Nashville Tuning for Guitar – an introduction

This is the extract from my instrumental piece ‘Quartet for One’ that will kick off the podcast and video incarnations of this article, if I get round to them. It’s an example of what Nashville tuning can sound like when used on a guitar played solo. Feel free to click on it: it will give you some idea of where I’m going in the first section of the article. N.B. Most music links are accompanied by a backup link on a different blog. No need to play the backup version as long as the first link works!

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Recently, I’ve developed a late-flowering interest in Nashville tuning and other variations on standard guitar tuning requiring the use of unusual stringing options. It might actually be more correct to call it Nashville stringing, since a Nashville-strung or high-strung guitar can use a variety of tunings, but since the term Nashville stringing isn’t widely used, I’ll generally stick with the more common terminology.

Quartet For One sounds very different to the sound the same fingering would give you on a guitar in standard tuning. More often, I use Nashville tuning for extra colour as an overdub rather than as a solo or rhythm instrument, and I’ll give some examples of that later. But since I started using a Nashville-strung instrument in public occasionally, one or two people have asked for more information, so here it is.

Before I get into exactly what sort of tuning I’m talking about, here’s a very brief summary of how I got started with Nashville tuning. And no, it isn’t because I’m a fanatical country and western fan. (I’m not, though of course there are certainly country musicians I rate highly.)

In fact, I’ve been vaguely aware of this sort of tweaking since the 1970s or earlier, though I can only think of one guitarist I knew personally who was using it: that was Pat Orchard, who was using it for some songs when I knew him in the 1980s (and, it turns out, still does use it). I liked the sound, and thought I’d quite like to try that out at some point, but never got around to it.

Fast forward to 2018: by then, I was living in Cornwall. However, I spent a lot of time visiting my increasingly frail mother in Shropshire, and eventually it occurred to me to buy a travel guitar and maybe leave it with her so I could spend some time at music sessions up there while I was visiting, without needing to drag a full-size instrument with me all the time. So I bought a very nice little 3/4 size Baby Taylor, and, finding myself stuck in a hotel in Shropshire for a couple of days, decided to try restringing it à la Nashville. And I enjoyed it so much, the guitar went back to Cornwall with me, much to the surprise of my wife, who considered I had enough guitars already. (She was even more surprised when I confessed to buying a second travel guitar which I did leave in Shropshire. Nowadays that guitar is kept in High Strung tuning, described below.)

Standard Tuning

First of all, here’s what nowadays we call standard guitar tuning, though not all guitarists – or guitars, come to that – make use of it. Going from the lowest or 6th string to the highest or 1st string, the notes are E, A, D, G, B, E. We can distinguish between the low string E and the top string E, for example, using a form of something called Scientific Pitch Notation [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_pitch_notation], so the low string is E2 and the highest is E4. The whole set then becomes E2, A2, D3, G3, B3, and E4. So the higher the pitch, the higher the suffix number. Here’s what they sound like.

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Of course, many guitarists (especially acoustic guitarists) use lots of other tunings. For instance, they may use open chord tunings like the Open D tuning, sometimes called Vestapol tuning, and widely used by singer/songwriters and blues players (especially bottleneck players). Here’s a version of the tune often called Vestapol and standard issue for blues and ragtime players. Folk guitarists often use modal tunings such as DADGAD, much used by people playing ‘Celtic’ music, as well as more eclectic musicians like Sara McQuaid (a highly-rated exponent and teacher of DADGAD).  Many of these tunings can also be used on a Nashville-strung guitar, though they’ll sound very different if they are: here, for instance, is a live version of my Song of Chivalry in which I used the Baby Taylor retuned to the Nashville-strung version of DADGAD. (This was during an interview with Ian Semple for Coast FM, if I remember rightly.)

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Meanwhile, back at the plot…

High Third Tuning

Back in the 1950s, when the Everly Brothers were recording for Cadence Records, they did some sessions with Ray Edenton, who had the idea of changing the wound 3rd or G string on his acoustic with a very light gauge unwound string and tuning it an octave higher than standard (G4 instead of G3), leaving the other strings in standard gauge and tuning. This is called a re-entrant tuning – more about re-entrant tunings in a minute.

