• OVERVIEW •
Tuning ‘four semitones down’ from Standard opens up a radically slacker feel (~35% lower tension). Subtler, quieter, and easier on the hands, with a messy expressive freedom – but without a restring, you’ll probably encounter some fret-buzz and pitch instability (…use them to your advantage!). Ideal for C-rooted music, as well as opening up a range of other expansive melodic zones (e.g. all open strings are part of D Dorian, but D itself is not present: thus reshading its balances).
Low-tuning jazz guitarist John Stowell describes how the ear must adapt to these deeper realms: “Practice is required to be able to tune…properly, and hear harmonies pitched considerably lower…a light touch with the right hand works best. Open strings are especially prone to lengthy sustain…“. He recommends the tuning as ideal for solo and duo settings, “particularly in combination with a vocalist, horn player, or another guitarist” – or, indeed, pretty much any otherwise bass-less scenario. Winding downwards a major 3rd is also common on baritone guitars.
Harmony: Cm7(11) | 1-4-b7-b3-5-1
• TUNING TONES •
• SOUNDS •
Innumerable guitarists have wound their way down to C Standard over the years. Many prominent explorers hail from heavy electric genres – e.g. Amon Amarth (Sorrow Throughout the Nine Worlds), In Flames (The Jester Race), Inferi (Forged in the Phlegethon), Dream Theater (A Nightmare to Remember), the Black Dahlia Murder (Sunless Empire), the late Wayne Static of Static-X (New Pain), and plenty of Queens of the Stone Age (e.g. No One Knows & their eponymous debut).
Similarly – British screamos Bring Me The Horizon (The House of Wolves), Swedish melodic metallers Arch Enemy (Nemesis), French avant-garde behemoths Blut Aus Nord (Odinist), Texan hard rockers The Sword (Freya), Californian jam stoners Sleep (Dragonaut), Canadian post-hardcore artist Dallas Green a.k.a. City & Colour: (What Makes a Man), and Louisiana sludgers Acid Bath (Venus Blue: also hear guitarist Sammy Duet explain why he chose it).
Metal colossus Tony Iommi used C Standard on post-2012 live renditions of several Sabbath songs (e.g. Under the Sun & Into the Void) – possibly to match Ozzy’s life-drenched, lower-pitched vocal cords (…in 2010, Ozzy’s DNA was analysed by a team of experts from the Cofactor Genomics Lab, who declared his continuing survival a “medical miracle” – while also shedding light onto how the Prince of Darkness might have managed it: “He drank several bottles of cognac a day for years. Interestingly, how he was able to handle that amount of alcohol may be explained by a mutation in [the] ADH4 gene that metabolizes alcohol…”. I tip my hat to a truly top-tier scientific publicity stunt!).
- Into the Void (live) – Black Sabbath (2013):
“Osbourne, who described himself as ‘a rock star, not Brain of Britain’, initially needed some convincing: ‘The only ‘genome’ I’d ever heard of was the kind you find at the bottom of the garden with a little white beard and a pointy red hat – and the only Gene I know anything about is the one in Kiss’. But he came around: ‘Given the swimming pools of booze I’ve guzzled over the years – not to mention all the cocaine, morphine, sleeping pills, cough syrup, LSD…you name it – there’s really no plausible medical reason why I should still be alive. Maybe my DNA could say why’…” (Cambridge Healthtech)
C-tuners turn up elsewhere in guitar history, albeit somewhat sporadically – for example Ricky Wilson of the B-52’s (Rock Lobster), Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins (The Everlasting Gaze), and The Wildhearts (the ¡Chutzpah! album) – as well as fusion maestro Lee Ritenour (Capetown: with 4-3str strung an octave high in re-entrant, Nashville-style fashion). And, while Jimi Hendrix famously favoured Eb Standard, the G.O.A.T. was once captured on film playing Hear My Train A’ Comin’ on a C-tuned 12-string acoustic (below).
And in jazz – Pat Metheny on an acoustic baritone (That’s the Way I Always Heard it Should Be), Allan Holdsworth on a giant 28-fret, 34″ electric, and Kenny Poole for his intricate fingerstyle, after dropping down from D Standard “in the last 4-5 years of his life” (e.g. SNGP Improv). Also the above-quoted John Stowell (e.g. Haiku) – and his Modern Chord-Melody resources provide further insights too: “I have a light touch with my right hand, [so] typical gauges work fine…Given the availability of good, cheap guitars, you might consider buying [one to try] different tunings“. [I concur! My main guitar is a very heavy-strung £120 Fender acoustic, which plays like a dream…]
- Hear My Train A’ Comin’ – Jimi Hendrix (1967):
“I’ve been imitated so well, I’ve heard people copy my mistakes…” (Jimi Hendrix)
C Standard has also found popularity amongst low-register male vocalists (…after all, why not set your string range to match your vocal range?) – such as Bristol-based songwriter George Ezra. He describes his pre-fame experiences of tuning low at open mics: “You’d get onstage with a guitar that looked normal, [and] play a chord that everyone was aware of, and they’d go ‘hang on a minute’…” [I also frequented Bristol’s open mic scene at the same time as Ezra (early 2010s), playing deep-tuned 12-string instrumentals to often-bemused pub audiences: but, unlike Ezra, none of my jams ever reached number 1 in multiple countries].
