Adventures in Vestapol

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Sometimes referred to as open E or open D tuning, Vestapol (or Vastapol/Sebastapol) is perhaps better viewed in terms of the relationship of the strings to the root pitch on the 6th string:

6th string=Root
5th string=5th
4th string=Root
3rd string=3rd
2nd string=5th
1st string=Root

The root, 3rd and 5th are the notes of the major scale that make up the root major chord for whatever key you are playing in: in E, they would be E, G# and B. So if you are tuned to Vestapol in E, playing the open strings will sound an E major chord. The pitches you are tuned to - EBEG#BE - are actually the same as an E chord in standard tuning. If you tune to D, the strings are tuned DADF#AD. Whatever pitch you tune to, the relationship between the strings will always stay the same: R5R35R.

What makes Vestapol convenient as a name for the tuning is the lack of confusion between the actual key the song might sound in and the relationship of the intervals between strings in the tuning. Charley Patton, for instance, plays "Spoonful" in Vestapol at E, or in other words, open E tuning. Furry Lewis plays the slide piece "Falling Down Blues" in Vestapol, but pitched at D, so open D. Josh White plays in Vestapol on songs like Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin' Bed, but his guitar is pitched low at C. It's all Vestapol. The relationship between the strings remains the same, whether you're tuned to play in the key of D, Eb, E etc. (or, of course, if you put a capo on).

Here's a growing list of songs that are played in Vestapol tuning. These are all songs played without slide. We have left out slide and Delta players, as the list would grow exponentially. For another list someday. Likewise, the Blind Willie Johnson songs listed are not his slide pieces, which were also played in Vestapol.

Big Bill Broonzy
Joe Turner Blues

Blind Blake
Down in the Country
Police Dog Blues

Blind Boy Fuller
Little Woman You're So Sweet

Blind Connie Williams
"Philidelphia Street Singer" Inc. Milky White Way

Blind Willie Johnson
Everybody Ought To Treat A Stranger Right (pitched at F)
If I Had My Way I'd Tear This Building Down (pitched at F)
I'm Gonna Run To The City Of Refuge (pitched at G)
Jesus Is Coming Soon (pitched at G)
John The Revelator (pitched at E)
Take Your Burden To The Lord And Leave It There (pitched at Eflat)
The Rain Don't Fall On Me (pitched at F)
The Soul Of A Man--4/20/30 (pitched at E)
Trouble Will Soon Be Over (pitched at F)
When The War Was On (pitched at Eflat)

Bo Carter
Ain't Nobody Got It
Ants In My Pants
Baby, When You Marry
Backache Blues
Blue Runner Blues
Bo Carter Special
Cigarette Blues
Dinner Blues
Don't Mash My Digger So Deep
Fifty Fifty With Me
Flea On Me
Got to Work Somewhere
I Love That Thing
It's Too Wet
I've Got a Case of Mashin' It
Mashing That Thing
Mean Feeling Blues
New Auto Blues
Pig Meat Is What I Crave
Ram Rod Daddy
Sorry Feeling Blues
Sue Cow

Clifford Gibson
Old Timey Rider
Ice and Snow Blues

Doc Watson
The Train That Carried My Girl From Town
Sittin' on Top of the World

Dr. Ross
Going To The River

Elizabeth Cotten

Furry Lewis
Big Chief Blues

Georgia Yellow Hammers
Rip Van Winkle Blues

Hobart Smith
K.C. Blues

Jesse Thomas
Another Friend Like Me

John Byrd
Old Timbrook

John Jackson
Steamboat Whistle Blues

Josh White
Good Gal
Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed
I Don't Intend To Die In Egypt-land
Lord, I Want To Die Easy
John Henry

Mississippi John Hurt
If You Don't Want Me
Pay Day

Pete Harris
Alabama Bound

Robert Wilkins
That's No Way to Get Along

Roy Harvey and Leonard Copeland
Weary Lonesome Blues

Sam McGee
Drummer Boy
Knoxville Blues
Guitar Waltz

Scott Dunbar
Memphis Mail

Uncle Dave Macon accompanied by Sam McGee
I've Got The Mourning Blues

"Talking in Sebastopool" - Paul Oliver, Jazz Monthly, 1960

A number of readers have asked me the meaning of the above title and what is "an authentic example in Sebastopool tuning" to which I made reference in the piece on Gabriel Brown, "Blow Gabriel" (JM Nov. 1959). I could have worded this better, for whilst I knew of a number of items which appear to be in Sebastopool tuning, this would be one of the few actually titled as such. Sebastopool tuning, or as Elizabeth Cotton calls it on her Folkways LP somewhat more accurately � "Sevastapol tuning" � is a method of tuning the guitar which is reputedly of Russian origin and introduced to the States by Russian emigrees. For the folk musician it has many advantages, for it is simpler to play than the customary tuning of the guitar, and a blues singer can perform in the favourite blues key of "E" with remarkably little instrumental knowledge. It is, of course, a limited means and for the accomplished guitarist has little appeal. Instead of the customary Bass E, A, D, G, B, Top E tuning of the guitar the performer raises the "A" string to "B"; the "D" string to "E" and the "G" string to G sharp, leaving the "B" and "E" strings as before. The guitar is now tuned to an open "E" chord and when strummed, plays as if the frets were stopped for "E" in the normal tuning. The blues singer needs only to strum for the first four bars, stopping the "B" string with one finger for the concluding "Seventh"; needs only a couple of fingers to form his "A" and "B 7th" chords and for three quarters of the total sequence of the twelve-bar blues, need do nothing but strum if he feels so inclined. This hardly lends itself to instrumental variety, however! Still, it does free the fingers of a non-too-dexterous guitarist to play some melodic variations, and is especially successful when the knife-blade or bottleneck of the folk guitarist is laid across the strings. More guitarists than might be supposed use this tuning as Brownie McGhee demonstrated at my home whilst on his last trip (photograph p.27).

He showed how a singer such as Tommy McClennan or Bukka White can use this to powerful effect, but also, much more surprisingly, Robert Lee McCoy. "Yeah, it's good for some and can learn a man to play the blues...but for me it don't have enough" said Brownie, resting his left and idle arm on his knee, turning away his head to show his disinterest...and thumb-and-finger picking a swift and fascinating accompaniment that many a blues man has never achieved.

Have a song to add to the list? Go to original forum thread