You can hear what that tuning sounded like on the Everlys’ Bye Bye Love and Wake Up Little Suzie, where Ray augments the rhythm guitar part played, I think, by Don Everly. This tuning is usually called high third. It sounds pretty good for the acoustic strumming that you can hear on so many Everly Brothers recordings, because it gives a distinctive ‘sparkle’ to the sound. I don’t use high third myself: that’s because as someone who mostly plays solo nowadays, I almost invariably play finger-style, and that single re-entrant string can sound very strange for accompaniments where the guitar closely follows the melody. Actually, the same is to some extent true for Nashville and high strung guitars, but it’s more practical to compensate in those tunings, if you feel you have to.

Anyway, I gather that many of those ‘Nashville cats’ that the Loving Spoonful once sang about still make some use of Ray Edenton’s high third tuning.

What, I hear you asking, is a re-entrant tuning?

Standard guitar tuning is not re-entrant: as you go from the bottom string to the top, each string is tuned to a higher note than the one that precedes it. (Here it is again.)

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The same normally applies to orchestral strings. This non-re-entrant pattern is often referred to as linear tuning. However, many other stringed instruments use a re-entrant tuning where the upward sequence is interrupted by one or more strings tuned higher than the string above. One example that you may well be familiar with is the ukulele ‘My Dog Has Fleas’ tuning.

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This is most often encountered as ‘High G’ tuning (G4 C4 E4 A4).  If the tuning followed the same pattern of intervals as the top strings of a guitar in standard tuning, it would be the linear tuning G3 C4 E4 A4, and in fact this tuning is also used by some uke players. The exact pitch and tuning of ukuleles and related instruments varies according to the size and type of instrument as well as musical idiom and personal preference, but let’s not wander too far off the guitar fretboard. 🙂

Meanwhile, back in Nashville…

…Ray Edenton was experimenting with what we now call Nashville tuning, replacing the four lowest strings on a standard acoustic guitar (all the wound strings) with the octave strings from a 12-string set. A 12-string guitar is normally strung in six ‘courses’ with two strings to each course, with the strings in each course close enough together to allow the guitarist to use the same chord shapes as a six-string player but sounding both strings at the same time. The two highest strings are tuned in unison: that is, both strings in the first course are (in standard tuning) tuned to E4, and in the second course to B3. The other courses, however, are tuned in octaves. We can notate the whole set like this: E3/E2 A3/A2 D4/D3 G4/G3 B3/B3 E4/E4. And they sound more or less like this – it doesn’t sound quite natural because I don’t own a real 12-string, so this is a Variax imitating a Guild 12-string.

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Sometimes the 3rd/G strings are also tuned in unison: this is mostly because the very high G4 string tends to break a lot. Though for comfort, 12-string guitarists may use an unwound G3 to replace the G4.

Oddly enough, 12-string guitar tuning is not normally considered re-entrant because the lower string on the courses tuned in octaves is tuned as normal, even though the octave strings are higher (well, duh!). The same applies to the lower strings on bouzouki, for instance.

However, the 12-string guitar is very relevant to our story. The basic Nashville tuning method is to tune a guitar with the same notes as standard tuning (EADGBE), except that the lowest four strings are actually an octave higher than standard tuning, just like the 12-string octave strings. You can represent the tuning as E3, A3, D4, G4, B3, E4. Here’s what they sound like.

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Nashville tuning is sometimes called high strung tuning: I don’t call it that myself, because like many guitarists, I like to differentiate between Nashville and a similar tuning where only the lowest three strings are an octave higher than standard: when I talk about high strung tuning, that’s what I’m talking about: E3, A3, D4, G3, B3, E4. Here’s what that sounds like.

