ‘symmetric’ tunings – all strings are separated by the same interval. I’ve tried to make them somewhat accessible on a ‘normal’ guitar (listening links may be other transpositions), but some don’t really work with standard-gauge strings. Often better for giving insight into the ‘nature’ of the interval itself rather than for general playing:


G-A#-C#-E-G-A# (all minor thirds)

+3|+1|-1|-3|-4|-6 (3>3>3>3>3)

    • [1-b3-b5-bb7: dim7 arpeggio from all notes] Melodically and harmonically constraining, but interesting as a radical way of shuffling your ear around and coming up with some strange new sounds. Discussed here.

E-G#-C-E-G#-C (all major thirds)

0|-1|-2|-3|-3|-4 (4>4>4>4>4)

    • [1-3-#5: augmented triad from all notes] Generally rare, but used to great effect by jazz guitarist Ralph Patt in the early 1960s, who sought to clarify his approach to playing Schoenberg and Coltrane’s melodic patterns. Also used by Tony Corman.

E-A-D-G-C-F (all perfect fourths)

0|0|0|0|+1|+1 (5>5>5>5>5)

    • [Dmin11 chord tones] Works fine on a standard-strung guitar, and not so different to standard tuning. Most prominently used by Stanley Jordan as the canvas for his incredible two-handed ‘touch tapping‘ style, and also employed by other jazzers such as Ant Law and Tom Quayle.

C-Gb-C-Gb-C-Gb (all tritones)

-4|-3|-2|-1|+1|+2 (6>6>6>6>6)

    • [C-Gb tritone interval] Reachable on most guitars, and notable as the only tuning (with more than just one note) that preserves ‘lefty involution’ – i.e. the ability to play the ‘other way up’, and have intervals will work the same in either direction. (And no, the tritone was never ‘banned’ for being the devil’s interval…but it can create strange audiology paradoxes).

A-E-B-F#-C#-G# (all perfect fifths, ‘Mandoguitar’)

-7|-5|-3|-1|+2|+4 (7>7>7>7>7)

    • [maj13 or min11 chord tones] Akin to a violin, viola, cello, or mandolin. The cycle of 5ths, as the basis of much of the world’s music, is in some ways a very logical layout – although its melodic freedoms are counteracted by difficulties in voicing many common chords. Used well by jazz pioneer Carl Kress in the 1930s (e.g. Love Song, +1).

F-C#-A-F-C#-A (all minor sixths)

-11|-8|-5|-2|+2|+5 (8>8>8>8>8)

  • [1-b6-3 = 1-3-#5: ‘wide’ augmented triad from all notes] Physically impractical without a restring at both ends – its open string range of 3-and-a-half octaves nearly matches the entire fretted range of a standard-tuned electric. Could work on a baritone with a ‘regular’ 1st string, but ‘all fifths’ would probably be a much better reference point.

BlackLineNARROWERMICROTONAL TUNINGS


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A few microtonal considerations. More on this soon…a hugely under-discussed capability of the guitar!

 


Embracing imperfection: No guitar can ever be tuned perfectly. Some physical variance is ineradicable (e.g. ‘inharmonicity’, explored in the Impatient Meditation article) – and it’s unclear what ‘perfection’ refers to here anyway: ‘textbook’ string frequencies, or the ideal resonances for the music at hand?

 

To me, the latter is definitely more important – many styles can certainly benefit from a little ‘spice’, if applied properly (e.g. Delta blues, 12-string folk, shoegaze, classic Hendrix).

 

● We can’t escape microtonal ‘imperfection’, so why not embrace it? Don’t be afraid to nudge things around based on ‘feel’ to find a sound that works for you (…and the audience) – e.g. blues players may G3 string slightly, and Stefan Grossman goes further on his Lament for a Goodman. I used it to bring a slight ‘disbalancing’ effect on No Kanjira.

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‘Just intonation’ tunings: You can tune some or all intervals to the ‘justly-intoned’ frequencies of the harmonic series, rather than rounding every note to its nearest ‘piano-key’ equivalent (more here).

