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Author Topic: Alternate Tunings ? Historical Context?  (Read 499 times)

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Offline Nyama74

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Alternate Tunings ? Historical Context?
« on: July 22, 2018, 03:15:43 PM »
Hope this isn?t too much of a ?why is water wet?? sort of question but I recently picked up the latest Robert Johnson tab book and it got me thinking about all of the different alternate tunings the old blues masters used back in the day. My question isn?t about the specific tunings used but a more general ?why so many?? Was it simply for all the different tonal colors, possibly to make their licks harder to steal or was it part of an older tradition with even deeper roots that I?m not aware of?

Since most guitarists one hundred years later tend to stick with standard tuning (path of least resistance), does anyone have any theories on why the early blues men and women would've used so many? Especially since they probably weren?t carrying multiple guitars or boxloads of spare strings. Where the heck did this come from?

Offline banjochris

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Re: Alternate Tunings ? Historical Context?
« Reply #1 on: July 22, 2018, 05:10:36 PM »
For tonal colors, for making certain things easier to play, perhaps even for increased volume.

One place retuning certainly came from is from old-time fiddle and banjo playing, especially banjo. It was and is common to tune a banjo many different ways to get different "atmospheres," as Wade Ward used to call them, and specifically to get as many melody notes on open strings as possible. This was important in the days when banjos were fretless and it was more difficult to play full chords and to play up the neck in tune. Retuning kept the left hand in first position much of the time. Ditto with fiddling, where it was common to retune a fiddle from GDAE to AEAE or GDGD to play in "cross" A or G, and there are plenty of other tunings as well. Cajun fiddlers used these alternate tunings as well.

And it's not a big deal to retune a lot; I do it all the time and seldom break a string on either guitar or banjo. Also until radio came along there wasn't necessarily that much time pressure on a performer so that they couldn't retune. And I would take exception to the "most guitarists stick with standard tuning" statement -- I think there are many more tunings being used today than there were in old-time blues music. Depending on the genre "alternative" tunings might be the norm!
Chris

Online Johnm

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Re: Alternate Tunings ? Historical Context?
« Reply #2 on: July 22, 2018, 06:05:24 PM »
I think everything Chris said is right on.  I would just add that open tunings were often used in the Parlor Guitar tradition that preceded the blues.  In fact, the tuning names Spanish and Vestapol come from Parlor Guitar pieces, "Spanish Fandango" and "The Siege of Sevastopol".  Other open tunings in addition to Spanish and Vestapol were used in the Parlor Guitar Tradition, too, like open C/Bb, that Peg Leg Howell used to play "Low Down Rounder Blues" and "Fairy Blues".

Use of open tunings for playing slide or bottleneck pieces was almost certainly influenced by Hawaiian music.  And using an open tuning for slide playing makes the chording so much easier for the player wearing the slide--you can just barre or use little partials.

An additional incentive for using open tunings is that they tend to simplify the left hand, especially in a music like Blues that is relatively simple, harmonically.  It's not unusual at all to be able to communicate everything you need to, in the way of chords and fretting in an open tuning blues, using only two or three fingers in the left hand.  When you're singing at the same time, you're going to love anything that makes the playing easier while still sounding good.

I would second Chris's observation that re-tuning is not that big of a deal.  Moreover, I don't think electronic tuners help that much, except possibly in noisy performance situations where you simply can't hear well enough to tune.  I think one of the first skills that folks should work on is tuning and re-tuning without a tuner.  Your ear improves quickly.

All best,
Johnm

Offline oddenda

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Re: Alternate Tunings ? Historical Context?
« Reply #3 on: July 22, 2018, 08:14:50 PM »
Jim Watson of The Red Clay Ramblers toldme that the OTM musicians he met often referred to "open" guitar tunings as "banjo tunings".

pbl
« Last Edit: July 22, 2018, 08:18:37 PM by oddenda »

Offline Nyama74

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Re: Alternate Tunings ? Historical Context?
« Reply #4 on: July 23, 2018, 06:20:31 AM »
Thanks for all of the great information, banjochris, Johnm and oddenda! As a guitarist, I?ve read a little about the Parlor Guitar and Hawaiian influences on the blues but had never considered the banjo and fiddle influences/tunings on these musicians. Makes perfect sense, though, and never ceases to amaze me how the early blues guitarists were able to combine all of these disparate elements so seamlessly.

