Perennial peg-twisters: altered-tuned artists & 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!


[under construction]

 


Joni Mitchell | Nick Drake | Michael Hedges | MBV | Sonic Youth | Gabby Pahinui | Jimmy Page | John Martyn | Erik Mongrain | Andy McKee | Jon Gomm | Ben Howard | D’Gary | further quirks


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+) •

(‘c.‘ = 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.


  • E-A-D-G-B-E (Standard): both guitars on Hotwire My Heart, Mildred Pierce, some of Lee’s parts on Confusion is Sex (I Wanna Be Yr Dog, Shaking Hell, Making the Nature Scene) – and seemingly all the guitar parts on their first EP (Sonic Youth)
  • Gb-Gb-Gb-Gb-E-B (>>>>): both of Thurston & Lee’s parts on plenty of Bad Moon Rising (Intro, Brave Men Run, Society is a Hole, Death Valley ’69, Halloween) and Evol (Starpower, Death to our Friends), and also Pipeline/Kill Time, Kool Thing, 100%, Waist, Saucer-Like – and Thurston’s guitar only on Mary-Christ, Catholic Block, Tuff Gnarl, Shoot, Sweet Shine, Becuz, Panty Lies, I Love You Golden Blue, etc
  • E-G-D-G-E-D (>>>>): Thurston on Dirty Boots, Tunic, Titanium Exposure, Swimsuit Issue, Wish Fulfillment, Chapel Hill, JC, Purr, Skink, Screaming Skull, Bone, Tokyo Eye, Little Trouble Girl, Diamond Sea
  • D-D-A-Gb-A-D (>>>>):  most of Thurston’s parts and many of Kim’s on The Eternal (but none of Lee’s, who mainly sticks with D-D-D-D-A-A, which he also uses for Schizophrenia, Catholic Block, and Tuff Gnarl)
  • D-D-A-E-A-D (>>>>):
  • G-G-D-D-Eb-Eb (>>>>): Thurston & Lee throughout Kill Yr Idols EP (Kill Yr Idols, Brother James, Early American)
  • C-G-D-G-B-B (>>>>): Thurston’s parts for all of A Thousand Leaves (other than Female Mechanic and Hits of Sunshine: both E-G-D-G-E-D)
  • C-G-D-G-C-D (>>>>): and wrote a thousand more…used for Thurston’s solo Psychic Hearts & Chelsea Light Moving projects
  • F-G-C-F-A-Gb (>>>>): Thurston’s parts on all but the first two tracks of NYC Ghosts & Flowers
  • C-C-x-x-Eb-Eb (>>>>): Marilyn Moore: Thurston uses a guitar strung with 4 bass strings on this song, with the two Cs in unison (equal to the 3rd fret of a regular tuned A string), the first D# one and a half step up from that C, and the second D# one octave below that.
  • G-A-B-D-E-G (>>>>): Thurston on Sugar Kane,
  • BURNING SPEAR : “For his part, Thurston wedges a drumstick under the 12th fret and beats it w/ a second stick. Lee apparently uses an electric drill thru a wah pedal on the original song.. live he seems to just attack his guitar with drumsticks..”


 

“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.


  • C Wahine“Gabby’s Hi’ilawe” Tuning (C-G-E-G-B-E) -(C11)
  • prominently used an F Wahine Tuning (F–C–E-G–C–E) -(F-2), that is often called “Gabby’s F.”
  • and the C Mauna Loa Tuning (C-G-E-G-A-E) -(C-22) down to the keys of B, Bb, A, Ab, or even very occasionally as low as G, and he also occasionally tuned them up to the key of C – Gabby Pahinui sometimes tuned his C Wahine “Gabby’s Hi’ilawe” Tuning (C–G–E–G–B–E) -(C-11) and the C Mauna Loa Tuning (C–G–E–G–A–E) -(C-22) down to the key of A
  • almost completely in C tunings in the last decade of his life, using his C Wahine “Gabby’s Hi’ilawe”…C Mauna Loa Tuning (C–G–E-G-A-E)


 

“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 songwriting legend 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 complex – blended folk fingerpicking ideas from the British Isles with jazz, rock, electronics, and much more.


  • E


 

“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.


  • E

  • More: See (Thwack)

 

“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 guitar 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.


  • E

  • More: See

 

“‘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, is ideal for wide tuning versatility.




 

“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,
  • van Halen – Jimmy Page was asked by the US journal Guitar Player if he ever used alternative tunings: “All the time: they’re my own that I’ve worked out, so I’d rather keep those to myself really.

  • More: See

 

“In 1978, my father died…there was a big traditional ceremony for the Bara funeral...calling everybody from far away to cry and sing…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. I was 16 years old then.”

[• Other notable quirks •]

List of lists from around the web…


More serial retuners:

  • Keith Richards:
  • Robert Johnson:
  • John Butler:
  • Karnivool:
  • Also see fan-compiled lists for Mastodon,


More tuning oddities:

  • 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).
  • 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).

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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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