by Craig Anderton
Alternate tunings can help spur creativity by providing a different way to play a familiar instrument—but unfortunately, the process of retuning a standard guitar is a major hassle. If you’re a star, you can probably afford to have your guitar tech make sure some guitars are tuned correctly, and hand them off to you as needed. But for mere mortals, when an audience is waiting impatiently it’s an annoying time sink to re-tune completely and then return to your previous tuning. Even in the studio, where you don’t have an audience to contend with, tuning times can be a buzzkill for creativity.
But that’s how it was—because four modern options make alternate tunings a practical reality. All of them let you create custom tunings, too.
The notes you play translate into MIDI data that drives a synthesizer, so in mono mode (where each string goes to its own synth channel), simply transpose each string’s tone generator to create an alternate tuning. For example, tune the sounds driven by strings 4-6 an octave higher for “Nashville” tuning, or create open tunings, dropped D, etc. Pros: You can transpose by insane amounts, have different sounds (not just tunings) for different strings, and retrofit an existing guitar with a divided (hex) pickup to feed a Fishman TriplePlay, Roland, or other MIDI guitar system. Limitations: MIDI guitar comes with tracking and latency baggage, and the notes you hear won’t necessarily be what you’re playing on your axe.
This is the only system that physically retunes your strings (Fig. 1), and while I first thought the automatic tuning feature was silly (“c’mon, I know how to tune a guitar”), it’s a huge time-saver.
Fig. 1: Gibson’s Min-ETune-equipped guitars have 12 preset tunings and six user-programmable tunings.
Pros: There’s no disconnect between what you play and what you hear, no alteration to the tone because the retuning is done physically rather than electronically, tuning down makes the strings easier to bend, and some guitars (even non-Gibson ones) can be retrofitted. Limitations: You can’t do tunings beyond how far you can tune a real string, and it takes a few seconds for the strings to re-tune.
The Line 6 Variax guitars, Roland VG-99 (Fig. 2), and Peavey AT-200 use this technology, where digital signal processing models the sound of a transposed string for each of the six strings.
Fig. 2: Roland’s VG-99 accepts the output from any Roland-ready guitar or pickup system, and provides both modeling and guitar-to-MIDI conversion.
Pros: You can tune beyond how far you can tune with real strings, and tuning changes are instantaneous. Limitations: The notes you hear will not be the same pitch as what you play, you can’t retrofit existing guitars, and sound quality deteriorates with extreme transposition.
HEX AUDIO OUTS WITH DAWS
If your guitar has a separate audio output for each string, you can record them into separate tracks in your DAW, then use the DAW’s ability to transpose signals in non-real time (or use a transposition plug-in, like zplane’s Élastique Pitch). Pros: Can give extremely high sound quality due to non-real time processing, can tune beyond how far you can tune with real strings, and offers multiple mixing options (e.g., separate delays, chorus, or envelope filters on each string). Limitations: Can’t be used live, and you can’t hear what it’s going to sound like until after you’ve recorded and processed the part.
TYPICAL ALTERNATE TUNINGS
Fig. 3 shows some “standard” alternate tunings. Note that when re-tuning physical strings, some tunings (especially open chord tunings) require tuning some strings to a higher pitch than standard. To reduce tension on the neck, it’s best to use lighter gauge strings, like 0.009 sets for electric guitar.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.