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Although the Nashville and high strung tunings are re-entrant, the effect is less obtrusive than it is in High Third because the strings below the high third string are in sequence: that is, each string from the sixth upward is lower in pitch than the next one, until you get to the second string (in Nashville) or the third (in high-strung). So while you may not be playing the exact sequence of notes that you would be playing in standard guitar tuning, the interposing of notes that are actually an octave above what you’d expect is exactly what gives you the interesting and unexpected melody jumps, chords and harmonies that make Nashville and high-strung styles so attractive.

Of course, you don’t necessarily want to use one of these variant tunings as simple substitutes for a guitar in standard tuning. Though you can, and I often do that, to save me from having to carry umpteen guitars around for a three-song slot, but they work better for some songs than others. Sometimes, the re-entrant tuning results in some fascinating inversions of chords or harmonies. Sometimes you might find the effect discordant. Sometimes a high-strung guitar will be more suitable than a Nashville-strung instrument for following the melody of a particular song. And too many songs in succession played on an unusually high-pitched guitar might be wearying for some audiences.

And here are examples of a range of guitars all playing (more or less) the same tune. It’s the intro to a song I call ‘Tears of Morning’ – full version (in standard tuning) here.

  • a standard-tuned guitar

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  • a 12-string guitar

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  • a high-strung guitar

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  • and a Nashville-strung guitar

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In a minute, I’ll go through some more examples of what you can do with Nashville tuning for specific effects.

But where do you get suitable strings?

Well, you don’t have to get a 12-string set and throw away the ones you don’t need. Though if you have one or more standard acoustics, you can probably find a use for the others. For instance, an ‘extra light’ 12-string set of Martin 80/20 is basically the ‘extra light’ six-string set with a set of six additional strings that are fine for Nashville stringing. Though the octave string for the 3rd (G) course is a .010″. Bearing in mind the string-snapping issue I mentioned earlier, you might want to invest in a .009″ instead, at any rate if you’re planning to use it on a full-size guitar. D’Addario offers a phosphor bronze set (EJ38H) specifically for Nashville tuning with a .009″ 3rd string (the full set is .010″, .014″, .009″, .012″, .018″, .027″). The packet I have in front of me describes the D’Addario set as being for High Strung/Nashville Tuning. The company is, in this case, using the term High Strung as a synonym for Nashville, not as a different tuning: there is no wound 3rd string supplied. Martin’s similar high tuning set MSPHT10 is even lighter: .010″, .012″, .008″, .013″, .017″, .025″. D’Addario’s electric set EXL150H is .010″, .014″, .009″, .012″, .018″, .026″.

Other string sets are available, but I haven’t researched this in depth: I don’t have an infinite number of guitars or an infinite bank account, so I’ve focused on sets that work OK for me. 🙂 Of course, you could also mix and match individual strings, as long as they’re a suitable gauge.

It’s worth noting that using a ¾ guitar like the Baby Taylor for Nashville tuning means that the strings are less likely to break, though the reduced scale of the instrument and tension of the string may make it harder to keep the instrument in tune. Robert Cassard has recorded videos using a Martin Backpacker, making the point that because its very small body lacks bass response, it gives extra sparkle in its higher notes. (The video I’ve just linked to also includes some nice examples of the use of Nashville or high-strung guitars on well-known recordings.) If you like the idea of a Nashville-strung electric guitar, something like a Squier Mini Strat might be the way to go.

By the way, if you are aiming to use an electric guitar (or an acoustic with a magnetic pickup), you’ll may want to use a 6th string (the only wound string in this tuning) with a nickel-plated wrap rather than bronze, because bronze strings sound lovely acoustically (well, to my ear), but will sound underpowered through a magnetic pickup. And if you want to do this with nylon strings, all I can say is “Good luck!” There are a couple of suggestions for trying to do that here, but I have no plans to try them myself. Another possibility might be to restring a guilele/guitalele, and I might try that sometime, but it’s not a priority for me: I like my guilele the way it is.

Finally, what can you do with a Nashville tuned guitar?

One obvious use is to double up with a standard-tuned guitar for a 12-string effect, though it might be more interesting to keep the two guitars separate in the mix. An effect I’m rather fond of introduces a lead part that comes over as something like a bouzouki. Here are a couple of examples using a song of mine called Two is a Silence.

