It’s the Proverbial “Can of Worms": Alternate Tunings for Guitar and Uke
Stringed instruments are mysterious: Different numbers of strings with different tunings, all imposing particular musical intervals on the open strings, and each having benefits and deficits. The reasons why are numerous. If you have never popped the top off this musical mystery, perhaps it is time you did. Musicians whose names and reputations are legendary have used non-standard tunings: Keith Richard, and George Harrison to name a couple. Thank you Wikipedia, for a lot of information on tunings!
In standard tuning of ukulele and guitar, the interval between the second and third string is a "major third” (two whole steps down), while all the other adjacent strings are a perfect fourth apart (two whole steps plus a half step). Open tunings alter these ratios to produce a pleasing chord of some kind (usually a major chord) played over the open strings. A major chord has three different tones, namely the first note of the scale, the third note, and and fifth note. Other strings are usually slackened to provide additional notes with these note names, sometimes unison notes, sometimes octaves. The tunings usually use lowered notes to make it less likely players will break strings re-tuning their instruments. But why bother to change tuning? Many new chord shapes and sounds are available with open tuning. All twelve major, and twelve minor chords and their extensions are available to the player. The full and vibrant sound it produces makes it ideal for finger-style playing. My experimenting has convinced me that the open tuning allows the player to hear and understand the I, IV, V harmony in a different way.
In the open tunings common to blues and folk music, the tuning is named for the bass chord when the strings are played “open” without fretting at all. All similar chords (ie “major” chords if that is what this open chord is) can be made by simply barring across all strings at each fret. Yes, the lap steel is an open-tuned instrument, with the player using a steel or glass tube to play across the strings changing their pitch. Open D tuning is of particular interest to this writer because ukulele is tuned in standard tuning to either a C6 or D6 chord, so standard tuned ukes can become open D or open C tuning by lowering the first string one full step. Open D tuning was favored by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young to name a few legendary artists. Dylan’s entire album Blood on the Tracks was originally recorded entirely in open D tuning, as was Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” (put in a parking lot!). If you love a particular rendition of a song and cannot duplicate it, the artist may be working in an open tuning you just can’t emulate in standard tuning!
In Hawai’ian traditional guitar and ukulele music, families invented their own tunings which were closely guarded secrets. Some of them still are, but other tunings have become well known, like “drop G/ Taro Patch” tuning. (D, G, D, G, B, D) on guitar. All techniques employed by guitarists can be mimicked on ukulele, but without the two bass strings, the effect is not as rich. Hawai’ian open tunings are usually used with the low 4th string (low g) on the ukulele. However, if your ukulele is “high g”, try the open tuning anyway: you’ll find your instrument well suited to playing fiddle and banjo tunes! When you tune the first string down a whole step it’ll be the same as the fourth string. All the other strings remain unchanged on uke. So your fingering stays the same except on the first string. Guitarists have to incorporate the 6th and 5th strings into the mix.
Open tuning is actually a fairly broad topic. There are at least three open tunings in every key! Joni Mitchell developed a shorthand method of noting guitar tunings: The first letter denotes the lowest string followed by the relative fret offsets to obtain the pitch of the next higher string (count the half steps including the first and last notes) This scheme highlights pitch relationships and simplifies the process of comparing different tuning schemes. Search “guitar tunings” in Wikipedia for a chart given the tuning of each string in these various tunings.
Sometimes “instrumental tuning” is employed, where a player changes the tuning of his instrument to be the same as a different instrument. Violin and mandolin are tuned to the interval of the perfect 5th. This has several advantages. However, tuning into 5ths could never be made to work with nylon stringed instruments—perhaps that is why guitar and ukulele are tuned in 4ths with one major 3rd instead.
Intermediate Ukulele class will explore open tuning on ukulele, beginning on Saturday March 2. If you already play up and down the C major scale in standard tuning and change chords in several keys with ease, you’re ready for this challenge We will play “Kanikapila style”, by ear, in open tuning, beginning with open C, and perhaps trying open D part midway through the class. We’ll take simple songs with a I, IV, V harmonic structure and try them in open tuning. Bring a favorite song with you to class. (In the key of C, I, IV, V means the chords C, F, and G or G7.)
So if you’ve always colored between the lines, and played it safe, and now it’s snowing cats and dogs and life is getting a bit tedious, I encourage you to open this can of worms! You’re bound to learn and grow musically in the process! Stay safe, and play music! We’ll be here for you at GCM if we can slide downhill from Dufur without leaving the road! If you find us closed, we apologize for any inconvenience.