Wednesday, December 06, 2006

"C" Tuning

The "C" Tuning I am referring to is, on a guitar, CGCGCG, from low to high strings. It has application 0n other instruments such as mandolin, bouzouki, banjo and cittern. I didn't originate this tuning, but came to it by a circuitous route. The following may seem like gobbledygook unless you familiar with tuning stringed instruments. I hope to add in some sound clips at some point in the future. If you ever run into me and I have a C tuned instrument with me, I'll be happy to show you how it works.

In the late 1960's I saw a song by Len Chandler published in Broadside Magazine that used a "C tuning". I don't remember if it was the same one or not. I do remember that the 5th and 6th strings were very floppy, so they probably were tuned down to G and C.

In the early 60's I tried other popular guitar tunings. First there was Pete Seeger's dropped D (DADGBE) on "Bells of Rhymney". Then there was Joni Mitchell's open G (DGDGBD) on "Clouds". Later I tried open D (DADF#AD) for blues, and D modal (DADGBD)Fred Neil's "The Dolphin" . The only one I myself had ever used in performance however was dropped D. it worked well for a few songs that were popular in Greenwich Village then. "Jerry Merick's "Travel On", "Love is But the Song We Sing", Richie Haven's "I Can't Make it Anymore" and Gordon Lightfoot's Canadian Railroad Trilogy"

Over the years I have had a fair amount of experience tuning other instruments such as Autoharp, Hammered Dulcimer, concert zither, dobro, bass, psaltery, etc. (I'm not claiming to be able to play all these mind you, just do basic set up and tune them.)

I've found that every instrument is unique, even with in the same category. Variables of string type, tension, nut, neck angle influence intonation, action, sound timbre, playability, etc. In many ways the difference's between instruments is minor. A lot of instruments have tunings or aspects of tuning in common.

An Appalachian lap dulcimer is tuned to drones DAD or DAA, but is fretted melodically rather than chromatically. That is, it only has frets for the notes in the scale, like playing the white keys on the piano. Mandolin and fiddle are usually tuned GDAE, but old tymey players use AEAE or DDGD. 5 string banjo uses a variety of Tunings. gDGBD is standard for Bluegrass, gCGCD for old tymey and my favorite, Pete Seeger's gCGBD. (There are lots of other 5 string tunings).Tenor banjo uses a variety of tunings. Americans tune it CGDA while Irish tuning is an octave below a mandolin, GDAE.

About 1995 a friend gave me a student sitar. This one had no sympathetic strings, but the melody notes are tuned gcCGCF. A few years later I found a German Waldzither. I made the mistake of tuning it like a combination of mandola and mandolin CGDAE. That tuning broke a lot of strings, gave a high action and didn't sound very good. (They are supposed to be tuned CGCEG.)

In July of 2000 I went to Irish Arts Camp in East Durham, NY, to take a guitar class with Ged Foley. I was under the impression it was going to be (DADGAD), which is the popular "Celtic" tuning. He decided to teach his "C" tuning instead (CGCGCD). I was a bit ticked off because the tuning just didn't sound good on my new guitar, which was a Martin D35S, 12 fret neck. I love the sound of my Martin, but it just doesn't do well in other tunings. Ged's C tuning is designed to make use of a longer fingerboard. What he does with a regular 14 fret guitar is to tune to C and capo at the second fret to come out in a "D" tuning which works for most Irish Music. Taking the capo off he can play in C, or he can either fudge G & A or use the capo for those or other keys. As I said, it didn't work for my Martin so I absorbed what I could, but did not use it much after finishing the class.

In 2002, I bought a very expensive rosewood Fylde Cittern. It is like a large mandolin with 5 courses of double paired strings. At first I made the same mistake that I had made with the Waldzither and tuned it CGDAE, with resultant high action and string breakage. Then I noticed that the manufacturer said it should be tuned DGDGD. Also a friend and Renaissance musician extraordinaire, Vince Conway sent me a bunch of different tunings to try.

