[Update from 14th May 2021: if you find this article a bit too long and rambling, there’s a more concise but very useful article I’ve just come across from Strings Direct – an excellent source of strings and other accessories – here.
[Updated 8th November 2020 with some info on the terz guitar and added links on terz and on scale lengths for a range of stringed instruments.]
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!
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.)
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- a 12-string guitar
- a high-strung guitar
- and a Nashville-strung guitar
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. Reverend make a Billy Corgan Terz – essentially an electric equivalent of the terz, a short-scale classic guitar (530-560mm, as opposed to the 650-660mm of a standard classic guitar: this puts it in the same scale range as a 3/4 guitar). The shorter scale allows a standard string set to be tuned three frets higher than normal, so it would probably be quite comfortable with the much lighter strings used in a Nashville set.
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
Two is a silence – a brief extract using just a Nashville-strung guitar.
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.)
Careful double-stopping and/or fingering may sound rather like a mountain (Appalachian) dulcimer. For both these examples I used an open D tuning.
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. 🙂
- A huge list of tunings for various stringed instruments
- A rough guide to some other guitar tunings
- Terz guitar (alto guitar)
- Billy Korgan Terz
- An article on scale lengths of string instruments