Altered-tuned artists: prominent peg-twisters & selected songs

 


A rundown of guitarists who regularly use multiple tunings in their work (haphazardly biased towards those I happen to listen to): notes, tracks, concepts, etc. Suggestions, expansions, and corrections encouraged!


 

 


13 perennial peg-twisters


n.b. I’ve sought out the best sources, but some inaccuracy is inevitable (even if I had time to check each track, the string-set requirements would quickly bankrupt me). Several artists present note-diagnostic nightmares: e.g. MBV’s multi-pedalled drones require roadie notes to know for sure, and we’ll never know exactly what Nick Drake was up in his videoless, low-fi bedroom sessions. Others, like Malagasy virtuoso D’Gary, prefer to shroud their innovations in mystery (read on…). Feedback welcome!

• Full Menu of Tunings (100+) •

(‘cp.‘ = capo, ‘+/-‘ = transposition, ‘5>5>5>4>5‘ = fretting pattern)


• Joni Mitchell •

The polymathic Saskatoon songstress deserves her status as the world’s most prominent peg-twister, having used 50+ tunings to fantastic effect over the years. Joni’s EADGBE aversion draws from her lifelong passion for visual art: after all, what painter would stick to the same six colour pots each time?




 

“Every bass player I tried did the same thing: they’d put up a dark picket fence through my music…I thought, ‘why does it have to go ploddy ploddy ploddy?’ Finally one guy said to me, ‘Joni, you better play with jazz musicians’…”

 

• Nick Drake •

Largely unheralded in his own lifetime, the English singer-songwriter’s eloquent steel-string style now captivates guitarists the world over. Drake set his divine cluster-chord voicings on old, degraded strings, each twisted to suit his intricate fingerpicking sequences and pensive, soft-spoken vocals.



  • More: see Chris Healey’s tabs/tunings, and my tuning pages above – plus an illustrative BBC doc, and the heart-wrenching letter written to him (and read aloud) by his sister Gabrielle after his death

 

“I never felt magic crazy as this – I never saw moons, knew the meaning of the sea – I never held emotion in the palm of my hand – Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree…”

 

• Michael Hedges •

Probably the closest thing to a ‘Hendrix of the acoustic’, Hedges revolutionised the world of solo steel-string (…like Jimi, you can pretty much divide his instrument’s history into the ‘pre-‘ and ‘post-‘ eras). His energetic style relied on highly individualised tunings, with most tracks having their very own.




 

“Music has no form, but the guitar does…You can’t ‘make’ your music good. You can’t ‘try’ to be good. You can try to be present, and…to remain open: so what is going to speak to you can speak through you…”

 

• My Bloody Valentine •

Kevin Shields, Bilinda Butcher, and their shoegazing companions summoned dissonant, low-wailing cascades using a variety of electric tunings, spanning well-known alternate layouts to highly unorthodox droning configurations (and, often, multi-guitar combinations). May the chaos warm you…




 

“I always had a fascination with ‘that’ sound. It’s a mixture of the idea that something could be going wrong, along with the idea of bending constrained, Westernized music out of tune…I wasn’t copying an idea, and it just came from somewhere inside me, it felt like a birth of something…”

 

• Sonic Youth •

Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, and Kim Gordon – all of whom play guitar – each tend away from EADGBE. The avant-garde fusioneers mined a dizzying range of tunings in their three decades together, often mixing unisons and cascading drone-tones in restrung, range-narrowed arrangements.




 

“Most people can’t tell now who wrote what. I like that blurring of identities within the band – because it becomes a unified thing, that can’t be related to other forms of historical poetry.”

 

• Gabby Pahinui •

Before becoming an all-time icon of Hawaiian kī hō’alu (‘slack-key’), Pahinui left school young to shine shoes on the streets of 1920s Honolulu. Also a singer and slide master, his work underpinned the 1970s ‘Hawaiian Renaissance’ – as did the famous all-weekend jam sessions hosted at his home in Waimanalo.




 

“The families used to get together, backyard jam and party! Invite family and friends, and start creating music – in this way, the youngsters could look on and listen to the old hands, and learn almost by osmosis…” (Gabby’s son Cyril: also a slack-key legend)

 

• Jimmy Page •

A riff-writing colossus on both the electric and acoustic, Page played each axe ‘like itself’ – rather than as an imitation of the other. Known to have borrowed liberally from various blues and folk fingerpickers, he explored several classic alternates in Zeppelin and beyond. Twist downwards, then turn it up!