 

e.g. with ‘Banjo’ (G-G-D-G-B-D), if you flatten the B by 0.14 cents to match the ‘JI maj 3rd’ then the open chord has a ‘purer’ resonance. For a more radical effect try ‘Overtones 4-9’ in its JI tuning, cent-modifying its intervals (1-3-5-b7-1-9) as follows:

 

● G6: (0) | B5: -14 | D4: +2 | F3: -31 | G2: (0) | A1: +4  (Play vertically on the less ‘deviant’ strings, and strum the others for washes of unique colour. More on this in a forthcoming Guitar World lesson)

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‘Quarter tone’ tunings: Many Middle Eastern traditions, such as Arabic maqam, use ‘quarter tones’ (half-a-fret distances) and subtle intervals around them. Some, like Tolgahan Çoğulu, re-fret to access these frequencies (he even builds microtonal neck inserts from lego bricks).

 

● You can access a little of this flavour on a normal guitar by microtonally retuning some of the open strings and playing ‘vertically’, substituting some scale tones for their open string variants. e.g. tune the 5str up to B (+2 frets) and tune the 4str down to a quarter tone above it (-2.5 frets). Now, you can mimic having 24 frets to the octave!

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‘Stretched tunings’: These are primarily designed to avoid unwanted microtonal influence. James Taylor’s is the most famous – he lowes each string by a small but precise amount to counteract the sharpening effects of inharmonicity and capo pressure. See my Tuning Puzzle for more, going into depth on the ‘harmonic beating’ method, and also check out Paul Davids’ sound comparison. This is Taylor’s configuration, albeit designed for the quirks of his own guitar:

 

● E6: -12 | A5: -10 | D4: -8 | G3: -4 | B2: -6 | E1: -3 

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Prepared’ guitar: Placing objects somewhere along the path of the strings enables you to escape the standard 12tet (’12-tone equal temperament’), by changing the string length relative to the (unchanged) frets.

 

● e.g. Stephen Weigel precisely wedges a pencil under the strings to reach 11edo tuning (’11 equal note divisions per octave’).

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Raga tunings: Proper content on this coming soon, after I’ve finished Darbar’s Index of Hindustani Raga later in 2020. Example:

 

● Kalavati: A-A-C#-E-F#-G (-7|0|-1|-3|-5|-9). Tuned low for sitar-like buzz, and fine-tuned to be closer to the harmonic series: flatten C# by -14 cents and F# by -16. Can also sharpen E3 by +2 and flatten G by -4 for hyper-accuracy.

 

(here’s another one I made earlier:)

BlackLineNARROWERTUNINGS BY ARTIST


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A haphazard selection of guitarists who prominently use altered tunings in their work – suggestions/corrections welcome! (n.b. +/- indicate transpositions in semitones, and c means capo)

 

Joni Mitchell (more here)


Nick Drake (more here)


Ben Howard (more here)


Michael Hedges (more here)


Jimmy Page (more here)


My Bloody Valentine (more here)

Pic RJ narrow

 


