TNAG Notes #14 by Stephen Bennett

Anyone remember ‘Band In A Box’, the Sinclair games-console of all our home-recording guitar-nerds’ needs? Happy days. For some peculiar reason, all too consistent with the fevered imagination of this column, that catchily alliterative name suddenly conjured up a handy possible title for an extended speculation on the joys of alternate tunings.

No…come back…thank you. Now, settle down. If you don’t love an alternate tuning every now and then, you are surely, like the unfortunate (and entirely fictional) Snegurochka, incapable of love. Look her up.

The metaphorical band, in this case, would be the internal support mechanism provided by a comfort-zone of constantly underpinning harmonic structure. The box being your (generally speaking, acoustic) instrument of choice. Told you…it makes perfect sense.

Any solo performer conscious of those weedy, sonically-underpowered moments in his or her otherwise full-on and sensational Led Zeppelin tribute repertoire will know where we’re coming from. There’s a reason Jimmy Page’s sound is so harmonically rich and strange. Same goes for Nick Drake, John Martyn, Bukka White, Michael Hedges, John Lee Hooker, Martin Simpson and a host of others in just about every six-string genre you can think of. Even jazz. A bit.

It would be something of a challenge to find a guitarist from either coast of Africa, or any Caribbean island, who plays the country’s indigenous music in standard tuning; basically a user-unfriendly, manufactured, ‘Western’ concept that square-pegs the guitar into a piano-appeasing round hole. Like squeezing Oliver Hardy into Stan Laurel’s suit. If your priority is rhythm, dance, self-accompanied melody and generally getting the biggest bang for your portable, unamplified buck then having a pre-tuned chord as your musical base-camp is the only way to go. And what starts out as, “look at me, I only need one finger to churn out a hundred hit songs” (via the ‘open strings, 5th fret, 7th fret’, I-IV-V formula) soon morphs into half the slide-based canon of the Delta Blues and from there to the deceptively simple-sounding sophistication of a Ry Cooder or Stephen Stills.

And it goes without say that, had she been a guitarist, Greta Garbo would have discovered her own open tunings. She famously wanted to be alone. The same is (mostly) true of greats like Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake, singer-writers of unparalleled genius whose work is all but defined by its tuning-based ‘otherness’. Drake compounded his virtually impossible to emulate sound by never changing his strings and always being just a fraction out of tune. Getting one’s head round his frequently used ‘suspension’ tunings like the capo’ed CGCFCE of ‘Hazey Jane 1’ and ‘Place To Be’ is another thing altogether. The easy part, in fact.

The aforementioned Stills, on the other hand, milked some significant mileage out of the non-more-basic EEEEBE (a modal chord-cushion he picked up from Buffalo Springfield bassist, Bruce Palmer) in incredibly complex sounding material like ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’, ‘Carry On’ and ‘4+20’. It also saved David Crosby from having to think too hard on stage.

While, in most players’ hands, such tunings might eventually sound limited – and become limiting – over the course of an entire set, DADGAD is generally the one we all fall back on; the gift that keeps on giving. Once you’ve mastered the basics, it’s probably the most versatile alternate tuning available as it’s so amenable to major and minor modes without the need for significant adjustments in finger-placing. It’s both the unchallenged, fall-back Celtic champion and the go-to option for countless contemporary finger-style explorations. And speaking of versatility, it’s the perfect vehicle for bringing Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, slowed down à la June Tabor, to renewed life as a lachrymose, folk-club crowd-pleaser.

The one significant drawback, in terms of repeatedly altering your tunings is performance. Not only is it time-consuming – unless you’ve got a range of guitars to hand – it’s always guaranteed to induce string-breakage paranoia and, by extension, the possibility of even more time consumption. Planning a tuning-switching live set, with only one acoustic, can involve some serious strategic forethought. The rewards, though, will be worth the effort.

One you might have missed…

Eric Skye is often billed as a jazz player yet, armed with his little signature Santa Cruz, he has delivered some of the finest interpretations of traditional, Americana favourites recently committed to vinyl (or CD, or something) on the duet album, “June Apple” with mandolinist Tim Connell. It’s a quiet delight from start to finish. For something more contemporary, look for his sublime, solo take on Jimmy Webb’s, “Wichita Lineman” from “Ballads and Blues”.

If you’ve missed out ‘til now, we recommend you catch up with Eric Skye’s work forthwith.

A Brief Note on Karma (sadly, not Instant)…

Caveat Vendor. Now there’s a phrase you don’t often hear. However, allow us to divert you, briefly, with a Cautionary Tale. What happens when you trust a dealer to sell an instrument on your behalf and said shyster – sorry, dealer – conceals the fact for over a year, despite your best efforts to make contact, that he’s about to go bankrupt? You’re screwed, is what happens. The guitar you’d expected four-and-a-half grand for has disappeared, along with the rest of his stock, to pay off the dealer’s creditors. And good luck with trying to get it, or your money, back. Did we mention Norwich? Did we mention ‘last seen peddling capos’? Did we mention initials not dissimilar to those of your columnist? No. Because that would be churlish. Still, should you commit to selling your ex-loved guitar on consignment, do it via a reputable dealer (like TNAG) with a rock-solid reputation. There’s a Martin Bellezza Nera out there, no doubt much cherished and in a good home, that one hopes might serve as a lesson to us all. Meanwhile, we await the inevitable outcome of some not-so-instant Karma.

