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Author Topic: Variations in Standard Tuning  (Read 4431 times)

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Offline Mr.OMuck

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Variations in Standard Tuning
« on: April 08, 2008, 07:51:10 PM »
I play a lot of Big Bill stuff, and I've become aware over the years that he had his own version of standard tuning.
Someone with a more analytical frame of mind and better musicological skills, John Miller, for example would be able to nail down which notes are flat or sharp and to what degree they are one or the other, and if it remains more or less consistent over time. Me, I just know it don't sound right if the guitar is IN tune. I know he always kept his high E a bit sharp, yielding that wonderful, piercing punctuation resolve at the end of a lot of phrases. But it goes on and on. Gary Davis definitely had his own idea of in tune, one that lends a slightly dark character to his sound. In fact I can't think of any of the major players who didn't arrive at some slightly idiosyncratic manner of tuning to "standard". Whadaya think? Have you been through this already?
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Offline Rivers

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #1 on: April 08, 2008, 08:39:11 PM »
Great topic O'Muck, surprising it hasn't come up before so far as I can tell by searching though I have a nagging memory of it being discussed before somewhere, maybe a previous incarnation of WC. I guess Sam Collins had some pretty individualistic ideas on what sounded good. I added a 'tuning variations' tag so we stand a better chance of being able to find it again.
« Last Edit: April 08, 2008, 08:41:56 PM by Rivers »

Offline dj

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #2 on: April 09, 2008, 03:40:31 AM »
A few years ago we touched on Ishmon Bracey's reported preference for a somewhat non-standard tuning while discussing 16 bar blues.  Just follow the "16 bar blues" tag to get there.  It's on the second page of the topic.

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #3 on: April 09, 2008, 07:06:04 AM »
Actually, I'll quote it here, as it's worth repeating:

Quote from: dj
I remember an article by David Evans in an early Blues Review Quarterly describing a visit to Ishmon Bracey in the 60s.  Evans asked Bracey if he still played, and when Bracey said he did, but only religious songs, Evans handed him a guitar which he considered perfectly in tune and which Bracey promptly fiddled with until it had that kind of "sour" (Evans's word, if I recall correctly) tuning that Bracey used on his  recordings.

"Sour" seems to me to be a good word for Bracey's idiosyncratic tuning. It's not limited to standard in his work either. One of the things I encountered in working on Suitcase Full of Blues, in Spanish tuning, was that it could sound too sweet. The "off" tuning Bracey has gives it a creepier quality.

There's a quote from JohnM in the quote generator that goes, "It doesn't matter if your guitar's in tune if you can hear in tune" (Riv, there's actually a typo in it that needs correcting - 'of' should be 'if').

Offline dave stott

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #4 on: April 09, 2008, 09:31:58 AM »


If I recall correctly, Big Bill, Brownie Mcghee and several others tended to prefer an unwound thrid string.

The use of that type of string will also allow for a "different sounding" regular tuning.


Dave


Online Johnm

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #5 on: April 09, 2008, 12:53:34 PM »
Hi all,
This is indeed a fascinating topic.  I think Ishmon Bracey's "sour" sense of tuning is best demonstrated on his two takes of "Trouble-Hearted Blues", the first take of which, in particular, may give you a toothache.  Mr. O'Muck and Andrew have it right, I think, that the tuning affects so much more than just the perception of Bracey's pitch.  It also colors the feeling you get from his note choices and phrasing.  As I remember the two takes, which are discussed in more detail on the Bracey Lyrics thread, I think that at the time, I felt the second take was closer to being in tune in the conventional sense, and simultaneously less effective musically.
Re preferring an unwound third string, which Dave alludes to in the last post, I've never met a player who came up in the pre-War period who did not prefer an unwound third string.  There must have been some, but I never met one.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Blue in VT

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #6 on: April 09, 2008, 12:56:16 PM »
This very intersting...I've always found the Rev.s to be alittle "off" to my ear...not bad but not "normal" either...this topic explains alot.

not to hyjack..but JohnM's comment about the unwound third...does anyone play with one now...other than when playing slide?  I may have to give it a try just for fun... ;D

Cheers,

Blue
Blue in VT

Offline dave stott

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #7 on: April 09, 2008, 01:26:03 PM »
Hey Blue

I tried a few sets of Ernie Ball /  Earthwood brand Rock & Blues strings that come with an unwound third string.

it was a very nice sound and they lasted quite a while, but I just couldn't get used to the difference in sound.

My brain / ears  kept telling me one of my strings was slightly off in tuning.

Dave


Offline lindy

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #8 on: April 09, 2008, 03:05:26 PM »
This very intersting...I've always found the Rev.s to be alittle "off" to my ear...not bad but not "normal" either...this topic explains alot.