Other notable quirks

  • The Beatles: often repitched their guitar parts in post-production, e.g. slowing them down a semitone (I’m Only Sleeping, Yellow Submarine), or a tone (Strawberry Fields Forever, Rain), or even a full octave (Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da) – or raising them up a semitone (She Said, She Said), or a tone (Revolution).
  • Neil Young: used D-A-D-G-B-D (‘double drop D’) and many other other lowered tunings in his live sets.
  • Johnny Cash: sometimes tuned up a half-step (‘F standard’) in his early career – oddly, it seems, to fit with his low voice (e.g. he just about reaches a deep C, the 5th of the key, on ‘…mine’ on this version of Walk the Line).
  • Soundgarden: many varieties of drop D – e.g. D-G-D-G-B-E (Superunknown, Dusty, Fresh Tendrils, Never Named), D-G-D-G-B-C (Like Suicide), C-G-D-G-B-E (Mailman, Limo Wreck) – big list here
  • John Rzeznik: guitarist of the Goo Goo Dolls has used several drone tunings in the past, e.g. D-A-E-A-E-E (Name) and B-D-D-D-D-D (Iris).
  • Machine Head: have traditionally tuned to ‘Db standard + 40 cents’, or transpositions of this. Other heavy guitar groups including Van Halen and Black Sabbath have done similarly, although it is unclear how deliberate this tends to be.
  • Kelly Joe Phelps: sometimes tunes the string pairs on his 12str to ring with different notes – e.g. on See That My Grave is Kept Clean the 5str and 4str pairs are both tuned to D/A, and on Roll Away the Stone the whole guitar is tuned as C/G, G/D, C/G, E/B, G/D, C/G (more info on his tunings here).
  • Albert King: the mighty bluesman was left-handed, but played a normal guitar upside-down. His exact tunings seeem to have varied, although Dan Erlewine, his former guitar tech, cites C-F-C-F-A-D (an open Fmaj9 voicing) as his choice circa 1989. (In John Mayer’s words, “Albert King is the reason guitar players break high E strings” – maybe his lowered tuning has something to do with this…).

BlackLineNARROWERRESOURCES ETC


IridescenceB18

See the rest of Raga Junglism’s ‘World of Tuning’ for more tuning ideas, approaches, and analysis. And for further info on altered setups, see these sites and books:

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rjgong4SHORT

George Howlett is a South London-based musician and writer. I play guitar, tabla drums, and santoor (Himalayan dulcimer), and write about topics loosely related to jazz, rhythm, and global improvised music. Currently I’m a musicologist for Darbar, write ‘Beyond the Repertoire‘ lessons for Guitar World, and release music as Rāga Junglism. See the site for more – or email george@ragajunglism.org

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raga – ‘that which colours the mind’

Shakti’s Remainder Bar Rhythms

 

shakti1 copy

 

This is my two cents on how to understand the endlessly fascinating rhythms of Shakti – jazz guitar legend John McLaughlin’s collaboration with the musicians of India. Their music provides landscapes you can get lost in and keep on exploring, and what I can see and describe here is just a fraction of what is there. That being said, the ideas in this article are readily translatable, and understanding them requires no prior knowledge of music theory.

 

The original Shakti group was one of the first East-West musical fusions, and the dual-lead combination of McLaughlin’s rapid acoustic guitar and Lakshminarayana (‘L.’) Shankar’s sliding violin broke new musical remember_shakti_shrinivas_mclaground. They also experimented with instrument construction – McLaughlin wields a heavily modified acoustic with sitar-like sympathetic strings and scalloped frets, L. Shankar went on to pioneer the 10-string doubleneck violin, and Vikku Vinayakram is credited with popularising the use of ghatam clay pot in music (what an excellent one-line biography).

 

Along with their successor band Remember Shakti, they have a real mastery of keeping a strong groove in irregular time signatures, and not allowing high degrees of rhythmic complexity to make patterns too difficult to follow. There is one particular trick they use to achieve this – centered around accenting the ‘oddness’ of the final bar in each cycle.

 

Essentially, they will take a long rhythm cycle (often with an odd number of beats), divide it into regular length bars (often 4s), and play through these, until they reach a final bar of a shorter length. It’s all about the remainder – they play through the cycle using a familiar groove until there aren’t enough beats left to play it again in full, leaving a final remainder bar which breaks with this groove and is heavily accented:

 

 

This emphasised final bar is often the key to how Shakti’s unfamiliar time signatures can flow even to uninitiated Western ears, as it provides a marker for when the cycle will finish and repeat over again, and so anchors us to the overall groove.

 

Making the very end of a cycle prominent is found throughout the world of music (for example the turnaround in a 12-bar blues), but Shakti break new ground by putting this particular odd-time spin on it.

