Tales, quotes, & musings: worldwide tuning insights

 


Tales, quotes, & musings: a slap-dash selection of string-winding insights from around the globe – included on the basis of being interesting, insightful, amusing, etc (Basically, the idea is that I shut up for a bit!)


 

Tuning in the news: man vs. mosquito – a clear winner…

 

—Jump to hear from:

• Guitar innovators •

How have peg-winders of the past and present come up with fresh tunings? And why did all these altered-tuned axepeople turn the pegs in the first place?

Joni Mitchell’s fresh twists: “You’re twiddling and you find a tuning. Now the left hand has to learn where the chords are, because it’s a whole new ballpark, right? So you’re groping around, looking…you’ve got four chords immediately: open, barre [5fr], barre [7fr], and your higher octave, like half-fingering on [12fr]. Then you’ve got to find where your minors are, and where the interesting colors are: that’s the exciting part!”

 

“Sometimes I’ll tune to some piece of music…sometimes I just find one going from one [tuning] to another…sometimes I’ll tune to the environment…taking the pitch of birdsongs, and the general frequency sitting on a rock in that landscape…If you’re only working off what you know, then you can’t grow. It’s only through error that discovery is made: in order to discover you [need] a random element, a ‘strange attractor’… The more I can surprise myself, the more I’ll stay in this business, and the twiddling of the notes is one way to keep the pilgrimage going…”

Stanley Jordan jumps ahead: “The night I first got a guitar, after begging my parents…I stayed up for 4 hours, trying to learn how to play…I had this little book [and] was trying to play, but it didn’t sound right…I was 11 years old, going crazy! See, what happened was, the book told how to tune your neck up relatively…I saw the pattern [5>5>5…] and said, ‘OK’, and tuned the whole guitar up that way [=EADGCF]!”

 

“I was always like ‘why is that one different?’ [5-5-5-4-5]. It never really made sense to me…About 5 years later, when I was intensely learning the neck…it used to bug me so much that [to jump across 3-2str in Standard] you had to change your physical fingering, and the picture of how it looks…but I always remembered the Fourths…”

  • (More thoughts from the touch-tapping jazzer in his video demo – also see my menu page for All Fourths)

Peter Frampton’s playful thievery: “I definitely stole a couple of tunings from [George Harrison]! He used to have acoustic guitars all over his house that were tuned in various ways, and I’d pick them up and say, ‘What the hell is this?’, and then get out my cigarette pack and write down the tuning…The tuning that I remember the most is one that I used myself on Wind of Change [DDDADF#].”

 

“[It] was inspired by…Joni Mitchell…I never really knew what tunings she was using, but sort of guesstimated…when I became friends with George Harrison and was working with him, I got to go down to his home and was able to check out the guitars and all the acoustics he had. This one tuning just sort of stuck out to me as being the strangest tuning I’ve ever heard, but it was very full sounding and yet high as well…[he] said it was just something he came up with. So I stole it from him, and took it home!”

Rosenwinkel’s quest to unknow: “Out of a discontent over letting the fingers dictate which voicing would be played, he chose voluntary self-sabotage: and started to randomly retune his guitar. Anyone who has ever tried this will know that one twist of a tuning peg can turn you into a beginner in an instant. Just like the first time you touched a guitar, all you have is yours ears to rely on: and that’s exactly what Kurt’s intention was.”