Dave Van Ronk told the story of traveling with Rev. Davis and purposefully retuning his guitar to concert pitch one time during the intermission of a performance, just to see what would happen. He said Rev. Davis sat down at the beginning of the second set, strummed Miss Gibson just once, and immediately started frowning. After a few seconds of resetting the miscreant string (I think it was his high E string) just right to his ear--a bit flat to ours--he started his performance. I heard Van Ronk tell that story in concert, and Elijah Wald has it in his book on Van Ronk.

As for whether or not y'all should try it, the short answer is if you want to bend your G string (standard tuning) at the second fret, it's the only way to go. If you don't play any songs that require or benefit from that bend, then there's less reason to do so. I still remember the song that JohnM taught us the day he suggested we all attend his class with an unwound third: I'm Going Away, by Robert Curtis Smith. Love that song, it's a mainstay in my noodling repertoire.

Lindy



Offline waxwing

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #9 on: April 09, 2008, 04:39:55 PM »
So, any of the crack ears (mine sure ain't one) want to hazard some guesses as to what string theses guys tuned off. So far we have that the Rev tuned his high E flat a touch.

As to unwound 3rds, I keep one on both my steady playing 6 strings, the little Stella and the Style O. I go a little lighter than normal with both of them, too, like an .018 or.020, on the Stella, which is strung with lights and would have about a .024 wound 3rd. This keeps the intonation closer to what it would be with the wound string and also adds to the bendability. I did have my guitars intonated for the unwound strings, tho'. I keep a wound 3rd on my '67 D-18S for the more modern sound of a van Ronk arrangement, say.

All for now.
John C.
« Last Edit: April 09, 2008, 04:41:59 PM by waxwing »
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Offline uncle bud

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #10 on: April 09, 2008, 07:04:59 PM »
Will be interested to hear other responses here but...

Working from memory here, not verifying with recordings (I'll leave that to the Rev. Gary Davis experts, of whom we have several :) ) , a number of RGD tunes also have slightly off bass strings. Whether this was simply happenstance or a more deliberate tuning strategy as was his high E is for better minds than mine.

For Bracey, and again without going to the recordings to confirm, I would say the third string, that potentially troublesome unwound G, is one, and possibly the second string. As I recall, in Suitcase Full of Blues, the top string was OK, but again, we're dealing with Spanish tuning there.

Had several glasses of wine so feeling lazy...  :P

Online Johnm

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #11 on: February 21, 2011, 04:50:37 PM »
Hi all,
This has to do with a variation in tuning, but not strictly a variation in standard tuning.  Clifford Gibson, whom I've listened to quite a lot of recently, liked to tune his first string a couple of cents sharp when playing in Spanish tuning.  It ends up being noticeable because he loved to end his passes through the form by hitting a unison (theoretically speaking) of the second string fretted at the third fret against the open first string; a V note doubled up, which serves the function of sending you back to the beginning of the form.  On many of his recordings though, the unison ends up not quite being a unison, thus a little bit hairy-sounding. 
I think he may have tuned the first string slightly sharp because he liked to do some fairly extravagant bends at the seventh fret of the first string, and he may have found that if he started out with the first string in tune, by the time he'd stretched it a couple of times it was a good bit flat.  By starting it out a bit sharp, he may have felt he was giving himself a bit of wiggle room with regard to his bends. 
Of course, he may have just liked it sharp . . . .
All best,
Johnm

Offline eric

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #12 on: February 21, 2011, 05:16:09 PM »
Hmm... I just noticed this thread.  I'm not sure I follow all the theory here, but I'm relieved to find out I haven't been hearing things when I've noticed that some of our heroes seem to have their own variations on standard tuning.  Perhaps I'm not crazy after all... ;)
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Eric

Online Johnm

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #13 on: February 21, 2011, 05:37:03 PM »
I guarantee you're not crazy with regard to this issue, Eric.  Some people tuned differently more or less consistently, like Rev. Davis and Joseph Spence.  Others were constantly blazing new trails, like Gabriel Brown and J. T. Smith.  It's a very interesting issue.

Incidentally, I've been resurrecting some old threads from back in the Main Forum, which currently has 37 pages (!!) of threads.  For those of you who have never dug deeper than the most recent posts, you might want to take a look there some time.  There are some interesting topics and discussions back there.
All best,
Johnm 

Offline GhostRider

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #14 on: February 22, 2011, 07:53:07 AM »
  Others were constantly blazing new trails, like Gabriel Brown and J. T. Smith.  It's a very interesting issue.
All best,
Johnm 

J.T. Smith... blazing new tuning trails  ;D  That's an understatment. His tuning was often toothache material.