I guess the thing that still seems a little odd to me is the number of different tunings used. The R.J. book I mentioned, for example, suggests at least 7 possible tunings for 29 songs. Granted, two of those are drop D and double drop D but if he was playing most of those songs live, he must've been retuning constantly. I rarely break strings myself but, when I do, it's almost always when switching tunings. Admittedly, I don't change acoustic strings as often as I probably should but did those guys? From what I?ve read of their lives and travels, those instruments must?ve been pretty weathered!

P.S. Chris ? I think you?re absolutely right about the number of tunings used today and I'm a fan of a good number of guitarists from folk to alt. rock (and beyond) who regularly use them. If we?re talking about popular guitar music in the U.S., though, I don?t think it?s a complete stretch to say that those musicians tend to be the exception rather than the norm. That?s all I meant by that. : )

Offline Stuart

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Re: Alternate Tunings ? Historical Context?
« Reply #5 on: July 23, 2018, 09:52:57 AM »
Makes perfect sense, though, and never ceases to amaze me how the early blues guitarists were able to combine all of these disparate elements so seamlessly.

Yep--I'm amazed until I stop and think about it and then I'm not so amazed. These people were very talented and resourceful musicians. Perhaps to expect anything less is to think about them in terms of our own preconceived notions regarding "early blues guitarists," as opposed to who they really were, letting their music speak (volumes) for itself.

Offline Nyama74

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Re: Alternate Tunings ? Historical Context?
« Reply #6 on: July 23, 2018, 11:28:40 AM »
I understand what you're saying, Stuart, but musical genius will never fail to amaze me.

There are millions of very talented and resourceful musicians in the world...these guys reinvented the musical wheel.

Offline btasoundsradio

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Re: Alternate Tunings ? Historical Context?
« Reply #7 on: July 24, 2018, 05:48:23 PM »
I always assumed Spanish tuning came from when Americans got guitars during the Spanish American War. Vastapol/Sebastopol, thats a place right? Henry Stucket learned open D minor from Bahamian Soliders in WWI, Joseph Spence uses that tuning right?  Peg Leg Howell is the only example I can think of, of a pre war use of an Open C tuning. I dunno, very interesting. I would love to learn more open tuning history.
Charlie is the Father, Son is the Son, Willie is the Holy Ghost

Online Johnm

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Re: Alternate Tunings ? Historical Context?
« Reply #8 on: July 24, 2018, 06:28:23 PM »
Hi btasoundsaradio,
Spanish tuning long pre-dates the Spanish-American War--the title came from "Spanish Fandango" a parlor piece composed by Henry Worrell in the 1840--1860 period.  Joseph Spence played in dropped-D, rather than open D minor.  I think the idea that Henry Stuckey learned cross-note tuning from Bahamian soldiers is doubted now, since nobody from the Bahamas has ever been recorded playing in cross-note.
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: July 24, 2018, 08:13:04 PM by Johnm »

Offline Stuart

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Re: Alternate Tunings ? Historical Context?
« Reply #9 on: July 24, 2018, 07:53:54 PM »
This has been posted and discussed previously, but for those who haven't seen it, here it is again:

http://jasobrecht.com/blues-origins-spanish-fandango-and-sebastopol/


Offline banjochris

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Re: Alternate Tunings ? Historical Context?
« Reply #10 on: July 25, 2018, 09:20:53 AM »
Peg Leg Howell is the only example I can think of, of a pre war use of an Open C tuning.

