• Math Rock F tuning •



This gently undulating maj9 sequence doesn’t take much peg-twisting to reach – but the shifts (two single-semitone raises and one double-semitone fall) will immediately put fresh melodic motions on the menu.


While the tension shifts are fairly subtle (no restring is required), you can still feel them: the 6+2str are a little tighter, and the 4str has a new slackness. This will subtly recolour arpeggios and chordal patterns – a dimension explored in so-called ‘math rock‘ and beyond.

Pattern: 4>3>7>5>4
Harmony: Fmaj9 | 1-3-5-2-5-7


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While I can’t trace a single definitive ‘old-age’ instance of the tuning in action, it has certainly gained significant popularity in recent years, after coming to the attention of guitarists on the North American ‘math rock’ scene – a loosely-delimited genre inclined towards off-kilter rhythmic interplay and tightly-structured melodic intrigue.


Prominent groups to have used the tuning include This Town Needs Guns (Crocodile, cp.3) and American Football (For Sure, Never Meant) – and more recently, YouTuber Rob Scallon has brought the tuning to life with several jams and compositions (Anchor, Eventually, Heard Again). Also, while I can’t directly vouch for its accuracy, Mitchell Zouzounis’ vast FACGCE playlist definitely contains some great music [UPDATE: In a pleasing circularity, Zouzounis found this very page while looking for more math-rock tunings, and sent in a clarification: “Not every song in the playlist is in FACGCE – it’s just a collection of Midwest emo/math/screamo named after this tuning, as Never Meant…got me into writing math rock and emo music. Sort of like a homage for a tuning I hold a lot of love for!”]


  • Never Meant @ Webster Hall – American Football (2014):

“Not to be overly dramatic,

I just think it’s best,

‘Cause you can’t miss what you forget,

So, let’s just pretend…”


In line with the math rock ethos, the tuning has also found a lively existence via online forums. A 2009 Offset Guitars thread discusses how “it’s suited towards droning strings, with little sliding passages…and other ‘twinkly’ chords”, replete with tales of fresh inspiration (“I just threw my Jag Bari into this tuning and it’s the shit! Tuning up to F also fixed my floppy low E problem…”).


Redditors variously title it “Emo/Skrams”, “Never Meant”, and “Her Tongue Was Tattooed to the Back of her Teeth” (cp.5), and detail their explorations (e.g. “you could pedal tone [the 1str E], or use it to accentuate the maj. 7th tonality…”) – while Trevor Wong offers concise video demos, and Steve from the Let’s Talk About Math Rock blog has compiled a tasty chord sheet.


Use on the acoustic appears to be rare (this somewhat mystifies me, given its easy accessibility) – however Canadian-Mi’kmaq fingerstyle virtuoso Don Ross chose it to evoke “the feeling of riding a horse” on the rolling, galloping arpeggiations of First Ride. See where you can take it…


  • First Ride – Don Ross (2014):

“I’ve always been reluctant to go public with a tuning list, because I’ve never wanted people to think that I was writing music only for guitarists…my music [is] simply the work of a composer, who composes most of the time for the guitar. But, I’m finally caving in to the demand…” (Don Ross on his tunings)

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6str 5str 4str 3str 2str 1str
Note F A C G C E
Alteration +1 0 -2 0 +1 0
Tension (%) +12 0 -21 0 +12 0
Freq. (Hz) 87 110 131 196 262 330
Pattern (>) 4 3 7 5 4
Semitones 0 4 7 14 19 23
Intervals 1 3 5 2 5 7
  • 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!


—Associated tunings: proximities of shape, concept, context, etc…


—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…

  • What even is ‘math rock’ anyway? see what fans of this intriguing, guitar-heavy genre have to say for themselves on two 2015 Reddit threads, and get further in via a FlavorWire primer – plus a Tokyo Weekender overview of the Japanese scene (“For every big name or contemporary icon is a small-scene band or lone stylistic outcast, acting under the influence of uncommon time signatures or jolting melodies…”)
  • Rockin’ mathematicians: while Einstein played the violin in his spare time, plenty of numerical wizards have preferred the six-string axe to relax, including several Nobel Prize winners: such as physicist Martin Chalfie (“I still play and get immense enjoyment from the guitar”), and chemist Frances Arnold, who spent many hours playing guitar in her youth (“In her Nobel Lecture, [she] mentioned the similarity between Beethoven’s symphony and her work with the code of life”). Looking further back, renowned French mathematician Pierre-Louis Maupertuis (1698-1759) is known to have studied guitar and flageolet (a ‘fipple flute’ woodwind) in some depth, fit amidst his travels to Lapland to determine the true shape of the Earth.
    Meanwhile, several modern guitar stars are surprisingly accomplished in these fields too: Brian May famously completed his Astrophysics PhD in 2007 (three decades after he started it), and Coldplay’s Jonny Buckland, who has a Mathematics degree, often works numerical themes into the group’s song titles (e.g. Proof, Major Minus, Square One, The Scientist) – while Boston founder Tom Scholz is an MIT Mechanical Engineering alumnus who even invented his own cabinet-stack amplifier (the ‘Rockman’). Punk guitarist Alfie Agnew (a member of Adolescents, D.I., and Professor and the Madman) is a full Professor in Gravitational Wave Physics (specialising in “Analysis, Differential Geometry, General Relativity Theory, Cosmology, and the History of Mathematics”) – and Art Garfunkel switched paths after his Art History major to complete a Mathematics Masters, and continued to work on his doctorate amidst touring responsibilities (“I’m precise. I think in proportions. I play games with numbers, and I proportionalise. I imagine we have now done 1/8th of our interview…”)

Header image: American Football live in action

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!

“An intrepid guitar researcher…”

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