Here was his note to me-
I tune my cittern GDADA which is a very nice tuning, most of the chords are pretty easy (a basic chart is below). Also, it gives the advantage of being close to everything if you don't mind retuning - you can go GCGDA for the mandola tuning (and capo to get the mandolin octave), can retune to GDGDG with no trouble (which is (*really* easy to chord, as long as you're playing in G), and the DADA part works as an open tuning on its own.

The chord chart I mentioned (many of these are open chords, which can be major or minor):
-----G D A D A
A-----2 2 0 2 0
Bflat-3 0 1 0 1
C-----0 2 3 2 3
Cm---0 1 3 1 3
D-----2 0 0 0 0
Eflat-0 1 1 1 1
E-----4 2 2 2 2
Em---0 2 2 2 2
F-----2 4 0 4 0
G-----0 0 2 0 2
Gm---0 0 1 0 1

The two best barre patterns are 4 2 2 2 2 and x 2 3 2 3.

After awhile I settle on GCGCG tuning. I had originally hoped I could use this as a strolling Faire musician, but it never quite worked for accompanying songs in the open air. It was great however for playing dance tunes with most any kind of old tymey, celtic, bluegrass music. I also found that it worked well for Hindu Prayer music (Kirtan). I could play in almost any key with a capo and the left hand position is relatively the same in all keys.

About 2004 the cittern broke and I shipped it back to the maker. He is in England, so I was without a cittern for a few months. This prompted me to take an old Martin 12 string guitar that had seen better days and string it like a cittern. While in the middle of experimenting with this, I discovered Indian Classical Guitar, which is slide guitar with sympathetic strings. There are many versions of this but I was able to meet Barun Kumar Pal who plays an instrument he invented called the Hansa Veena. Forgetting about the sympathetic strings, it is basically tuned adDADA. (The "ad" are the chiktakra strings, the DADA are the melody strings. If you lower that a step it becomes cgCGCG. Aha! Kind of like a cross between an old timey tuned cittern (or mandolin) and a banjo. I immediately got one, but had some trouble with it, which I now believe was just my own inexperience with Hindu music. I convinced myself that the strings were too light and tried heavier gauge strings. I also didn't realize that the fingerboard was built to have the notes sound with the slide between the frets instead of on the frets like a dobro.

Another detour here. I picked up a baritone guitar desiegned by Michael Tobias and ???. I tuned it BEBEBE (Baby tuning!). It had a huge long neck and with a capo, I could play in any key. It had an accident and broke, but it was fun while it lasted. I kept on breaking #1 strings though.

I eventually convinced myself to trade my sitar and Hansa Veena for a Sarod, which is tuned ccCGCF (forgetting about the 19 sympathetic strings). I soon realized that I had made a big mistake. I just don't like the sound of the sarod! OK to listen to, but I don't want to play it. I also realized that I enjoyed the tuning of the Hansa Veena more than the Sitar or Sarod. The melody strings on the Sitar and Sarod are both tuned CGCF. That "F" on the 1st string just throws me. I prefer the G.

Recently I have adapted 2 instruments to C tuning. The first is an old parlor guitar, which I tune CGCGCG. The 1st string has to be very light and the 6th string overly heavy. The 2nd was the old Martin 12 string mentioned earlier that I have rigged up as a Hindustani slide guitar, but with the first 4 melody notes doubled. So I have 12 sympathetic strings like a sitar, tuned to the C scale. I have 3 Chitakri strings (like the 5th string on a banjo) tuned to GCG, one single lower melody string tuned G and 4 upper melody strings tuned CC, GG,CC,GG for a total of 24 strings.

I also have been experimenting with fiddle tunings for Hindustani Classical music. They use G#C#G#C#, which is very similar to old time fiddler's AEAE

May 2008. Now I have been using a CGCGCE tuning which doesn't break the 1st string and can be retuned regular guitar tuning with out changing strings. I still like to CGCGCG tuning better, but as a compromise, this is working well.

BTW, A chord chart for GCGCG tuning for cittern can be found at