Two is a Silence – extract from a recording using acoustic guitar with overdubbed bouzoukis

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Two is a silence – a brief extract using just a Nashville-strung guitar.

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With fingerpicked chords, a Nashville-strung guitar can sound rather like an autoharp, or even suggest an ethereal keyboard effect. This is how I used it on my song Wrekin (The Marches Line). (Full version here.)

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Careful double-stopping and/or fingering may sound rather like a mountain (Appalachian) dulcimer. For both these examples I used an open D tuning.

Dulcimer 1

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Dulcimer 2

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Add some digital effects or manipulation of the stereo image, and who knows what you might come up with? I suspect that some of you will be far more adventurous than I am. 🙂

David Harley

Additional links:

 

Folklife West magazine

I’m no longer writing for Folklife West, but it’s well worth checking out for folk-related venue information as well as its articles..

David Harley

An interesting resource for folkies

Recommended to me by my friend Andi Lee (The Ashen): a Mixcloud podcast series by Jon Wilks at The Old Songs Podcast. Here’s the current listing:

  • Ep12 – The Old Songs Podcast – ‘Banks of Green Willow’, ft. Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne
  • Ep11 – The Old Songs Podcast – ‘Lord Gregory’, ft. Burd Ellen
  • Ep10: The Old Songs Podcast – ‘The Leaving Of Liverpool’, ft. Jim Moray
  • Ep9: The Old Songs Podcast – ‘Myn Mair’, ft. Owen Shiers (Cynefin)
  • Ep8: The Old Songs Podcast – ‘Hal-An-Tow’ ft. Lisa Knapp
  • Ep7: The Old Songs Podcast – ‘Dives and Lazarus’ ft. Nick Hart
  • Ep6: The Old Songs Podcast – ‘Hard Times Of Old England’ ft. Billy Bragg
  • Ep5: The Old Songs Podcast – ‘An Acre of Land’ ft. Paul Sartin
  • Episode 4 – “The Sweet Nightingale” The Old Songs Podcast with Jackie Oates & Jon Wilks
  • Episode 3 – “On Humber Bank” The Old Songs Podcast with Jon Wilks & Ben Walker
  • Episode 2 – “Tam Lin” The Old Songs Podcast with Jon Wilks & Jim Moray
  • Episode 1: “Henry Martin / Lofty Tall Ship” The Old Songs Podcast with Jon Wilks & Nick Hart

I’ve been dipping in and out of UK and Irish folk music for many decades now, and am well-acquainted with most of these songs, but still found much to enjoy here.

David Harley

Adventures in Video – Young Hunting (Trad2Mad version)

 

This is an unaccompanied version of ‘Young Hunting'(Child 68) I found when I was still at school in the 1960s, though I’ve undoubtedly changed it since. I didn’t have a tune for it, so I cobbled one together. Unfortunately, I don’t remember where I found the words, though I’ve come across a fairly similar American text (unattributed) since.

I don’t always sing it unaccompanied, though.

Light down, light down my own true love
And stay with me the night
For I have a bed and a fireside too
And a candle that burns so bright.

I can’t light down and I won’t light down
Nor spend the night with thee
For I have a love and a true true love
Would think so ill of me

But he’s bent down from his saddle
To kiss her snowy white cheek
She’s stolen the dagger from out of his belt
And plunged it into him so deep

She’s taken him by his long yellow hair
And the maid’s taken him by the feet
They’ve plunged him into that deep doleful well
Full 20 fathoms deep

And as she’s turned her round to go home
She’s heard some pretty bird sing
Go home, go home you cruel girl
And weep and mourn for him

Fly down, fly down you pretty bird
Fly down and go home with me
And your cage will be made of the glittering gold
And the perch of the best ivory

I can’t fly down and I won’t fly down
And I’ll not go home with thee
For you have slain your own true love
And I’m feared you’ll murder me

I wish I had my bent horn bow
And drawn with a silken string
I surely would shoot that cruel bird
As sits in the briars and sings

I wish you had your bent horn bow
And drawn with a silken string
I surely would fly from vine to vine
And always you’d hear me sing

Audio capture:

Backup:

David Harley

The Colossus of Roads

‘Colossus of Roads’ began as a sketch for a song or poem, a humorous look at my own late-flowering and less-than-athletic assimilation into the keep-fit-FitBit-kulture.

