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Alternative tunings. What's the deal?

Recently there was a post on social media questioning the use of alternative tunings on classical guitar.  Before considering a possible answer, let's first have a look at what is considered to be standard tuning:

string 1 = E
string 2 = B
string 3 = G
string 4 = D
string 5 = A
string 6 = E

It is common practice to sometimes tune the 6th string down to D for example in some renaissance or baroque lute pieces that require the low bass sound. Otherwise known as dropped-d tuning, this suits music in the key of D major or D minor particularly well.

Some guitarists also lower the 3rd string from G natural down to F sharp which makes it possible to play a large number of early renaissance lute compositions.  It makes it possible to read lute tablature, provided the tablature wasn’t written for a lute with more than six strings.  Some lute music will work with a combination of f-sharp tuning and the 6th string lowered to D. Note: the question of lute music played on classical guitar is a complete topic on its own beyond the scope of this tip.

Classical guitarists nowadays are increasingly aware of other alternative tunings.  Steel and electric guitarists have been using altered tunings for many years. It’s been a more recent development with classical guitar music although no longer a new phenomenon.  One of the most popular examples of classical guitar music using altered tuning is “Koyunbaba” by Italian composer Carlo Domeniconi tuned 1=E 2=C# 3=G# 4=C# 5=G# 6=C#. Another example is Andrew York’s sparkling solo ‘Sunburst’ using 1=D, 2=B. 3=G. 4=D, 5=A, 6=D which is like dropped-d tuning but with the first string also lowered to D natural. Both pieces are striking in that the guitar takes on a different ‘personality’ or nuances from the usual sound. It is most noticeable in “Koyunbaba” which has an unmistakable middle-eastern sound.

The argument that was put forward via social media was that classical guitarists should always use standard tuning because that is what 95% of guitar music was written for. It is a fair point and good thinking in many respects. When you play music that’s written for standard tuning, you can be assured that the notes you are hearing are the notes written on the page.  Music in altered tuning is almost always written in scordatura format, which means that you read the notes and as if the strings are in standard tuning. The notes you hear are not always the notes you are reading and that can be very confusing for some people. However, it should be an easy concept to get used to provided you have a good understanding of the fretboard.

The great thing about alternative tunings is that they can bring about interesting new sounds that aren’t possible with standard tuning. Modern composers like to experiment with non-standard tunings in order to help open up new possibilities and explore different sonorities. There has been so much music written for standard tuning that it is becoming difficult for composers to create interesting new material. So much has been done before that new music in standard tuning can sound very much like what has been heard before.

There is one disadvantage and something to bear in mind if you are planning to perform music with dramatically altered string tunings.  Retuning the guitar between pieces can be difficult for the performer and distracting to the audience. It can be helpful to perform the music with altered tuning at the start of the first or second half. That way the guitar is tuned properly for that piece. However, if the music that follows is in another tuning (for example standard tuning) you need to allow time for the retuning and to let the strings settle. You might want to tell the audience a story then re-check the tuning before continuing with the concert.  Make sure it is a good, entertaining story worth hearing and the music is worth waiting for! Another option, and possibly the best one, is to bring a second guitar with the strings already set to the altered tuning.

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