Alex

Offline eric

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #15 on: February 22, 2011, 10:53:38 AM »
This forum is the best thing for this music since Yazoo.  I remember listening to some of these guys, like Funny Papa, and thinking wow, he's really out of tune.  But then realizing that there was a certain consistency; guys like the Reverend had their own concept of the sound in their head.  So thanks guys, for validating my sanity.  I'm always learning something here.
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Eric

Offline Mike McLaren

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #16 on: February 23, 2011, 12:00:58 AM »
I might be mistaken, but I think I read once that Robert Pete Williams never worried about the tuning, he just tuned the strings to whatever he wanted to hear, which a lot of times was just the first and second strings.
Woke up this morning... I think.

Offline Prof Scratchy

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #17 on: February 23, 2011, 01:48:37 AM »
Just been catching up on this thread and notice it was started with a reference to Big Bill Broonzy. One of the first blues LPs I managed to buy was on the Xtra label - Big Bill, Sonny and Brownie in conversation with Studs Terkel for a radio programme recorded in the fifties sometime. Terkel quizzes Big Bill on his approach to tuning and, to paraphrase, the explanation is that being slightly out of tune enabled Bill to push the strings in to tune when he was playing. Big Bill had an answer for everything!

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #18 on: February 23, 2011, 05:01:51 AM »
Just been catching up on this thread and notice it was started with a reference to Big Bill Broonzy. One of the first blues LPs I managed to buy was on the Xtra label - Big Bill, Sonny and Brownie in conversation with Studs Terkel for a radio programme recorded in the fifties sometime. Terkel quizzes Big Bill on his approach to tuning and, to paraphrase, the explanation is that being slightly out of tune enabled Bill to push the strings in to tune when he was playing. Big Bill had an answer for everything!
The LP in question can be viewed (front and back) at Stefan's 'under construction' Xtra discography. http://www.wirz.de/music/xtrafrm.htm

Offline Pan

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #19 on: February 23, 2011, 05:45:26 AM »
Just been catching up on this thread and notice it was started with a reference to Big Bill Broonzy. One of the first blues LPs I managed to buy was on the Xtra label - Big Bill, Sonny and Brownie in conversation with Studs Terkel for a radio programme recorded in the fifties sometime. Terkel quizzes Big Bill on his approach to tuning and, to paraphrase, the explanation is that being slightly out of tune enabled Bill to push the strings in to tune when he was playing. Big Bill had an answer for everything!
The LP in question can be viewed (front and back) at Stefan's 'under construction' Xtra discography. http://www.wirz.de/music/xtrafrm.htm

That's interesting. I have an old folkways record (Folkways FS 3817) with the same personnel and host, Studs Terkel, with a slighltly different songlist. Maybe there was more material that could be fitted to a single LP? My LP has this cover: http://www.musicstack.com/item/333829057

Heres' the songlist on my LP

Keys To The Highway

Red River Blues

Crow Jane Blues

Willie Mae

Daisy

Louise

Shuffle Rag

Blues

Beautiful City

I'm Gonna Tell God How You Treat Me

Sinner Man

The Saints Go Marchin' In

To further muddy the waters, on e-bay, there's another LP with the same front cover, but yet another songlist (unless it's a scam of some kind?): http://cgi.ebay.co.uk/Blues-Bill-Broonzy-Sonny-Terry-B-McGhee-Folkways-LP_W0QQitemZ130488708130QQcategoryZ64873QQcmdZViewItemQQ_trksidZp4340.m263QQ_trkparmsZalgo%3DDLSL%252BSIC%26its%3DI%26itu%3DUCI%252BIA%252BUA%252BFICS%252BUFI%252BDDSIC%26otn%3D8%26pmod%3D310282286638%252B310282286638%26po%3D%26ps%3D63%26clkid%3D7290078577166341365

Cheers and sorry for the OT

Pan

Offline Stuart

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #20 on: February 23, 2011, 08:04:12 AM »
Hi Pan:

Here's the link to the Smithsonian-Folkways page:

http://www.folkways.si.edu/albumdetails.aspx?itemid=595

http://media.smithsonianfolkways.org/liner_notes/folkways/FW03817.pdf

As for the discrepancies between the track list on your copy and that listed on the S-F site, you might check the transcription in the liner notes against the content of your copy of the LP.

I have the Folkways LP as well. My guess is that the eBay track listing is an error (the track listing was copied from http://www.folkways.si.edu/albumdetails.aspx?itemid=2095). And without hearing the Xtra LP or knowing all the facts, I can only speculate about the additional material on the XTRA LP.