Sometimes it’s the butterflies
Sometimes it’s the view
Sometimes it’s just the steps
I know I must accrue

Now that my world has shrunk to a 25-step indoor mini-stadion, it’s somehow become a full-blown article.

(c) David Harley 2020 – all rights reserved

Continue reading “The Colossus of Roads”

Adventures in video – Paper Tiger

Audio capture:

Backup:

Paper Tiger (words & music by David Harley)

Oh, you paper tiger,
Now see what you’ve done
You made your stand on shifting sand
And now begins the fun

Your bluff’s been called at last
So what do you do now?
Now someone got the drop on you
And finally faced you down

Oh, you paper tiger… (x2)

Oh, you paper tiger
Now see what you’ve done
Every chamber emptied
And nowhere left to run

How could you forget
The only code that you lived by
To move so fast and talk so soft
And keep your powder dry?

Oh, you paper tiger… (x2)

Oh, you paper tiger
Now see what they’ve done
They’ve picked you clean and strung you up
To dry out in the sun

Oh, you bigshot bankrupt
You flamed-out flat-lined fake
They’ll bake you in the ashes
Of your latest last mistake

Oh, you paper tiger … (x2)

Adventures in Video – Now How Long?

The first version of this goes back to the late 60s or early 70s, but I’m not sure if I ever performed it in public. An attempt to write something blues-y that wasn’t a 12-bar.

Audio capture:

Backup:

Heard some lonesome whistle blow
How long Lord?
I guess it must be time to go
How long?
When you get those hard luck blues
All you need is walking shoes
How long Lord?
Now how long?

Empty pockets, empty bed
How long Lord?
Empty dreams in an empty head
How long?
When you get those walking blues
Radio just plays bad news
How long Lord?
Now how long?

When you feel those cold winds blow
How long Lord?
You know the way you have to go
How long?
Thought I heard the DJ say
Got no reason left to stay
How long Lord?
Now how long?

Standing by the railroad track
How long Lord?
Heading out with no way back
How long?
Waiting in the pouring rain
Must have missed that Gospel Train
How long Lord?
Now how long?

Paper Tiger [rough demo]

All rights reserved

Backup:

Paper Tiger (words & music by David Harley)

Oh, you paper tiger,
Now see what you’ve done
You made your stand on shifting sand
And now begins the fun

Your bluff’s been called at last
So what do you do now?
Now someone got the drop on you
And finally faced you down

Oh, you paper tiger… (x2)

Oh, you paper tiger
Now see what you’ve done
Every chamber emptied
And nowhere left to run

How could you forget
The only code that you lived by
To move so fast and talk so soft
And keep your powder dry?

Oh, you paper tiger… (x2)

Oh, you paper tiger
Now see what they’ve done
They’ve picked you clean and strung you up
To dry out in the sun

Oh, you bigshot bankrupt
You flamed-out flat-lined fake
They’ll bake you in the ashes
Of your latest last mistake

Oh, you paper tiger … (x2)

Bottle [rough demo]

Tune not yet entirely settled.

Backup:

Bottle (words & music by David Harley)

I called out softly through the darkness
Hoping someone might try the door
Hoping someone might have the key
But I don’t trust the daylight anymore

Someone knocked the bottle over
It happened once before
I suppose it might have been me
But I can’t trust the daylight anymore

I believe I’m getting stronger
Than I ever was before
But I won’t get up to look
Because I don’t believe in daylight anymore

 

Till I Find You Again [demo]

Backup:

Till I find you again (Harley) © 1972

With my guitar
I have built a wall
Of alibis

To shield my emptiness
And drive away the shadows
Of faces
I try to forget

I tried to write you a song
But the words got in my way

Just a wounded sky
Bleeding moonbeams