 

A large part of Shakti’s unique rhythm sound comes from their powerful two-part percussion section. Both Zakir Hussain and the Vinayakrams have a propensity for full and sonically dense playing, and their prominence is increased by the lack of a melodic bass instrument, meaning resonant tabla and kanjira strokes occupy an otherwise empty part of the frequency spectrum. Zakir and Selvaganesh even mimic western basslines at times:

 

 

This busy combination provides the speed and textural density to readily power a groove all the way up to 11, even when using a complex 11-beat cycle – as with 5 in the Morning, 6 in the Afternoon from the clip earlier. This McLaughlin composition is a perennial feature of Remember Shakti’s live set, and perfectly demonstrates the accented remainder bar idea in action. The 11 beats are broken up into a 4-4-3 structure: two 4-beat bars, and then a prominent 3-beat turnaround – listen again:

 

1-5-in-6

 

 

Hear how the last bar of 3 beats is louder and fuller than the cycle before it, and how this quickly locks your mind into the overall rhythmic structure. Here is the same groove with added intensity:

 

 

The song’s title gives a clue to decoding its cycle – as well as describing the timezone difference between John and Zakir’s homes in California and India, 5 and 6 sum up to 11. The syllable groupings either side of the comma also reference the title’s own structure – ‘Five in the Morning’ has 5 syllables, and ‘Six in the Afternoon’ has 6. This, intentional or not, is dope (even though the cycle is not in fact subdivided as 5 and 6).

 

5 in 6’s remainder bar rhythm structure is one of many in evidence. A similar 4-4-3 cycle is used in Bridge of Sighs by the original Shakti group, and the band’s whole catalogue is full of this idea being applied to a whole host of different rhythm cycles.

 

Ma No Pa, a Zakir composition, is a work of true genius which explores many interlocking rhythmic ideas, including a 10-beat cycle broken down roughly into a 4-4-2 (this is a beautiful game after all).

 

2-ma-no-pa

 

 

If you zoom in further, the piece can be seen as a 20-beat cycle, divided with more nuance as 8-9-3 rather than 8-8-4 as above:

 

2-ma-no-pa-2

 

The entirety of the piece showcases the electrifying three-way interaction between McLaughlin’s Western jazz guitar, Zakir’s North Indian tabla, and Selvaganesh’s South Indian kanjira, and is something special to witness.

 

Isis uses a more dense and complex set of groupings, but the complexity is more evident on paper than in the flow of the music itself. An initial 9-beat cycle (divided as 4-5) is ‘tripled’ – and broken down into more detailed subdivisions when it comes to backing McLaughlin’s solo. The original 9 can now be seen as a fast-counted 9*3=27-beat cycle, broken down as 8-8-8-3 with an accented final bar:

 

3-isis

 

 

The Wish also evidences the concept in action, turning the relatively common cycle length of 9 beats into something new by subdividing it into 4-4-1 instead of the usual 3-3-3:

 

e-the-wish--1-

 

 

In Anna, the idea is used more subtly, and the later stages include Zakir turning the familiarity of the final bar on its head, by introducing new rhythms into the space it brings. The long composed melody of the piece establishes several distinct 9-beat patterns, before settling into a swung 3-bar pattern, with a subtler final bar emphasis.

 

The influence of jazz can be seen more clearly here. Zakir swings over a groove familiar to Western ears and which does not contain an odd remainder, and even imitates jazz brush-kit drumming by sliding across the right-hand dayan tabla.

 

e-Anna

 

 

He then uses this familiarity to introduces more complex ideas, with more angular shapes and cross-rhythms entering into the mix:

 

 

Compositions like Face to Face take these ideas a step further, and open up new musical landscapes by constructing subtly linked structures out of rhythmic subdivision. After a free-time alap section, the piece opens with a 15-beat cycle divided initially as 4-4-4-3. This is almost a regular 4*4=16-beat cycle, and the length of the 4-beat section (4-4-4) makes it particularly easy to settle into and feel intuitively – try it:

 

5-face-to-face1--1-

 

 

The composition then switches to a different way of subdividing the same 15 beats – splitting them into 5 bars divided equally into 3 beats each, to give a 3-3-3-3-3 pattern which is essentially a Western 12/8 but with an extra bar added onto the end:

 

screen-shot-2016-08-23-at-18-5

 

 

The later stages include a third rhythm, maintaining the familiarity of a 5-part split, but now counting the 5 as single beats rather than 3s:

 

7-face-to-face-3

 

Finally, the piece concludes by revisiting the 3-3-3-3-3 pattern, and then resolving back to the original 4-4-4-3, having constructed a symmetrical set of interdependent rhythms which allow for soaring solo phrasing from L. Shankar’s perennially breathtaking violin.