Also showcased by Skwisgaar Skwigelf, lead guitarist for fictional metal megastars Dethklok from the 2006-7 Adult Swim series Metalocalypse (e.g. Thunderhorse: also featured in Guitar Hero II). Skwigelf – variously described as “the world’s fastest guitarist”, “arrogant, handsome, and talented”, and “indescriminate in his choice of sexual partners” – describes his tuning habits in somewhat cryptic terms, although I think the gist of it is clear enough: “Dudes, we can’ts not tone it down any lower!“. [n.b. Credit to Dethklok’s ‘real’ guitarist, co-creator Brendon Small, for ensuring the show’s animation was “carefully synced to the music, with the chord positions and fingerings…shown in some detail…”].
- Thunderhorse – Dethklok (2006):
“If Dethklok endorses a product, competitors are quickly driven out of business…Governments go out of their way to avoid hindering Dethklok, to the point that the band is allowed to maintain its own police force, and can get away with any crime imaginable with virtually no repercussions – although the band is often too oblivious to even notice…” (Metalocalypse)
C-centricity: Why is C the ‘home tone’ of Western classical music? Bob Dylan once described C major (without further elaboration) as “the key of strength, but also the key of regret” (whereas Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, to whom my entire World of Tuning project is dedicated, deems Dm to be “the saddest of all keys”). But how did C come to be the root key of our only un-accidentall’d major scale, and the meeting point of the staves?
Honestly, this one proved a real research challenge, and I’m not fully clear on the answers yet – but a detailed if often frustrating PianoStreet discussion contains summary insights and further sources (“Ugolino of Orvieto [c.1380-1452], Italian theorist…studied the works of Prosdocimus de Beldemandis…The only difference is that Ugolino began on C rather than G, and split the semitones B-C and E-F into equal halves. [These] divisions, resulting in 5 flats and 5 sharps, [influenced] late 15th-century theorists in Italy…”).
- SNGP Improv – Kenny Poole (~2002):
“[What’s your ideal rhythm section?] A drummer who doesn’t know what sticks are, and a bass player whose ears hang down to the floor…” (Kenny Poole)
Insights to share? Comment via YouTube, or get in touch!
• NUMBERS •
- See my Tunings Megatable for further such nerdery: more numbers, intervallic relations, comparative methods, etc. And to any genuine vibratory scientists reading: please critique my DIY analysis!
• RELATED •
—Associated tunings: proximities of shape, concept, context, etc…
- Baritone (this -1): down even lower and looser
- Drop C (Standard with 6str -4): for a wider range
- Open C: another C-based layout, this time major
• MORE INFO •
—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…
- Kenny Poole: more on the late, under-heralded fingerstyler via the Ted Greene site (another multi-tuning jazzer), plus an interview with Tim Berens (“God, that’s all the world needs. Another guitar record. Just one more, please. I would blow my low profile. I like a low profile. You can get by with a lot…”), and a heart-wrenching profile by Larry Grinnell (“He knew he was dying from esophageal cancer, but wanted to do one more concert for his friends while he still had the energy and ability. Frankly, he looks a fright, and only had another painful month or two to live. This didn’t take away one iota of his skill and musiciality…”)
- Metalocalypse: I’d never heard of this show before my search for C-tuned tracks, but it sounds mightily intriguing: watch it on Adult Swim (US), Channel 4 (UK), or via the links here – and see a brief interview with band themselves (also see them learning the blues, going shopping, and playing a fated mega-show) – plus co-creator Brendon Small’s live performance of Thunderhorse from the 2019 Adult Swim festival, and an interview in The Aquarian (“One of the reasons I [created] it is because, if I were 15 years old…discovering guitar, carving out my identify through being a guitarist, I’d think this show would be fun to watch…A lot of attention has to be paid to the music. It can’t just be generic rock or generic metal. I knew it would have specific, and be what I would want a metal band to sound like…I said I had this idea about this extreme metal show, but the characters would be the biggest entertainment act in the universe, as opposed to having the band be on its way out. That’s what Spinal Tap did, and that’s why it’s great – they did it the best…”)
Header image: John Stowell’s headless jazz fingerstyle
George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!
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