personalized expeditions in music from a musician who doesn't matter

Scordatura: best metal band name ever?

Posted by r on March 7, 2012

(Edit cleanup 3.19.13: Lengthy meanderings on the joys of alternate guitar tunings after the break.)

Now, I’m well aware that not everyone knows this: “scordatura” is the formalist Italian for “alternative tuning”. Such a wicked word. And such a useful concept.

With my geetar playing, I’ve long been fond of minor tweaks to its standard EADGBE tuning to get this or that effect. The grunge / Helmet era found me trading in my alternative-tuning-unfriendly floating-trem guitar of my youth for a fixed-bridge instrument that allowed me to change tunings in seconds rather than in ten minutes.

I wasn’t alone; a guy I bought an old shredder Ibanez  from a few weeks ago regaled me with tales of how he bought valuable floating-trem Ibanez after valuable floating-trem Ibanez for pennies in the mid-90s, when absolutely everyone wanted to play in drop D or drop C– tunings that put the lowest strings in fifths or some other metal-convenient interval, and make everything lower and heavier to boot. At some point he ended up with something like over a hundred old Ibanezes, which he later sold one by one at a more reasonable market value of $300-2000 each. Smart investment.

Floating-trem guitars– while optimal for fast soloing a la the glam metal years– were inherently incompatible with such drastic tuning changes, and so kids like me were happily ditching them en masse at their earliest opportunity.

But of course, alternative tunings’ usefulness go well beyond the potential for making things more metallic. A week or so ago, I wrote a song for a secret project I’m working on;  with the key, melody and structure already planned out in my head, I started working up the guitar part in standard tuning before realizing that it just wasn’t gonna fly. One string’s tuning at a time began to change to accommodate the part. An hour’s worth of experimentation later, I had arrived at a D Bb D F Bb F tuning, in which five of the six strings deviated from standard, the open Bb chord being a tritone’s far cry from the E-centricness of the standard EADGBE.

I’ve never used that tuning before, nor will I probably ever use it again. It was perfect for the song in question, but I worry that that tuning will only facilitate things that sound just like the song that forced its “discovery” upon me.

Right now, though, I’m having a lot of fun with a couple of other tunings I came up with over the same weekend: E B-B F# B C#, and D A D A B C#. I’ve written three-ish proto-songs around each one. The major second at the top of both tunings, and the E-F# ninth in the E tuning, allows for some really nice-sounding modal bits and reasonably consonant chordal “clashes;” the duplication of B in the former tuning also allows for some pretty cool “solo-against-a-drone” sorts of parts.

Alternative tunings have been long and much beloved by many, many guitarists and singer-songwriters to come up with interesting chord and interval choices they might not have otherwise found. The happy-accident factor goes way up, since none of your old cowboy-chord formations and familiar finger patterns do what they used to do. Of course, you also stumble upon an awful lot of unusable chords and intervals, but that’s part of the fun too. It’s not unlike learning your instrument all over again, if not really.

Yesterday, I started thinking about something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately too– the guitar’s standard tuning has a “problem” for would-be soloists and users interested in more sophisticated harmonies. The violin-family instruments have consistent intervals between their four strings– always, always tuned in perfect fifths. These aren’t instruments built for chording; they’re built primarily for melodic, frequently-soloistic playing. The perfectly consistent tuning has enormous advantages for that kind of approach to the instrument. (It’s worth noting that a lot of folk and country fiddlers change the tuning from, say, GDAE to something more like AEAE or GDGD; they call this “cross tuning”, and they like this tuning because it’s actually better for double- / triple-stops and open-string-based runs in comparatively harmonically simple genres.)

Meanwhile, the six-string standard guitar tuning is built entirely in perfect fourths– except for the major third between the 3rd string G and 2nd string B. This means that if you have a fretted pattern of notes that works on strings 6-4 or 5-3, it breaks as soon as you try to move it up  to strings 4-2 or 3-1.

Now, the odd-man-out third is there in that tuning for a reason. It facilitates a selection of “easy” chords, the ones every starting guitarist learns, which only require one to strum through a continuous group of 4-6 strings, with maybe 2-4 fretted notes and the rest created on lovely-sounding open strings. Shit, everybody loves open strings! They sound better than anything. And strumming through a bunch of strings together is easy, mindless stuff that just about anybody can do. So it lowers the bar for entry significantly in our triad-based world.

Tune all the strings to perfect-fourth intervals– say, with the B uptuned to C and the high E uptuned to F– and the “cowboy chords” become a helluva lot more difficult. Playing a “standard open” E major chord on standard tuning requires fretted notes only on three strings, a “standard” E minor chord only two. Everybody learns these two chords first because they’re so darned easy. They’re also ubiquitous in guitar-based music– because they’re so easy.

In the all-perfect-fourths tuning, best chord shape I’ve come up with requires fretting five strings for both chords if you want to be able to slam your pick through the entire set of six strings and get the low E in there too. That means you have to basically play a partial bar chord, which is not nearly so easy for beginners to do. It’s not a killer for someone who’s played for a while, but it’s still noticeably more effort than playing correlate chords in the standard tuning.

On the other hand, chords that are totally awkward in normal tuning– like the F major chord, which basically always requires a bar with no open strings– become a lot easier.  There are actually a couple more basic-triad options available involving open strings, especially if you’re not insistent on playing / slamming through all  of the strings as many guitarists like to do. If you can somehow keep from playing through the highest one or two strings on the guitar, which can be done through creative muting / string-blocking or careful right-hand control, you can actually get by with an awful lot of “standard” chord shapes too.

More importantly, when you start going beyond basic triadic shapes into crazy extended-tertian jazz sonorities, the open-fourths tuning fixes a lot of problems inherent to playing a normally-tuned guitar in that genre. You don’t need to memorize twelve different fret patterns for, say, a G13b9, as the “third break” in standard tuning requires you to do. In open-fourths tuning, if you memorize one viable all-fretted-notes chord shape for a 13b9 chord, that same pattern will work anywhere on the instrument, with any combination of strings and any pitch-class root.

I could never get into jazz guitar playing no matter how I tried, simply because it required way too much chord-variant memorization. I think I might be able to start pulling it off in an all-fourths tuning.

What really led me to this was the realization that after 25 years of playing, I still can’t solo worth a damn. That’s partially because I usually hate guitar solos, but it’s also because of that damned G-B break in the tuning. I have to force myself to remember mid-solo that I can’t play an octave that way up there, I need to move my finger a fret up or down to get this particular note of the scale if I’m moving to a G-B pattern instead of a B-E pattern, etc. It’s too much to think about. Breaks my brain.

If things were perfectly symmetrical, again, that additional confusing layer of “oh, no, that needs to move up / down a fret” before it happens in real time doesn’t have to happen. I can memorize basic modal patterns / shapes on the fretboard and know that they will work no matter where I play them.

I figured I couldn’t possibly be the first guitarist to come to this very belated conclusion, and preliminary research proves me right. There are other proponents of the open-fourths tuning– Stanley Jordan being perhaps its most well-known user. And given the idiom and technique he works with, it makes perfect sense that he’d dig this tuning too. Lots of other jazzers and/or finger-tappers prefer this tuning. Makes perfect sense.

I think it’s time to spend some serious time noodling around in in EADGCF (or maybe even Drop-D fourths: DADGCF) and see if I can finally manage to push my solo / extended-tertian playing beyond its longstanding state of mediocrity.

Next problem: Now I want a guitar that lets me move the tuning between B-E and C-F on the top two strings at the flick of a switch.

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