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  • Writer's pictureJay EuDaly

Altered States

In the mid '70's I became obsessed with Jazz. For roughly 10 years I studied and worked at getting comfortable with the style. I consciously rejected the steel-stringed acoustic guitar after having learned on it and after 10 years playing it. The one I had (a cheap Gibson) was just too physically difficult to play to be able to execute the technique-intensive music I was trying to master on the guitar. I had a nice Martin nylon-string that I continued to use - mainly for classical music - and also a Burns solid body electric, but my main guitar became a Gibson 175 - a hollow-body electric usually (but not always) associated with traditional Jazz guitarists. I was not interested in the steel-stringed acoustic - at all.

In the early eighties I was browsing in a record store (remember those?) and stumbled across an album by Alex De Grassi called, "Slow Circle." I had never heard of him. Looking at the back of the album jacket I noticed that there were 4 altered tunings defined and numbered. The number of the corresponding tuning was given after every song. None of the songs were in standard tuning. I also noticed that this was an album of solo instrumental steel-stringed guitar. I assumed this was going to be very bizarre, dissonant and experimental music. Since I was also into "experimental" music - I was listening to Ornette Coleman and James "Blood" Ulmer (who also used an altered tuning on electric guitar) - I thought this De Grassi guy might be interesting/bizarre and bought the album without any preview.

When I got it home and put it on the turntable it turned out to be some of the most beautiful, consonant, "inside" music I had ever heard come from a guitar. Sometime after that, I was listening to Pat Metheny's latest release at the time, "Rejoicing," which was a trio record that had several Ornette Coleman tunes on it and included Charlie Haden on bass, who was Ornette Coleman's bass player in the late '50's. Ironically, the tune on "Rejoicing" that grabbed me was a rendition of Horace Silver's "Lonely Woman" on which Pat played steel-stringed acoustic guitar. In spite of a very irritating drum mix that afflicted that whole album, that one track was also "inside," gorgeous music coming from a steel-stringed acoustic guitar, this one in standard tuning.

This synchronicity resulted in two things. I began experimenting with the tunings on the back of the De Grassi album, and I went on a search for a steel-stringed acoustic guitar that felt as close to my Gibson 175 as possible. I even strung my 175 with acoustic guitar strings for a while.

The guitar I wound up with (long story made short) was a Martin MC28. I play it to this day. I don't know what I'll do if I ever have to replace it; Martin discontinued production on it decades ago.

I messed with the altered tunings for 3 or 4 years. I wrote quite a few tunes, most of which are now lost. One of those songs, "Tehachapi," did wind up on my CD, "Sound Tracks" but the others are probably beyond retrieval.

After 3 or 4 years of messing with the altered tunings given on the "Slow Circle" album jacket I came to the conclusion that my approach was not good because it negated the years of study and work I had done to understand the instrument and master the neck. Change the tuning and I was back to hunt-and-peck, learning by trial-and-error. I knew by experience that that was a very deficient way to learn (see A Little Story, Part 1).

So...I decided to analyze what it was about these tunings that made them sound the way they did and then figure out how to get the same types of sounds in standard tuning. The short story is I did just that. I codified what I discovered in my book, "Unique Chord Voicings." The stuff in that book I use constantly. I think it's one of the things of which my "voice" on the guitar consists - especially my acoustic playing.

So when it comes to altered tunings, I'm basically negative and not interested. I love the sounds some of them produce but I can get much the same thing in standard tuning. I use a simple drop-D tuning for a few tunes in my solo performances and I teach the open G tuning to students who are interested in the Rolling Stones &/or Stones derived bands, (heavier rock bands also use it) but that's about it. The altered tunings on that De Grassi album, and a whole slew of altered tunings in use today are way beyond those simple modifications to standard tuning which, in my humble opinion, is the best of all possible tunings. Yes, it has limitations, because humans are limited. I have 5 digits per hand and 6 strings. Any altered tuning is going to have the same limitations. All that happens is the range may be extended. But that creates more problems than it solves. Sometimes, the altered tuning doesn't even extend the range. My favorite tuning from the De Grassi album is (low to high) E-B-E-F#-B-E. Exactly the same range as standard tuning. If you start adding strings like Charlie Hunter (8-string guitar - and yes, I myself own a 7-string guitar) or you use a two-handed tapping technique and then start playing 2 guitars at once because one is too limiting (a la Stanley Jordan), why don't you give up and just play the piano? Don't get me wrong, I love the playing of these guys, especially Charlie Hunter, but I have no desire to start over and try to play the way they do.

Today, about half the gigs I play are on steel-stringed acoustic. So thank you, Alex De Grassi, (and also Pat Metheny) - and your altered tunings - for providing the impetus into the discovery of some interesting and beautiful chord voicings - all in standard tuning - that I use constantly and of which, some 30+ years later, I have not grown weary.

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