I believe Sylvester Weaver's "Soft Steel Piston" is in open C, not the same one Peg Leg uses. Open C was around in the parlor guitar tradition and was also a fairly common banjo tuning, used (for instance) with great frequency by Uncle Dave Macon.
Chris

Offline Nyama74

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Re: Alternate Tunings ? Historical Context?
« Reply #11 on: July 25, 2018, 02:22:53 PM »
That was a great read on the Spanish/Vestapol connection, Stuart...thanks very much for sharing!

I'm still a little fuzzy on the Hawaiian piece of the puzzle, though. If this timeline is right (feel free to correct me), the lap steel was invented by Joseph Kekuku around 1885. He then left Hawaii to start touring the U.S. in 1904 with Hawaiian guitar music becoming increasingly popular between 1915-1920. But W.C. Handy claims to have heard the Tutwiler, MS, guitarist in 1903. If that guitarist was already aware of Hawaiian steel guitar, where/how would he have encountered it prior to 1903?

Offline Stuart

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Re: Alternate Tunings ? Historical Context?
« Reply #12 on: July 25, 2018, 03:36:10 PM »
If you haven't read it already, you should take a look at John Troutman's Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music

https://www.uncpress.org/book/9781469627922/kika-kila/

John also has an article in the Spring 2013 edition of Southern Cultures, "Steelin? the Slide: Hawai?i and the Birth of the Blues Guitar."

http://www.southerncultures.org/issues/vol-19-no-1-global-music/

http://www.southerncultures.org/article/steelin-the-slide-hawaii-and-the-birth-of-the-blues-guitar/

It's an earlier and shortened version of some of the info in Kika Kila...

I met John and talked to him when he gave a talk at the UW a couple of years ago.

When I talked to Jeff Peterson, he said that according to the oral tradition in Hawaii, open tunings being used on guitars in Hawaii by Hawaiians began in the 1830's and were most probably learned from the Spanish and Mexican cowboys who had come to the islands. Of course, this is way before The Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown and the territory annexed to  the U.S.

As for origins and "lines of transmission" of open both tunings and the use of slides, I don't think that either is so complex that they couldn't have been discovered and/or invented independently by different musicians in different locations. As for lines of transmission from one musician to another, that's where things get tricky. There's history in the sense of what is documented and recorded and then there's the sense of history in the sense of the totality of what has happened, most of which was and is never documented and recorded. The first is relatively easy to study compared with...well, you get the picture. Absence of evidence isn't necessarily evidence of absence. --And all that good stuff.

I honestly don't think that we'll ever have all of the answers, but it sure is a subject that's interesting to think about and discuss.


Offline lindy

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Re: Alternate Tunings ? Historical Context?
« Reply #13 on: July 25, 2018, 06:53:33 PM »
Whaddaya think, guys, maybe the guitarist that W.C. Handy supposedly heard might have learned about slide guitar from the African diddly bow tradition?

Here's a modern version from Malawi:


Offline Stuart

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Re: Alternate Tunings ? Historical Context?
« Reply #14 on: July 25, 2018, 09:03:20 PM »
Maybe, but Troutman, citing Gerhard Kubik, notes that the Diddley bow wasn't documented in the Delta until the 1930s, "decades after the Hawaiian steel guitar began to saturate the South." (p. 165) But then again, "Absence of evidence..." So who really knows with  absolute certainty?

One thing that I left out was that Hawaii was "the crossroads of the Pacific" and that the men (with their instruments) who signed on to the numerous ships that sailed the seas and were the primary, if not only, means of international trade, certainly interacted at the various ports of call, so who knows what instruments, songs, techniques, traditions, etc.  were transmitted from one person to another throughout history. --And just not in the Pacific, but all over, including the coastal lines and waterways of the U.S. So again, who knows who learned what from whom, as well as who came up with what on his own? I certainly don't.

Another thing that Jeff Peterson mentioned is that sheet music for stringed instruments has been found in Hawaii that dates from the first half of the 1800s. The question, of course, is when and how did it get to the Islands? --Soon after its printing or much later? And he also said that the banjo may have also played a role in early slack-key guitar.

So there's a whole lot to think about in this subject area.

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