  • (Kurt Rosenwinkel’s collaborator Christian Rover describes how the modern jazzmaster turns to chaos for fresh inspiraton)

De Souza’s rejoinder: “In other ways, though, [he] was quite different from a beginner. Rosenwinkel was able to adapt various motor skills to the altered instrument. His right-hand picking, for example, would be unaffected. This reflects a general principle: retuned instruments change place-to-pitch mapping, while preserving the instrumental interface. The experiments by Pfordresher…imply that new mappings might be most challenging when they preserve aspects of a familiar tuning…”

Ted Greene’s many titles: “Ted wrote 6 pages…his ‘2nd or 3rd Attempt at an Organization Plan’ for [DCEFAD]. Ted loved this tuning, and described it variously as: ‘My Bill Evans cum Andrews Sisters Bus’…’w/a Hitchin’, ‘Early Herbie H. tuning’, ‘Sweet Tuning’, ‘Lovely Tuning’, ‘Tuning Amore Mi Soul’, ‘My Beloved Bill Evans Tuning’, ‘My Bill Evans Shoot for the Stars Tuning’, ‘My Wonderful Tuning’, ‘My Heaven-Sent Tuning’, and ‘My Gift Tuning’…”

  • (From the personal study notebooks of Ted Greene [1946-2005] – and here are some of the chordal virtuoso’s frantic scrawls covering the same tuning: how about we call it ‘Ted’s Heaven-Sent’?)

Erik Mongrain’s acoustic shuffle: “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, pick the tuning up, and experiment…There’s more than one way to find new colours!”

Keith Richards’ immortal wisdoms: “It [Open G] gives you this beautiful resonance and ring. I found working with open tunings that there’s a million places you don’t need to put your fingers. The notes are there already. You can leave certain strings wide open. It’s finding the space in between that makes open tunings work. If you’re working the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it…”

  • (From Keef’s 2010 autobiography Life [p.243], reprinted in Reverb)

Hendrix’ untamed temperament: “Sorry for the tune-up between time – but what the hell? Cowboys are the only ones who stay in tune anyway”

  • (The G.O.A.T. speaks live on stage at Woodstock [1969]. I’m still not sure quite what he meant, but his wild bends and whammy-bar antics in Eb Standard definitely led to a difficult relationship with tuning at times. So yeah, go easy on your own inaccuracies…)


• Global traditions •

Fresh perspectives from the other 99% of human musical variety…

Norway’s devilish fiddles: “There are over 26 different tunings for the hardingfele [8-string droning violin] – each of which has a unique voice, and leads to a different set of tonal possibilities…Tunings take on a semi-mystical quality, with names such as ‘twilight grey’, ‘light blue’…Common examples include ADAE (oppstilt [‘lined-up’]), GDAD (spakrostilt [”]), DDAE (lausbas [‘loose-bass’]), or AEAE (halvt-trollstilt [‘half-troll’]). Be careful with AEAC# (nackastamning): this is the devil’s own tuning!”

  • (Find out more about Norway’s national instrument on the fascinating Fiddling Around the World site, with well-sourced tuning info on HFAA– and you’ve probably heard the hardingfele already: on Howard Shore’s epic Riders of Rohan theme from LOTR)

More Paganic-Satanic tales: “Such is the hypnotic nature of this tuning [nackastamning: ‘devil’s tuning’] that players can go into a trance, and may have to have the fiddle dragged from their hands, after hours of playing. Alternatively, the devil himself may show up at the dance, grab the fiddle, and play until the guests are dead from exhaustion…”

  • (Folk fiddle expert Chris Haigh, quoted in De Souza’s 2020 paper Instrumental Transformations in Heinrich Biber’s Mystery Sonatas. And below, check out Fanitullen: (‘devil’s melody’) – which, according to legend, was “conceived on a farm in Hol in the valley of Hallingdal in 1724 during a violent and bloody wedding. When one of the participants went to get more mead, he saw the Devil himself sitting on the barrel, playing this tune on his fiddle…”)
  • (On the fretboard: GDAD resembles Baglama [also G,D,A], ‘half-troll’ AEAE’s interval structure [1-5-1-5] transposes to match the low strings of Open C (or the middle four of Carnatic Drone), and ‘loose-bass’ DDAE is like a mix of Slack Thwack A [low-droning bass octaves] and the 6-5-4-3str of Coyote, Hejira, Orkney, Haja’s Bb, or All Fifths [intervals 1-5-2] – while the Satanic, major-triadic AEAC# [1-5-1-3] matches the low-end layout of Open D/E: two tunings used by hellhoundish slidemaster Robert Johnson).
  • LEGAL DISCLAIMER: I hereby void all future claims to personal or professional liabililities related to unintentional demonic summonings, soul-sellings, or other tuning-derived supernatural activity. Although, let’s be honest: we’d all rather see Hell’s house band than Heaven’s…

