• OVERVIEW •
Robert Fripp, of King Crimson and Brian Eno fame, devised his fifths-based ‘New Standard Tuning’ (NST) in the 1980s – chiefly seeking to open up a broader range of melodic movements. He stacked up four perfect 5ths, completing the tuning with a min. 3rd at the top to balance out the extreme wideness (and give parallel G tones on 5+1str).
The resulting layout contains the open notes of the viola/cello (CGDA) and also the violin/mandolin (GDAE): which, together, form a reordered, register-shuffled Cmaj Pentatonic scale (tones in string order: 6-4-2-5-3str). Sometimes called ‘Crafty’ tuning by associates of Fripp’s Guitar Craft academy, while Fripp has himself suggested that it “would be better named the ‘Guitar Craft Standard’ tuning, or ‘C [Major] Pentatonic’ tuning”. Intriguing in its multifaceted freedoms – but the huge width necessitates a restring to ring out cleanly (31 semitones: a full 5th more than Standard). Also see All Fifths tuning.
Harmony: C6/9 | 1-5-2-6-3-5
• TUNING TONES •
• SOUNDS •
Fripp explained the tuning’s March 1985 genesis in a 2010 internet diary post (as collated by ixlramp on SevenString): “In the sauna of the Apple Health Spa on Bleecker & Thompson in NYC…the ‘NST’ flew by – over my head, going from right [to] left…low to high. Originally seen in 5ths, [but] the top string would not go to B. So, as on a tenor banjo, I adopted an A on the first string. These kept breaking: so G was adopted. This has worked well…in bringing ‘what is possible in an unconditioned world’ into ‘actuality in a conditioned world’…where Newtonian physics apply to thin strings, carrying too great a load.”
But what led to this inspiration? In a top-drawer 1991 interview with Tony Bacon, Fripp goes into laudable depth in detailing how, really, such processes are ultimately unexplainable: “It’s difficult when examining any creative leap or insight to approach it rationally. You say, ‘Well, why did you do that?’ The answer is ‘I didn’t do it’. It presented itself, it occurred, and any flash of that, suddenly you know…Any kind of creative insight, whether it be a piece of music or a solo, or the solution to a problem, scientific, technical, artistic, whatever, there’s always this element of [claps hands]. It’s always in a flash. It’s a recognition [of] ‘this is right’…it comes from outside oneself…”
“The rational equipment will come behind, and will perhaps explain to me why this was the right decision…but that isn’t why…There was a dissatisfaction with EADGBE. Without making a big fuss about it, I was considering – lightly and gently – alternatives…While in retreat at this educational facility in West Virginia, the seminar committee asked me to give a guitar seminar…the tuning came to mind, and there was this click of ‘Yes, that’s what the tuning is for, it’s connected with this guitar seminar!’”
- NST Demo – Robert Fripp (2015):
“The pentatonic scale [is] derived from the Fibonacci series, and if you were looking at it in that sense, this tuning is organic – that is, it is vital. Another application would be rhythmically. You can apply it vertically in terms of harmony, and horizontally in terms of rhythm and melody. From a musical point of view, if you wish to create the impression of stability, you’d use an even meter: 2s, 4s, and so on. If, however, you wanted something to be vital, to keep you on the edge of your seat, you might use a 5.” (Robert Fripp)
Showcased on virtually all Fripp’s work for the past four decades or so. Haphazardly-selected highlights include his String Quartet, the infamous FracKtured, and his League of Crafty Guitarists, as well as various demos and clinics: (e.g. the backstage clip above). Fripp’s students and acolytes have since taken up the tuning too, including the California Guitar Trio (who have toured with Fripp in his String Quintet), and a range of others – such as those on A Plague of Crafty Guitarists, Vol. 1 (e.g. Tobin Buttram, Nigel Gavin, Fernando Kabusacki, & Sur Pacifico).
Steve Ball, a member of the Seattle Guitar Circle, notes that “most songs…written in [NST] have a quality of ‘walking on long stilts’. There are rarely many intervals…closer than a major third, except in the top of the voicing. Close voicings…are possible thanks to the minor third between [2-1str] – and this is often the only practical place where close voicings occur” (n.b. Ball also counteracted this with a layout of C-G-D-A-D-G). NST-style concepts have also been applied to extra-strung axes – e.g. by Markus Reuter on 10-string (he extends the 5ths stack downwards).
- NST Demo @ Reverb – Joe George (2017):
“Even within the band: if I cannot manage to persuade the members of what I see to be the next course of action, how do you expect the group to deal with the expectations of thousands of people? It is not possible.” (Robert Fripp)
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…
- All Fifths: the pure form of the same construction concept
- Cello/Haircut: a no-restring variant with the same ‘low half’
- Equilibrium: another ultra-wide tuning, this time irregular
• MORE INFO •
—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…
- NST horizons: see a demo vid from Stringjoy, string-gauge & nut-filing advice from Brian Robison, and a surprisingly well-sourced Wikipedia page – as well as a breakdown blog from Nociception Theatrician (“It brings larger intervals closer together…one can get to things like the ‘mean intervals’…Sun Ra’s work…The interval-expanding work of bebop and free jazz seems to have petered out over the years, into a mushy place – where the third-based harmonies of [Standard] are where soloists end up inevitably. NST makes it much more difficult to use 3rds, 6ths, and tritones: forcing [you] to play new things and tougher intervals…”)
- Fripp’s innovations: more of his musings in the aforementioned Tony Bacon interview – as well as a 1982 conversation with fellow British speedster John McLaughlin (Coffee and Chocolates for Two Guitars: “You’re not going to listen to Balinese Gamelan unless you have the Explorer Nonesuch series…I’d prefer to go and see a live show. As [18th-century poet William] Blake once said, ‘He who doth bend himself in joy, doth the winged life destroy’. Now, if you know that you experience of that will only be in this moment, with no before or after…you’re there…”)
Header image: Robert Fripp in action (Jean Baptiste Lacroix)
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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