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Alternate tunings for the guitar

...a few suggestions and a question. These links below are internal:

Violin tuning - 6 to G

For those who would play violin music - such as Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin - on the guitar, I suggest tuning string 6 up to G. The lowest string of the violin is G so, obviously, you will never need any notes below that. Furthermore, the one step interval between strings 6 and 5 can be used to good advantage - you can find any note on string 5 two frets up on string 6.

The tuning of the violin, from low to high, is GDAE (more precisely, g d' a' e''.) After we tune up to G, we have 3 of the 4 open violin strings at our disposal - G, D and E. The fact that the guitar does not have an open a' is one of life's little bummers.

"Up to G?" you gasped. "Won't that cause an explosion?" Probably not - it only adds about an extra 2.6 Kg tension (heh heh.) Admittedly, it takes a little while for the string to settle in on the higher pitch.

An alternate solution is to put one of your other guitars into service for Bach. Replace the low E string with an A string and tune it down a step to G. The effort is negligible compared to the rewards in store.

Another solution to the problem comes from Kevin Gallagher. (See Soundboard, Winter 1995, p48.) He uses a single string capo on the 3rd fret of the 6th string. Be forewarned, this capo requires a hole to be drilled into the neck!

It's kind of funny to note that transcribers of Bach's violin pieces in D or D minor - for instance the Chaconne - will use the "obvious" guitar tuning of string 6 to D. This has the general effect of putting the violin's low open G even more out of reach! And after you've tried out the low G tuning and then hear a recording or performance of the Chaconne the "old way", you might find yourself groaning, "enough with the booming BONNNGGGGs, already!"

Scordatura - E major, G major (Russian), DADGAD, etc.

Guitarists occasionally run across pieces in E major tuning (E B e g# b e'), also known as Sebastopol, such as by Zani de Ferranti, Matteo Carcassi and Justin Holland. If you're inclined to play such pieces, but are worried about the extra tension which results from tuning 3 strings up (a total of +5 half-steps), it might occur to you to tune down to D major (D A d f# a d'). That's certainly safer - 4 strings have been tuned downward (for a total of -7 half steps) - but you might find the sound too low and dull, and the feel flabby.

Why not compromise? Try E flat (E-flat B-flat e-flat g b-flat e'-flat). 3 strings go down and 2 go up for a net change of -1 half-tone. It feels good and the brightness is maintained and, this may be my imagination but, even without perfect pitch you get a very refreshing sensation of playing in an unusual key.

Consider this sort of compromise for any sort of drastic scordatura. For example, the G major, or "Russian tuning" (D G d g b d') has 3 strings lowered for a total of -6 half steps. But A-flat major (E-flat A-flat e-flat a-flat c' e'-flat) would have 3 go down and 3 go up for no net pitch adjustment.

A popular, modern fingerstyle guitar tuning is called DADGAD, pronounced as it's spelled. This also is 6 half-steps low. Try a half-step down from EBEABE and, again, there is no net pitch adjustment from standard tuning.

Russian guitar music for our 6-string

Speaking of the Russian guitar, I've been wondering about something for a while now. The Russian guitar has 7 strings tuned DGBDGBD. When this music is transcribed for our 6-string guitar, it is generally transposed up one step (for example, from D to E.) A reason for doing this is that the Russian guitarists always transposed Western European 6-string guitar music down a step for their instrument.

In my experience, these transcriptions for our 6-string guitar usually have really tough spots - difficulties that I suspect don't exist on the 7-string Russian guitar.

Could we get a more authentic and natural transcription by leaving the Russian guitar music at its original pitch and tuning strings 1 and 6 down to D? By doing that we have 5 of the Russian guitar's open strings - our string 5 (A) being the odd man out.

How we tune string 5 would depend on the requirements of the particular piece - or single movement of a work, even. By tuning up to B or down to G we would have another Russian guitar open string. Or, leaving it right in between at A might be a good compromise. I presume - as with music in general - there's generally not as much going on in the bass as in the treble, so you'd think at least one of these three options would work.

Anybody out there with a bunch of music for Russian guitar inclined to test out this theory? Wouldn't it be nice to directly access the world of Russian guitar music with our 6-string jobs - putting our fingers (for the most part) where the composer did?

Follow-up (Feb 2004): Well, I am in a position to answer my own question (since nobody else would!) I have the set of Andrei Sychra's "Journals de St. Petersbourg" - 18 journals of 6 pages each for a total of 108 pages of music for Russian guitar. My speculations above were spot on - there's hardly a problem finding a tuning that allows the piece to be played naturally. (Deciding between two almost equally good tunings was the biggest problem!) I use almost every permutation of these possibilities:

String 1 = D or E.
String 5 = G, A or B.
String 6 = D, E or G.

Since I'm already in the groove of retuning strings to make a piece as playable as possible, I'm open to anything that helps. There are a few pieces, for example, where (6) = F# really helps, and at least one where I tune (6) = Eb. My fingerings keep me on track, no matter the tuning. These Sychra pieces have been a very pleasant discovery.

3rd string to F# - for more than just lute pieces

We all know that tuning the 3rd string down a half step gives the same open-string intervals as on the Renaissance lute and the vihuela. It doesn't take much effort to become a good reader in this tuning, especially with clear fingerings added.

You probably don't think about this tuning when playing other sorts of music, but you might want to. Notice that the keys most suited to the guitar - D, A and E - all use an F#. Whenever I play a transcription that has a melody dipping down to the 4th string F# - and especially when the F# is to be played along with the D below it - I test the piece out with the 3rd string tuned down. Admittedly, this often causes as many problems as it solves, but now and then it's a clear winner.


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