Hawaiian kī hōʻalu (‘slack-key’): “Each tuning has a uniquely beautiful sound, feeling, and resonance. These tunings are very ingenious…It’s as if each tuning is a different delicious kind of fruit in a big basket, or a different color in a rainbow…Most [Hawaiian] guitarists play most of their pieces in their favorite two, three, four, or five tunings…[and perform] certain songs in more than one tuning, depending on their mood.”

Madagascar’s great outdoors: “The people in my group taught themselves. We used to listen to the sound of the marovany [box zither], playing for the tromba [spirit possession ceremony]…we were all trying to find a different sound, and we started to retune the guitar. We’d go out into the countryside and spend the whole day trying to find tunings…the sound of the birds, whatever was around…”

Rakotomavo’s vocal range: “The way Europeans tune it [EADGBE], it doesn’t sing. It’s for playing chords. But [in CGDGBE], it sings…It’s not just in Madagascar that they use this tuning. Others do too: Chet Atkins used it, and some of the bluesmen, Big Bill Broonzy…But for me this tuning is not the best one…To get the sound of the valiha [tube zither], I use the capo [on BbFCGCE]…There’s a big range: that’s why it works well…we can have the voice of the women, and also the voice of the men…when the Malagasy sing, they don’t sing alone – that’s tradition.”

North Indian drone meditations: “The tanpura [4-stringed droning lute]…became his bodhi vriksha [tree of enlightenment]. He often said he would never have had mystical revelation of the notes had he not constantly meditated on it. He would declare, ‘I understood that all the notes are manifestations of Sa [root] – and that all the ragas are floods that emanate from Sa‘.”

  • (Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur [1910-1992] draws wisdom and nourishment from the Indian tanpura’s idiosyncratic buzz, as described by N.M. Chakravarthy – for more info & HQ samples see my Divine Indian drones page)

Hippies hail Hindustani tuning: “Thankyou! If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will the playing more…”

• Science & nature •

Research insights and other musings derived via analytical inquiry

​​Well-tuned wings get insects laid: ”To our ears, the buzz of a mosquito is intensely irritating…but to theirs, it’s a lover’s serenade. The high-pitched drone of a female is a siren’s song that attracts male mosquitoes. And a new study shows that when the two love-bugs meet, they perform a duet, matching each other’s buzzing frequency with careful precision.”

 

“The female…beats her wings with a fundamental frequency of about 400Hz [=just above the G at 1str 3fr]…Males on the other hand, have a fundamental frequency of around 600Hz [=around the D at 1str 10fr]…Neither took the lead: instead, both buzzers shifted their flight tones so that the male’s 2nd harmonic…and the female’s 3rd had a mutual frequency of ~1,200 Hz [=roundabout a Strat’s highest fret]. They synchronised in this way for about 10 seconds.”

 

“For now, one thing is for sure: falling for one song makes the female less likely to fall for another…Perhaps females can judge the best mates by selecting those who can match their frequencies with the greatest skill. That will need to be tested in future studies.”

