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Understanding the Left Hand in Open Tunings (all open tunings)

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Johnm:
Hi all,
I've been thinking recently about how the left hand positions at the base of the neck work out in the various different open tunings, and have been struck by the extent to which the same problems of chord voicing occur pretty much across the board in open tunings, a couple of which problems are:
   * It is next to impossible to find a IV chord with a low root in the bass; and,
   * It is next to impossible to voice a V7 chord with a third in it that is comfortably reachable.
It occurred to me that thinking of tunings one at a time is conceptually inefficient.  Since the same problems and issues arise in all open tunings why not figure out the source of, and solutions to the problems and then apply the solutions to the different open tunings, based on how they are voiced?
To get at why certain voices are hard to get at in the IV or V7 chords in open tunings, it is first necessary to identify what notes of the scale comprise the I, IV and V7 chords.  The I chord consists of root, the I note of the scale, third, the III note of the scale, and fifth, the V note of the scale.  The IV chord consists of root, the IV note of the scale, third, the VI note of the scale, and fifth, the I note of the scale.  The V7 chord consists of root, the V note of the scale, third, the VII note of the scale, fifth, the II note of the scale, and seventh, the IV note of the scale.
Looking at the open tunings which are tuned to open major chords, we can confine ourselves for the time being to Vestapol and Spanish tuning (though the principles we're applying would work for minor tunings like cross-note or modal tunings like DADGAD, as well).  Vestapol is voiced R-5-R-3-5-R, and Spanish is voiced 5-R-5-R-3-5.  Let's assume we want to voice a IV chord at the base of the neck, using as many open strings as possible.  In voicing a IV chord, you can keep the root of the I chord, because it is also the fifth of the IV chord.  It is not possible to lower the fifth of the I chord to get the IV note which is the root of the IV chord, since you can't lower an open string except by re-tuning it, so the V note of the I chord would be raised one whole step (two frets) to get to the VI note, which is the third of the IV chord.  The only way you can get a root of the IV chord at the base of the neck is by raising the third of the I chord one half-step (one fret), which gets you the IV note.  Adopting this sort of "as little movement as possible" approach, we find that the lowest-pitched root of the IV chord that we can conveniently voice at the base of the neck is at the first fret of the third string in Vestapol and at the first fret of the second string in Spanish.  So why do we have a hard time finding a low root for a IV chord in open tunings--because the only open string in a I chord that can easily be altered to give you a IV note is the third of the I chord.
Let's develop a similar strategy for voicing V7 chords in open tunings, once again starting with Vestapol and Spanish tunings.  We can keep the open strings that are the fifth of the I chord, because they are also the root of the V chord.  We can't lower the third of the I chord to get the II note that is the fifth of the V chord, so we raise the the third of the I chord one-half step to a IV note, which is the bVII of the V7 chord.  We can't lower the I note of the I chord to get the VII note which is the third of the V7 chord, so our only option is to raise the I note one whole step to get  the II note, which is the fifth of the V7 chord.  If we look at the V7 chords in Vestapol and Spanish at this point in the process thy play out as follows:
   * in Vestapol, 2-0-2-1-0-2, voiced 5-R-5-b7-R-5; and in
   * Spanish, 0-2-0-2-1-0, voiced R-5-R-5-b7-R
Note that in neither instance above, does the V7 chord include a third.  In fact, the only way to voice a third of the V7 chord at the base of the neck is to raise one of the open string roots of the V7 chord two whole steps (four frets).  When this strategy is adopted to put a third in the V7 chord, almost invariably, the lowest-pitched root of the V7 chord is left as an open string, and one of the upper roots of the V7 chord is sacrificed to get the third.  Adopting this means to put a third in the V7 chord we wind up with this position in Vestapol, 2-0-2-1-4-2, voiced 5-R-5-b7-3-5, and in Spanish, this position: 0-2-4-2-1-0, voiced R-5-3-5-b7-R.  Looking at how voicing the third of the V7 chord in Vestapol and Spanish played out, we can see why the third of the V7 chord always lives at the fourth fret at whatever string you voice it on in an open tuning.  A couple of additional points about voicing the V7 chord in open tunings:
   * The lowest-pitched root of a V7 chord is usually voiced as the lowest note in the chord in an open tuning, even in instances as in Vestapol, where you could theoretically voice a low fifth of the V7 chord on the sixth string.
   * For the V7 chord in Spanish in which the third is voiced, you could voice it at either the fourth fret of the fourth string or the fourth fret of the first string.  Buddy Boy Hawkins voiced it in both places, sometimes one right after the other.
   * Often in voicing IV and V7 chords, players in the style would keep the lowest-pitched chord tones of those chords, but would revert back to open strings for higher-pitched strings that if fretted, would double chord tones you already have.  Thus, for a IV chord in Vestapol, many players chose to play, instead of 0-2-0-1-2-0, 0-2-1-0-0, allowing the second string to remain open, since it would double the second fret of the fifth string if it were fretted.

The methods that we have used thus far to voice IV and V7 chords in Vestapol and Spanish tuning work in precisely the same way if you wish to try them out in open Bflat, F-Bb-D-F-Bb-D or open C tuning, CGCGCE.  Once you understand how you need to alter the voices in a I chord comprised of open strings to get the voices you need for the IV and V7 chords, or other chords if you wish to expand the chordal vocabulary, you don't have to treat each open tuning as a separate case, because you are solving essentially the same set of problems in every tuning.  How about that!
All best,
Johnm 
 

Rivers:
Do you think Memphis Minnie or a thousand others (including me) approached their tunings in this way? Once you figure out I-IV-V and a few transitions it's a feel thing. If it sounds good and works with my voice and accompanists, and I've been invited to make a record, it's probably good enough for me.

Not trying to be smart here, it just seems to me that diving in so deep doesn't really get inside the heads of the original practitioners.

Johnm:
I think it's all a matter of how much or well you want to understand something, Rivers.  I agree with you that it's extremely unlikely that the musicians whose playing in open tunings we particularly like and admire looked at what they played in such a reason-based way.  In fact, I'll just say they didn't approach tunings in the way I set them forth in the earlier post.   I reckon most folks pick up and picked up things the same way--possibly getting a couple of licks or chord positions from more experienced players and then finding stuff on one's own, empirically, through hunting and pecking, looking for things that sound good.  And you can find and play a lot of great stuff using that approach.

At the same time, it's hard to get very far beyond your starting point if that's all you demand of yourself in terms of understanding what you're doing.  And the fact that players tend to duplicate each other in terms of ideas, approach and licks bears that out, especially in players who worked in Vestapol.  With few exceptions, they were mostly playing very close to the same stuff.  As far as I'm concerned, diving in so deep is worth it precisely because we can't get in the heads of the original players, except insofar as their ideas manifested in what they played.  I'm interested in what people played, but I'm more interested in what they didn't play, and what I haven't played yet myself, and to continue to grow in those areas I need to understand things way beyond having a nice bunch of licks.   
All best,
Johnm

Prof Scratchy:
One musician who dived deep in open tunings was (as you know) Jesse Thomas. It would be good to have been a fly on the wall when he was discovering some of the sounds he could get! I think he was someone who really studied his approach in a very thoughtful way.

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