 

 

This remainder-based approach is similar to thinking in modulo arithmetic, where the modulo is the remainder when dividing numbers into each other. The clearest example of counting this way is in how we read a clock face – we use a basic cycle of 12, and calculate time differences (remember them?) from the remainder. If adding 13 hours to a given time, we realise that 13 is 1 more than 12, and so use this remainder to keep time, rather than the original number itself.

 

We may or may not notice these links and patterns consciously, but our subconscious mind will always absorb them, and these details will colour the way we hear the music even if we don’t know why.

 

Looking at rhythm this way is underpinned by the system of konnakol – a method of breaking rhythms down into vocalised syllable patterns which comes from the ancient Carnatic classical tradition of South India.

 

The Vinayakram family provide Shakti’s direct link to the world of konnakol – Vikku plays kanjira tambourine and ghatam clay pot in the original band, and his son Selvaganesh brings several instruments to the stage in Remember Shakti. They, along with Vikku’s father T.R. Harihara Sarma, run the Sri Jaya Ganesh Tala Vadya Vidyalaya school of rhythm in Chennai, and are probably the leading exponents of konnakol today.

 

McLaughlin’s introduction to konnakol was however earlier than this – he studied it way back in the 70s, under the instruction ZakirRahkaof Ravi Shankar. Apart from being a tantalising ‘what-if’ recording collaboration, this partnership is also interesting in that it highlights a seldom-noticed dimension to Pandit Shankar’s already illustrious legacy – he is from North India’s Hindustani tradition, which uses the tabla-based bol system rather than the South Indian konnakol.

 

The two approaches are markedly different – although they are both syllable-based, konnakol places more emphasis on the numeric subdivisions (compared to bol’s focus on the drum timbres themselves. North and South Indian classical music are distinct traditions which, despite a common source, have been relatively separate for at least the last four centuries.

 

North Indian music has absorbed more influence from Persian and Islamic colonisers than its Southern counterpart. Pandit Shankar was one of the first to bridge this ancient gap, along with his tabla player – the legendary Ustad Alla Rahka, whose son, Zakir Hussain, continues to explore new territory inside and outside both Shakti’s incarnations.

 

Konnakol assigns a particular set of syllables to each number from 1 to 8, and uses combinations of these groups to break any rhythm cycle into manageable blocks. As well as being highly addictive, this approach introduces a more nuanced understanding of how rhythms and melodies are structured, and insight into where their emphasis lies. The basic syllabic groupings are as follows, with usual accents underlined:

 

8-konnakol-syllables

 

Konnakol deserves an article to itself, but the concepts which underlie it are not difficult to understand, and can be followed easily once the syllables are intuitive (in McLaughlin’s words: ‘it’s incredibly easy, but it goes to the most sophisticated heights). The approach’s strong emphasis on subdivision aids in composing or decoding any complex rhythm including those detailed above.

 

Konnakol patterns are also explicitly vocalised in several Shakti compositions, including the introduction to La Danse de Bonheur, and the percussion breakdown in Get Down and Sruti (sampled by Chinese Man). For anyone who is interested I recommend McLaughlin’s and Selvaganesh’s excellent instructional video series, The Gateway to Rhythm.

 

Shakti’s world of rhythm is a unique fusion of three complex traditions – Hindustani, Carnatic, and jazz, and the patterns I have noticed will only be a glimpse into all that is there. Nevertheless, I hope I have introduced some new ideas into your world of listening – Shakti have many to offer.

 



Update
(June 2015): thanks John! https://twitter.com/jmcl_gtr/status/613306739195297792

 

JMWP

 



Sources etc: