My long journey to alternate tunings

I'm sort of known for playing a lot in alternate tunings these days so it might come as a surprise that I resisted alternate tunings for years and even considered alternate tunings to be "cheating" on the guitar. Wow. How funny when I remember that opinion. It was just a fear of something unfamiliar, envy of a technique that seemed unfathomable to me, and some weird thought that it was was "wrong." That seems crazy to me now, but I inhabited that frame of mind for years.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with alternate tunings, here's what that means. The guitar is generally tuned to what's called "standard tuning," which is E, A, D, G, B, E. This tuning is great and I think it's the most versatile of all of the tunings, I completely understand why that tuning was decided on as the "standard" guitar tuning. It makes it easy to play in any key and it makes the instrument very relate-able to other instruments when you play music with pianists, horn players, etc. It makes the guitar fit nicely into the world of music at large.

But one really cool feature of the guitar is that it has very easy to access and very easy to turn tuning pegs up on what's called the headstock of the guitar. These are used to tune up your guitar. However... they can also be used to completely change the notes on each string. So, while standard tuning is what the guitar is generally tuned to, it doesn't have to be. You can change the notes the strings are tuned to to be any note you want. This makes the guitar very, very unique compared to other musical instruments. The piano can be tuned, but you have to open up the instrument and use wrenches. It's very complicated and you certainly couldn't do it between songs. Horns can be tuned a little bit, but just to bring them closer to pitch, you can't change actual notes associated with horn fingerings. Violins, violas, cellos, and upright basses can be tuned, but as far as I know, they don't use alternate tunings, I might be wrong about that. I played a little violin and cello for a string techniques class in college and from what I remember, tuning a violin is pretty tricky and the tuning pegs generally aren't as mechanical as a guitar's tuning pegs so it might not be practical to change the tuning on those types of stringed instruments. Again, I could be completely wrong about that.

But, with the guitar, you can tune the strings to whatever notes you choose, which is pretty amazing. I believe this practice evolved in Hawaii when people had guitars but not a lot of instruction in playing. The guitar in standard tuning sounds great when you finger a chord, but just strumming it open doesn't sound good. You have to arrange your fingers on a guitar in standard tuning to get anything that sounds good. So, the story is, people in Hawaii had guitars left behind from the American cowboys who were brought in to establish a cattle industry in Hawaii. Since picking up the guitar and strumming it in its standard tuning didn't sound good, the Hawaiians began using the tuning pegs to tune the guitar until it did sound good just strumming it open. This created a very brilliant tradition of what is called Hawaiian Slack Key guitar. They created slack in the strings by lowering the chosen notes on the guitar, hence "Slack Key." Anyway, this new, beautiful style of guitar eventually made its way back to the mainland of America and now alternate tunings on the guitar are a normal part of guitar technique. Maybe not "normal," but not really unusual any longer. I'm sure there were many people in other cultures who discovered this same technique, but that's the story I tell about the origin of this and that's the one I'm sticking with.

Anyway, I learned the guitar playing only in standard tuning, as most guitarists do. I focused mainly on electric guitar in those days, which rarely uses alternate tuning unless you're Keith Richards or you're in the band Sonic Youth. So, growing up, I never encountered alternate tunings. I listened to the music of Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges, but I had no idea what they were doing. To me, those guitarists sounded like they had come from another planet so I didn't even try to understand what they were doing. I remember in both of those examples just saying, "O.K. There is no way that's one guy playing without overdubs." when I heard their music. I still can't quite fathom how those guys don't have several extra sets of arms and hands when I hear their music.

When I went to college, I encountered a number of guitarists using alternate tunings. I thought it was really cool but I found it pretty intimidating since I didn't understand it. So, I naturally thought of it as "wrong" or "cheating." Nice huh? In reality, I was just upset that I thought it was so cool but I had no understanding of it. As a rule, I have generally resisted learning anything new in life once I'm established in any area of knowledge. Good policy huh? I'm working on changing that.

I also believed that my jazz guitar teachers wouldn't approve, and I was pretty into doing whatever my teachers said I should do, even though I really never became a "real" jazz guitarist. I still play a lot of solo jazz "chord melody" songs but I never really saw the point of just improvising endlessly on songs, and I was never that great at that type of improv. where the key of the song changes all the time. I realize now that my guitar teachers probably had no problem with me learning to play in alternate tunings. Maybe they did. I'm not sure. I know that at the time, my teachers completely abhorred anything they considered "New Age" music and I think they considered alternate tunings to be a part of the "New Age" world. On that topic, I don't think there are any musicians who have ever willingly been labeled as New Age. My music has been put into that category a lot and I really don't care what category it's in if it helps it sell. Forgive me. I know musicians aren't supposed to be interested in sales. Sorry. Guitars, guitar strings, recording sessions, amplifiers, and psychotherapy all cost money!

I secretly sought out a teacher at a folk music school to try and learn the art of alternate tunings. I had one lesson with him in which he explained to me that he had no idea how to use alternate tunings either. I don't think he charged me for the lesson.

So, when it finally happened, when I finally went over to the Dark Side of alternate tunings, I just jumped in, like the earlier Hawaiian guitarists and figured it out myself. Here's how I remember it, and I do think this is accurate. I was probably 21 or 22 years old. I was head over heels in "love" with a girl I had met at college. I know now that an experience like that isn't really love, but when you're that age, it sure feels like it. I was just going crazy with how much I was infatuated with this girl and when I'm overwhelmed with emotion, I generally turn to the guitar. I needed to write a song about my feelings for this girl.