Taste-bud bass tunings: “Szechuan pepper was applied to the lower lip of participants. Participants judged the frequency of the tingling sensation on the lips by comparing this with the frequencies of mechanical vibrations applied to their right index finger. The perceived frequency of the tingling was consistently at around 50 Hz, corresponding to the range of tactile RA1 afferent fibres…the frequency-specific tactile channel is shared between Szechuan pepper and mechanical vibration. [This] may provide a unique method for characterizing unusual experiences by decomposing them into identifiable ‘minimal units’ of sensation…”

Lupine illusions: “Wolves howling in a chorus use wavering or modulated howls…and, as the sound travels through the environment – trees, ridges, rock cliffs and valleys reflect and scatter it. As a result, competing packs hear a very complex mix of both direct sound and echoes. If the howls are modulated rapidly enough, two wolves may sound like four or more…”

  • (Prof. Fred Harrington describes an instance of the ‘Beau Geste effect‘: coined by John Krebs in 1977 in reference to a 1924 British adventure novel, in which three stranded soldiers create the illusion of strength by propping up the corpses of dead colleagues against the wall of their desert fortress. Similar sonic tricks are also used by coyotes, crickets, tree frogs, & singer-songwriters)

Ulysses S. Grant goes wild: “On the evening of the first day out from Goliad [Texas], we heard the most unearthly howling of wolves…The prairie grass was tall, and we could not see the beasts, but the sound indicated that they were near. To my ear it appeared that there must have been enough of them to devour our party, horses and all, at a single meal…but Benjamin did not propose turning back. When he did speak it was to ask: ‘Grant, how many wolves do you think there are in that pack?'”

 

“Suspecting that he thought I would over-estimate the number, I determined to show my acquaintance with the animal by putting the estimate below what possibly could be correct, and answered: ‘Oh, about twenty,’ very indifferently. He smiled and rode on. In a minute we were close upon them, and before they saw us. There were just two of them! Seated upon their haunches, with their mouths close together, they had made all the noise we had been hearing…”

Leibniz’ secret arithmetic: “It is not impossible that somewhere there are animals which have more musical sensibility than us, and are delighted by musical proportions by which we are hardly affected. But I think that were our senses much keener, this would harm us more than benefit us…those who have extraordinary acuity of sense in music are disturbed by certain errant notes…”

 

“Moreover, I think that the reason for consonance must be sought from the congruity of the beats. Music is a secret exercise in arithmetic of the soul, unaware of its act of counting: because it does many things by way of unnoticed conceptions, which with clear conception it could not do…For the soul, although not realizing that it is involved in computation, still senses the effect of this unnoticeable forming of numbers…”

  • (German polymath Gottfried Leibniz [1646-1716] muses on cognition – from a 1712 letter to mathematician Christian Goldbach)

Socially-sourced scales: “There are at least three problems with trying to match Pythagoras’ pure tuning. First, scales are not purely tuned, which has been known for a long time. It’s also not clear to what extent [global] scales tie into the kinds of principles Pythagoras pioneered: Pfordresher cites Indonesian musical scales as an example that does not align itself with Pythagorean pure tones. The third problems rests with Pythagoras basing his theory on instruments: first strings, and later pipes.”

 

“Probably the best starting point…is to look at singing, not instruments. Maybe scales were designed as a way to accommodate how out of tune, how variable singers are. We suggest that the starting point…was probably not the tuning of musical instruments, but the mistuning of the human voice…songs [must] be understood, remembered and reproduced. To accomplish these goals, that system needs pitches spaced widely enough to accommodate inconsistencies from person to person…”

  • (An intuitively appealing scale-formation hypothesis from Peter Pfordresher, Professor of Psychology at University at Buffalo)

Michio Kaku’s universal vibes: “If you…peer into [subatomic] particles, you would not see a dot at all. You would see a vibrating rubber band. And when you twanged this rubber band, it changes from an electron into a quark. And you twang it again, it changes from a quark into a neutrino. You twang it again, it turns from a neutrino into a photon.”

 

“What is physics? Physics is nothing but the laws of harmony that you can write on vibrating strings. What is chemistry? Chemistry is nothing but the melodies you can play on interacting vibrating strings. What is the universe? The universe is a symphony of vibrating strings…We now, for the first time in history, have a candidate for the mind of God. It is cosmic music, resonating through eleven-dimensional hyperspace.”