 

“I wanted Zeppelin to be a marriage of blues, hard rock, and acoustic music, topped with heavy choruses – a combination that had never been done before. Lots of light and shade…”

 

• John Martyn •

The late songwriter once remarked that he liked his chords “broken and shattered, tattered and torn a bit”. His guitar style – which, like his life, mixed exquisite beauty with the dark and chaotic – blended folk fingerpicking ideas from the British Isles with jazz, rock, electronics, and much more.




 

“I often thought of faking my own death, and watching the record companies fucking drum up all the shit they can…It’s creepy, ghoulish and strange; this lionisation is too late when you’re dead. If they’d dug [Nick Drake] enough then, he’d still be here now…”

 

• Erik Mongrain •

The low-strung Montreal virtuoso stands out for his refined sense of composition as much as his eye-catching technique, rarely letting the hands lead the head. Even so: as a teenager, witnessing Mongrain play live instantly redefined my perception of just how impressive a steel-string soloist could be.



  • More: See the near-complete list made by Mongrain himself (& pristine tabs) – and hear about his creative evolution via good written features in Interviewtion and Total Music. Also see the full AirTap and Equilibrium tuning pages for more on their workings.

 

“Sometimes I just fiddle with the tuners, and try to find a new arrangement of open notes that feel right to the moment – or I can just listen to someone else’s tune…and experiment…or make a variation out of it. There is more than one way to find new color!”

 

• Andy McKee •

The Kansas native shot to online stardom in YouTube’s earliest days (…way back in 2006), captivating viewers with his incredible blend of body percussion, natural harmonics, and two-handed tapping techniques. McKee, who also plays harp guitar, remains a master of melody-led instrumental writing.




 

“It can be easy to become self-absorbed as a musician. If you ultimately find yourself with a lot of people listening…remember your responsibility as an entertainer: life is difficult, and we are the ones that make it easier for everyone.”

 

• Jon Gomm •

The Leeds legend once turned down a place at Oxford Uni to focus on fingerstyle, choosing to cut his teeth in small clubs and bars instead. Today, he is renowned for pushing the outer limits of multilayered playing – even installing banjo-style ‘hip-shot’ pegs to enable fluid mid-song retunes.




 

“‘Be yourself’ is the most vague advice ever. But that’s what you have to do. Don’t be brash if you’re not brash. Don’t feel some need to speak clearly and boldly – this isn’t a fucking management leadership seminar. Be yourself! Be shy if you’re shy. If you’re nervous, be nervous. Don’t try to hide…”

 

• Ben Howard •

Rumoured to have once turned down a promising support slot to catch the surf, the Devon-raised singer-songwriter’s introspective, stripped-down sound draws inspiration from Joni, Jimi, and John Martyn. His ‘pick-and-go’ right hand style, mixing strums and single strings, sometimes employs a partial capo.




 

“We’d get residencies in the local pubs. It was just an excuse to have a free tab at the bar, and then at some point people started chucking me a few quid for it. There was no game plan to any of it…”

 

• D’Gary •

Madagascar’s multi-tuned guitarists will leave you speechless. Ernest ‘D’Gary’ Randrianasolo – one of the island’s finest modern masters – mixes Bara tribal melodies with ideas from the marovany (box zither), lokanga (bowl violin), and tsapika (a jerky, energetic fusion of Malagasy folk and South African pop-rock).