The guitar in its standard tuning wasn't doing it for me on the night I began writing this song. So, I took my classical guitar out and started changing the notes it was tuned to. I tuned it until it sounded good to me. I landed on what guitarists know as the standard D Major tuning, D, A, D, F#, A, D. I didn't know I had "discovered" a tuning that guitarists had been using for generations. Anyway, once I was in this alternate tuning, the song just basically wrote itself. It was amazing. It was so easy to write this song.

I think that what happens with alternate tunings is that it forces you into unfamiliar intellectual territory on the guitar, so you write more intuitively or emotionally and less based on what you know analytically about the guitar. When you are always in standard tuning, you tend to go to chords or scales that you are familiar with and it's easy to just write what you know. When you get into an alternate tuning, you don't know where the chords or scales are so you just write what sounds good to you regardless of whether you know what you're doing or not. It can create really unique compositions you would never have thought of otherwise if you were familiar with the tuning.

The amazing guitarist Will Ackerman takes this to an extreme. I think that almost every one of his songs is in a different tuning. He very much wants to keep himself unfamiliar with the terrain so he makes his choices based on what sounds right as opposed to what he knows or is familiar with. Michael Hedges was that way too. I saw Michael Hedges play live about 5 or 6 times and he would retune his guitar between pretty much every song.

Anyway back to my tale. So, after that, I just kept doing this with the guitar. I made up tunings for different songs and then eventually I started to get tabs of guitarists who played in alternate tunings. I eventually sort of settled into a few "standard" alternate tunings that are very common. I mainly use [D,A,D,F#,A,D], [D,G,D,F#,A,D], [D,A,D,G,A,D], [D,G,D,G,A,D], [D,G,D,G,B,D], [C,G,C,G,C,E], and [C,F,C,G,C,E]. I still use standard tuning as well.

Now, I use those tunings as my home base, but I play with those as well. So, for example, if I play in [D,A,D,F#,A,D] on 12 string, I'll often tune it down to be a whole step lower. So, it's actually [C,G,C,E,G,C]. The fingerings are the same as D Major tuning but it's lower and easier on the fingers. With C Major tuning, [C,G,C,G,C,E], if I'm playing 12 string, I'll play that as [B,F#,B,F#,B,D#], [Bb,F,Bb,F,Bb,D], or even [A,E,A,E,A,C#]. You can only go so low before the string buzzing starts to sound bad. But the 12 string is such a monster that buzzing is sort of a part of its sound. Don't ever play 12 string. You'll be sorry. You'll get hooked on it. No one else will really like its sound but you, and even though it's ruining your musical life, you won't be able to stop playing it.

And, I usually play standard tuning tuned down 1/2 step so it's really [Eb,Ab,Db,Gb,Bb,Eb]. I considered that cheating for years as well until I found a tab of an Eric Johnson acoustic guitar song that was in that tuning. If Eric Johnson does it, it can't be wrong.

So, now playing in alternate tunings is pretty natural for me and is a big part of what I do. I never would have been able to predict that when I was younger. There are so many aspects of my musical philosophy these days that my younger self would have absolutely cringed at. I'm so sorry younger Jeff, but it just became too hard to resist the music I wanted to write, whether it was cheating or not. Please forgive me younger Jeff for not living up to your musical purity standards.

O.K. What about that song that I wrote for the girl I had the painful crush on? There's a reason they call them crushes - that's what it feels like inside. That's a quote from a movie but I can't remember which one, probably an 80's movie. Well, I recorded the song on my 4 track (early cassette based home studio) and I mixed it down to a cassette tape. I took this poor girl aside one day and played the song for her. What in the world could she say? She liked the song but she didn't really like me, at least not in that way. Ouch!!

I always thought that you could woo a woman with a song, or you could work a magical spell with music that would make a woman fall in love with you. That probably has worked for many guitarists, but I can't remember it ever working for me. I think if a person already is very attracted to you, writing them a song can really make them go further down that road they're already on, but if a person isn't into you at all, writing a song for them just makes them really uncomfortable. Anyway, it's so funny to think back on now. She was very nice about it, but she basically said it was a nice song but she already had a boyfriend.

So, I didn't get the girl but I ended up with a great song. The song I wrote for her is my song "Guinevere." Stop laughing, now! That title isn't funny! O.K. Yes, it is funny given the story right? Guinevere is the legendary Queen in King Arthur's Camelot who everyone falls in love with but no one can ever truly possess. Forgive me, I was young and I took myself very, very, very seriously. I still think it's a cool title even if it is a bit much. I didn't realize that Crosby, Stills, and Nash had a famous song by the same title or a similar title.

Anyway, I still love that song. It's one of the best ones I've ever written and I think it does perfectly capture in music how it feels to have a terrible crush on someone who will never feel that way about you, even if you write them an amazing song. But, I've gotten a lot of mileage out of that song. That's the really, really cool thing about writing music or being involved in any sort of creative endeavor. You get to translate your painful experiences into works of art that live on. I've played that song for audiences many times and people really love that song. I do too. And writing that song basically opened up the world of alternate tunings for me and I never looked back, even if it is cheating!