  • (Michio Kaku, Professor of Theoretical Physics at CUNY, spreading hype for the universality of string theory – also in video form)

• Microtonalism •

Finding unique power and magic in the ‘spaces between the frets’…

Tony Conrad’s anti-divine order: “Tony railed against what he saw as the tyranny of the Pythagorean worldview, whereby the proportions found in the intervals were elevated to a cosmic hierarchy – a divinely endowed ‘harmony of the spheres’, fixed for all time.”

 

“This philosophy has a long trajectory in Western classical music…that music comes from a transcendent ‘spirit realm’, and reflects a pre-existing and eternal divine order…For Tony, this type of thinking reeked of aristocratic oppression, [with] no role for the agency of the individual citizen. Tony said he wanted to ‘make the heavens crumble’…for him, [tuning] was very much a political act, and the formalism of any dogmatic system was a force to be joyfully (playfully!) resisted.”

  • (The emancipatory spirit of Tony Conrad [1940-2016], recounted by composer Mario Diaz de Leon in a Wire obituary. I highly recommend the bio doc Completely in the Present – trailer here:)

Kyle Gann prefers asymmetry: “I like having different-sized intervals…It makes the scale have a ‘natural’ feel to me, like I’m carving a gnarly piece of wood instead of in smooth, mass-produced plastic. The material gives me feedback: I run up against things I can’t do, keys I can’t modulate to, and composing becomes a dialogue between me and the scale.”

 

“An unequal scale gives the impression of a freer, more spontaneous pitch space: in which a pitch might appear anywhere, as with the human voice…You have a tremendous range, from having no beats at all to extreme ‘WOWOWOW’ beat conglomerations. It’s not that I dislike the buzziness of out-of-tune intervals, but I want to be able to control that buzziness…”

Scale-vibratory variance: “The ‘cents’ system was invented in the 1880s by the English philologist and mathematician Alexander John Ellis…[who] employed a logarithmic function to transform the geometric ratios of frequencies to an easily understood arithmetic scale. He divided the octave into 1,200 units, so [a] half-step was 100 units or ‘cents’.”

 

“Comparing music from all over the world with this new tool, Ellis discovered that tuning systems were far too varied to be explained by a mathematical theory…contradict[ing] Pythagoras and all the others after him who claimed that musical scales can be explained mathematically or naturally… Although Ellis did not employ a theory of culture, he demonstrated that musical scales are ‘very diverse, very artificial, and very capricious’. They must result from human intervention and choice.”

• Miscellaneous •

Any other peg-twirling business: historical, parodic, bizarre, etc…

300-year-old string stereotypes: “If a lute player lives for eighty years, he has surely spent sixty years tuning…”

  • (Johann Matheson [1681-1764], a German composer, author, theorist, diplomat, lexicographer, and rhetorician, had this to say about our lute-toting ancestors back in 1720…although he may have been less patient than many, based on the fact he tried to kill G.F. Handel with a sword after an on-stage opera dispute in 1704)

How non-guitarists see us: “IN THE NEWS: A man has made such a pretentious faff of tuning a guitar before playing it that his girlfriend can feel the life force seeping out of her. Martin Bishop, 29, invited Helen Archer back to his place for a nightcap, before casually picking up his acoustic guitar and ruining the whole evening for both of them.”

 

“Archer said: ‘I thought we were going back for a shag, so initially I was prepared to indulge him if he wanted to wank his way through Don’t Look Back In Anger first. Unfortunately we didn’t get that far, because he spent a very long time tuning it with an expression of such tortured concentration that I couldn’t help but imagine him on the toilet…I stopped fancying him after about fifteen minutes, and wanted to garrotte myself with one of his guitar strings not long after that.”

  • (From the all-too-true Daily Mash spoof article Woman watching man tune guitar loses libido and will to live [2018]. Although, to be fair, a 100% faithful rendition of Don’t Look Back in Anger would require retuning everything upwards to precisely A=451Hz: about a quarter-tone above our usual A=440)


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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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