Alternative Guitar Tuning

15/01/2016

Regular readers of this blog (snigger) will know that I have had an interest in alternative tuning methods and extended guitar techniques for several years.

I think this all boils down to the fact that I never really got to grips with playing proper scales on the instrument, and so had to find my own way to tackle a performance – to become a master of the instrument on my own terms.

I’ve always found that alternative approaches to playing, whether using different tuning methods, or extended performance techniques, opened up new possibilities for expression – the results always felt more personal and as though I had a greater degree of control over what I was producing.

A few months ago I began experimenting with a new tuning method that would allow me to explore quarter tones on a standard guitar fretboard.

The drawback of a traditional fretboard is that the change in pitch as you move up the frets will always be half a semi-tone.

I decided to experiment with tuning the instrument with quarter tone differences between adjacent strings, as below;

QT_Tuning

So the 1st string tuned to D, the 2nd tuned 50 cent higher, the 3rd string tune to A, the 4th 50 cent higher, the 5th string tuned to F, and then the 6th string 50 cent lower.

I had experimented with some other methods before this, but found this tuning to give the best results – a rich dissonance in some places, whilst also allowing for some more traditional melodic ideas.

The experience of playing in this tuning has been a rewarding one. At first it felt alien, and I found myself struggling to settle. It definitely takes a few hours of playing for your ear to become accustomed to the new tuning.

Once this has happens though you can start to explore what the tuning has to offer as it reveals interesting textures and melodies. I found it was best to tentatively explore these areas once they presented themselves, starting with 2 or 3 notes, and then expanding out to see where I could take things.

I especially like the subtle beating effects you can hear when particular notes are combined – you don’t get this in a standard tuning, and it just adds something really special to the overall sound world of a piece.

Not everything will work, and there will be moments that just sound ‘out of tune’.

Which leads me to another idea…

One of the other things I have found is that once you take away the comfort of a standard tuning system, you might find yourself making better use of other musical tools, such as dynamics and rhythm in order to build the narrative of a performance.

A few weeks ago I recorded a lengthy solo improv session in the tuning, which I’m pretty happy with. I’m deciding at the moment whether I want to add any additional instrumentation, or vocals to the piece, but thought I would share an excerpt in the mean time – partly to demonstrate what can be done with the tuning, and partly because I’m also very proud of the piece.

I hope you enjoy.

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2 Responses to “Alternative Guitar Tuning”


  1. I really enjoyed this piece. To everyone’s dismay I use a slide to get quarter tones but this method opens up a lot more ideas

    • oliverjowen Says:

      Thanks for the comment Antony. That’s a good point about using a slide to achieve quarter tones, although it does have a distinctive sound in itself I find.
      Another technique I tried involved sliding a thin rod under the strings at the 1st fret and using this to alter string tension whilst playing, but this had too much of an impact on the string action for me.
      Another thing to mention is that the tuning I described above results in low tension in the strings, so you have a lot of room to explore string bends as another means to play micro-tones.


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