This Fortnight’s Fab Five…

…Easy Pieces! And a fine film that was, too. Jack Nicholson at his chicken-sandwich-refusing, waitress-terrorising best. Anyway…in instantaneous and shameless homage to our previous half-dozen paragraphs, here are five tunes in five different tunings that won’t take up a huge amount of digit-energy or inflict lasting brain-damage but rather, will dazzle your friends at those regular, Friday evening cocktail gatherings. What..? Then start, immediately. Honestly, some people.

  1. In the above-mentioned, oh-so-wrong, piano-favouring historical aberration that is ‘standard tuning’, how about having a go at the lovely, loping groove of Julian Lage’s, ‘Day and Age’ from the album, ‘World’s Fair’. It’s a bluesy, open-ended piece that allows for any amount of embellishment and dynamic tinkering. Also, it’s in E major - standard tuning’s only self-supporting key. Though ‘acoustic Julian’ is generally a Collings man, these days, here he’s at his most accessible on both a vintage Martin 000-18 and a truly great album.

  1. And with just one altered note – low E dropped to D – we enter a whole new world of wonders. Don’t do a Lennon and McCartney and stop at ‘Dear Prudence’. With the same two or three sliding, partial-chord shapes you can span a huge cross-section of musical history with a medley of ‘The Derry Air/Danny Boy’, ‘Shenandoah’ and ‘The Main Theme from Cinema Paradiso’. Ireland, US and Italy - in any order. All slow ballads and all dead easy once you’ve sorted out the sneaky 7ths in the first one and the barred A minors in the other two. ‘Cinema Paradiso’ also has a lovely G minor towards the end but that just makes it all the more fabulous. These three, of course, merely represent a way in. About three million others await, as does the delight of playing tunes in the key of G with a cool D in the bass.

  1. Ah, yes. DADGAD. Where do we even start? Perhaps with the narrow notion that this is the “Celtic” tuning. Admittedly, your classic O’Carolan and Neil Gow tunes (harp and fiddle, respectively) will never sound better but from a ton of Led Zeppelin (‘Kashmir’, most notably) to Johnny Cash (‘Ain’t No Grave’) to the incomparable Soggy Bottom Boys (‘I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow’) DADGAD has proven as comfortable – and memorable – in blues, rock and country as it has within the Irish and Scottish tradition. Still, by way of kicking off our stress-free introduction, have a crack at Bill Caddick’s, “John o’ Dreams” as an instrumental. It’s a lovely tune (by Tchaikovsky!) and allows for plenty of the hammer-on/pull-off experimentation this tuning is all about. Use the Christy Moore version for reference and, even on something this straightforward, you’ll sound like two people playing.

  1. If ever there were to be declared a ‘People’s Tuning’, it would surely be Open G (DGDGBD), the ‘warmest’ of the open, major chord options. Once you’ve sussed out that sliding Am7 shape to go with the barred basics, you’re away. This is the tuning you’ll hear most in the constantly-evolving Afro-Caribbean tradition and it’s the main reason why ‘Tumbling Dice’ and ‘Brown Sugar’ can sound so spare and yet so full at the same time. It’s the sound of the rural Blues versus the (open D) urban Blues. And who better to clarify that than THE slide-king, Ry Cooder, who generally uses the former for rhythm and the harder-edged latter for solos. Try both and it should make sense. Meanwhile, Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally” is a doddle in open G so give it a go. You hardly need to move out of first position to feel the double-bonus vibe of some added J.J. Cale.

  1. Saving the trickiest for last. C9th (CGDGCD), as frequently employed by Pierre Bensusan and, more accessibly for the purposes of this example, Martin Simpson. Like DADGAD, it’s a gift to the Celtic traditional style, especially in interpretations of all those mega-modal bagpipe tunes, but is also wonderfully adaptable and may be the best available vehicle for delving into some funky “Amazing Grace/Swing Low Sweet Chariot” variations. Simple two and three-string chord shapes, surprisingly blues-bend-friendly, hammer-on heaven.

See you next time!

by Stephen Bennett

Stephen Bennett

Stephen Bennett is a multi-award-winning TV scriptwriter, theatre director, musician and reviewer/interviewer for the sadly, now-defunct, “Acoustic” magazine. He lives with his wife, Gabrielle, in Mystic (which is a real place) and owns far too many guitars to deserve such a happy marriage. He once played football against the Brazilian national team (no, really) and will happily discuss the narrow 12-1 defeat at great length – with anybody.


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