Author: Campbell, Bruce

Alternative Tunings, and the People Who Love Them

I had a weird dream last night. I dreamed that I was at a festival, and that there was a buzz going around about a really cool new banjo tuning. It turned out this new tuning was so unique, to use it required that a luthier add another string to the instrument, and folks were lining up outside the luthier’s booth to get this alteration done. I was in line, too, being the lemming that I am.

But then it occurred to me that getting this alteration would mean I would have to play an already difficult instrument with unfamiliar tuning, and the alteration would make it also difficult to go back to the “old” tuning. So, I sighed and got out of line. Once again, it was revealed to the world that I play music with the wrong half of my brain…

I have learned to play several instruments, but the learning (aside from general musical principals) was based upon learning that there are these strings, and they’re tuned a certain way, and based on that tuning, I can put my fingers in certain places, and pluck or strum certain strings and music comes out. This appeals to the way my brain works, and although it was difficult to master, diligent practice yielded very satisfying results. I have a GREAT time playing music.

But the underlying structure is very important, and I have serious trouble adjusting when that structure changes. So, alternate tunings never appealed to me much. I went to a songwriting workshop hosted by Peter Rowan one time.

Peter's advice was simple: try different tunings, make ‘em up yourself, and create amazing original music. Uh, OK, Peter, if you’re a naturally intuitive musician with world-class talent and a voice like an angel. What about ME?

I know this logical-brain approach to music is a shortcoming. From time to time, I can tap into that other half, and it’s exhilarating. I play with people for whom this is truly second nature. I was playing a gig one time, and someone suggested a song, and the fiddle player said “Hm.. that may be difficult in this tuning.”

It turned out he was experimenting with an alternate tuning all night, and I couldn’t even tell -- he was able to instantly find familiar melodies with an unfamiliar tuning! I only found out because a song came up with a melody he knew would require some odd reaching or bowing. I can’t imagine being able to do that!

It’s like when you see an instrument with an extra string – a 7 string guitar, a 5 string bass, or a 5 string fiddle. I say “How the heck do you play that?”, and the answer is always so matter-of-fact: “Oh, it’s just an extra low D”, or “It’s just the C above”. I am ashamed to say I have never wished my instrument had another string. My playing never seems to probe the upper or lower limits of the traditional instrument’s range.

So, yeah, I’m jealous and maybe a little humiliated to discover that I can spend 40+ years trying to become a competent musician, only to discover I am barely scratching the surface. On the other hand, I can take this as good news – I’m nowhere close to being out of stuff to learn in my musical journey!

Posted:  7/28/2010

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