Just been catching up on this thread and notice it was started with a reference to Big Bill Broonzy. One of the first blues LPs I managed to buy was on the Xtra label - Big Bill, Sonny and Brownie in conversation with Studs Terkel for a radio programme recorded in the fifties sometime. Terkel quizzes Big Bill on his approach to tuning and, to paraphrase, the explanation is that being slightly out of tune enabled Bill to push the strings in to tune when he was playing. Big Bill had an answer for everything!
The LP in question can be viewed (front and back) at Stefan's 'under construction' Xtra discography. http://www.wirz.de/music/xtrafrm.htm

That's interesting. I have an old folkways record (Folkways FS 3817) with the same personnel and host, Studs Terkel, with a slighltly different songlist. Maybe there was more material that could be fitted to a single LP? My LP has this cover: http://www.musicstack.com/item/333829057

Heres' the songlist on my LP

Keys To The Highway

Red River Blues

Crow Jane Blues

Willie Mae

Daisy

Louise

Shuffle Rag

Blues

Beautiful City

I'm Gonna Tell God How You Treat Me

Sinner Man

The Saints Go Marchin' In

To further muddy the waters, on e-bay, there's another LP with the same front cover, but yet another songlist (unless it's a scam of some kind?): http://cgi.ebay.co.uk/Blues-Bill-Broonzy-Sonny-Terry-B-McGhee-Folkways-LP_W0QQitemZ130488708130QQcategoryZ64873QQcmdZViewItemQQ_trksidZp4340.m263QQ_trkparmsZalgo%3DDLSL%252BSIC%26its%3DI%26itu%3DUCI%252BIA%252BUA%252BFICS%252BUFI%252BDDSIC%26otn%3D8%26pmod%3D310282286638%252B310282286638%26po%3D%26ps%3D63%26clkid%3D7290078577166341365

Cheers and sorry for the OT

Pan
« Last Edit: February 23, 2011, 08:11:48 AM by Stuart »

Offline Pan

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #21 on: February 23, 2011, 09:31:16 AM »
Thank you very much Stuart. I'm going to print that booklet and add it with my LP!

Cheers

Pan

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #22 on: February 23, 2011, 08:18:16 PM »
Perhaps my second record with Big Bill on it and still one of my favorites. A must have imho!
Sonny & Brownie are great on it too, even though it seems to have become hip to not accord them the respect they deserve.
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Offline Stuart

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #24 on: February 23, 2011, 10:25:31 PM »
Sonny & Brownie are great on it too, even though it seems to have become hip to not accord them the respect they deserve.
Sadly so. In 1999 Chris Smith produced a superb 180 page, A4 bio-discography That's The Stuff The Recordings of Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Stick McGhee and J.C. Burris in which he did his best to redress the perception held by many blues fans.

Offline LB

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #25 on: February 24, 2011, 06:34:43 AM »
I'm not sure this phenomenon is always intentional since every guitar and person is a little different and you simply must fine tune a guitar in various song keys to make it sound right. Otherwise the flawed nature of a guitar could never "seem" to be in tune. A guitar sounding awesome with a C song might instantly sound bad switching to a song in E. You simply MUST compensate or it's not going to sound right. I have seen cases when I played around the Carolinas with many black musicians from the country in blues and gospel. One of the older guys mentioned tuning one string to 442 and before I knew it the guy I was playing with began detuning it too. I thought it sucked and I could hear that OFF sound in there. But they thought because it was unique and stood out it was a GOOD thing. There was no winning that argument so I played with them another couple years and the only two people in the group in tune was me and the pianist. A lot of country innovation can be brilliant, then some of it can just be kinda ignorant. Then again I hear modern players like Buddy Guy and to my ear he plays lead licks sharp and also sings sharp on purpose. I don't think your theory is wrong at all, but I'm not sure it's always well planned or even intentional.

Online Johnm

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Re: Variations in Standard Tuning
« Reply #26 on: February 24, 2011, 07:15:22 AM »
I agree with you, Little Brother, and would never contend that out-of-tune playing, however euphemistically one might care to describe it, is always by design or consistent.  I would very much differentiate between players who vary their tuning by intent, more or less consistently or at least in the same way, and players like Gabriel Brown, who pretty much sounds like he either couldn't tell the difference or didn't care.
What is just as interesting to me is players who were always in tune, if not to A 440, then at least relative to whatever internal frame of reference they were using.  Peg Leg Howell is a player who falls into this category.  Granted, he had an exceptionally beautiful tone on the guitar, but his tone goes hand-in-hand with his tuning, which was spot on.  There are certainly others in this "in tune" category, as well.
All best,
Johnm 

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