  • This time, I’m not going to just reveal the tunings. D’Gary – like plenty of other playfully competitive guitarists around the world – prefers to guard his designs (so, I guess what I’m saying is that I’d rather irritate you than him…although I’m still working them out anyway). In his words, “I have about 23 tunings…but I’ve hidden them so far” – and Henry Kaiser, who recorded with D’Gary in the early 90s, recounts that he was using “any one of eleven open tunings”.
  • However, D’Gary has also stated that “during festivals, there is too much tuning to do – so I only use two”. These appear to be: E-A-D-G-B-E (Standard): a natural choice for virtuosic versatility – and E-G-D-G-B-D (3>7>5>4>3): a hybrid of Standard (6,4,3,2str) and Open G (5,1str) which also turns up in European classical guitar and elsewhere.
  • In D’Gary’s own words: “My source came from the lokanga Bara [box violin] and the avoria [funeral ceremonies]…I thought that the Bara tribe’s tradition was going to die, because there are a lot of things disappearing…”. He adds that “the rhythm…comes from the footsteps of the malaso [cow robbers] who run away…one really has to experience the life of the people being constantly attacked by malaso in order to play the style I do”. Hear his amazing range in action on Malagasy Guitar (1992), Mbo Loza (1997), and Akata Meso (2001):
  • This bullet point isn’t really the place to ruminate on broader tuning metaphysics in too much depth (I’ve done quite enough of that in this project already) – but still, it’s worth mentioning some of the strange questions thrown up by this sort of case. Does anyone have the ‘right’ to keep their tunings secret? Or, on the flipside: why should we feel any entitlement for them to explain, rather than just leaving us puzzles to solve instead? Which broader facets of musical learning are best left for the student to solve themselves?
  • (n.b. D’Gary isn’t the only one to shroud their innovations in mystery: Eddie Van Halen famously claimed to have turned his back to the audience in the band’s early days, so as not to reveal his tapping techniques (although direct evidence for this is scant: he may well have, but, like most rock stars, was prone to self-mythologisation too). And Jimmy Page told Guitar Player in 1977 that he had his “own [altered tunings]…I’d rather keep those to myself” (which to me seems a little out-of-step with his liberal borrowing of altered-tuned compositions by other artists…).


 

“[When I was 16], my father died…there was a big traditional ceremony...for everyone to cry and sing…it is called ‘tany faty’ [crying for the dead]. That was the first time I experienced the traditional life of my ancestors. I found myself waking up with all these new styles of music.”

 

• Other notable quirks •

A decidedly non-exhaustive assortment of interesting tuning oddities…


Kelly Joe Phelps

The soulful acoustic virtuoso sometimes tunes the adjacent pairs of his 12-string 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 (6>1str) as C+G|G+D|C+G|E+B|G+D|C+G (more on his intriguing tunings here):

 


Adrian Legg

Much as fretboard tapping was around long before Van Halen (e.g. ukulele virtuoso Roy Smeck in the 1930s), mid-song peg-twirling has a long-established lineage too. Jon Gomm is currently taking the art form to astonishing new heights – but others have also experimented in this direction. Notably, eclectic British fingerpicker Adrian Legg has been putting the technique to mellow use for decades:

 


John McLaughlin

After leaving the Miles Davis group responsible for Bitches Brew, In a Silent Way, and Big Fun, the global explorer turned further East for fresh inspiration. One offshoot of this was the ‘Shakti guitar’: a modified steel string with hollowed-out frets and a sitar-like set of ‘sympathetic strings’, running under the main six and tuned to the scale of the piece (also see my 2020 Shakti interview with McLaughlin):

 


The Beatles

The scouse songsters 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). And here’s what Hey Jude sounds like when lowered & slowed by ~20% (to me, much better than the original!):

 


Robert Johnson

Although known to have used forms of Open G, Open D, and Open Dm, debate has raged around exactly how fast the Delta blues legend’s records should be played. Many contend that we may be around a semitone off in some direction, while some claim (to me, with little evidence) that we’ve been playing his LPs up to 20% too fast (see this excellent overview from Elijah Wald). I doubt we’ll ever know – but I’m glad for the controversy, as it’s thrown up some fresh questions about how we listen to lost artists. After all, if you connect more with the slower versions, then what is ‘authentic’ about confining yourself to the ‘correct’ ones? I wonder what Johnson would think of it all…

 


Machine Head

The California metallers usually tune to ‘Db Standard + 40 cents’ (=40% of a semitone). Other heavy groups like Van Halen and Black Sabbath have also tuned ‘between keys’ for multiple tracks…although it’s often unclear how conscious a choice this might have been. (And no, there’s nothing special about 432Hz – but go ahead and nudge flat for variety’s sake if you like…)

 


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George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher. I play guitar, tabla, and santoor, loosely focusing on jazz, rhythm, and other global improvised traditions. Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the human voices, cultures, and passions behind them. Site above, follow below, & hit me up for…

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