Why tune down a 1/2 step?

Discussion in 'Playing and Technique' started by davya, Apr 9, 2008.

  1. davya

    davya Member

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    So, why would you tune down a 1/2 step (or more)? I know that SRV and Albert King before him played heavy strings to get the "tone" but tuned down so they could play and bend strings easier. That makes some sense.

    What other reason would you tune down? Standard tuning but just 1/2 step or more lower?
     
  2. Austinrocks

    Austinrocks Member

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    A strat has a longer scale length than a Gibson, tuning a strat down 1/2 a steop or even a whole step dramatically improves the tone, you can also use heavier strings, I used 11s on mine when I was tuning down 1/2 step, that really got me nice tone, its even better if you go further down, I went down to 2 steps to C and it really was wild, the 11s were floppy, I had a baratone Gibson SG and tuned it down to 2.5 steps to B, that was a wild guitar to play.
     
  3. Joe Robinson

    Joe Robinson Gold Supporting Member

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    IMHO it sounds better. And not just IMHO, it's helps the vocalist out immesurably. And I should say, not just the lead singer, but the backing vocalists also. Lowering the key is not always an option for both guitar and bass, so the best method (Hendrix, U2, SRV DLR era VH amongst others) is to tune down a half step, and play the song in the normal position on the guitar, thereby lowering the key 1/2 a step.
     
  4. boldaslove1977

    boldaslove1977 Silver Supporting Member

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    i just did my first-ever solo acoustic gig... (usually i sing a harmony part or 2, and that's about it).

    i had never tuned down a half step before that night, but i figured i needed all the help i could get. it made a huge difference.
     
  5. The Captain

    The Captain Supporting Member

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    Add later Metallica and GNR to that list.
    Grown men have deep voices and reaching high notes gets harder.
    I like the feel of Eb. Currently I use 10's, but I'm going to try top-wrapped 11's on an LP soon, for a change. My FR guitar stayes in Eb all the time. There is so much music I need that for, so it works out.
     
  6. gw_bluesman

    gw_bluesman Member

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    I'm with you davya .... I am 48, playing since I was 13 and I have never tuned down. I read a few posts that said it helps vocals? ... well, my first reply would be .... just play the song in a lower key, why tune the guitar down?

    Another problem I see is when playing with horns, they love Bb as a horn key. So if I were to tune down a 1/2 step, then I would be playing in 8th of "C" position to be in tune with the horns and frankly, that would be confusing.

    Now maybe you guys are onto something or maybe I am just old school but tuning down a 1/2 step just doesn't make any sense to me. That said, there are drop D and open tunings that make sense like for slide, etc.

    Again, if the key is too high to sing against, then transpose to a lower key. If your hands are not strong enough to stretch strings and do solid bends, then perhaps exercise your hands to strengthen them.
     
  7. JonR

    JonR Member

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    But actually, playing with horns offers another good reason to tune down.
    If you play in "E" a half-step down, that's concert Eb. Now you're in a common jazz key, an alto player's home key (C for them), and far easier too for trumpet and other saxes than concert E major is.
    So if you want to play a song in E (because you need those open chord shapes), and work with a horn section, then a half-step down makes it easy all round.

    Of course, if you then play in "C", that's their B major, and they wont like that...

    However, I have in the past tuned down a whole step, so that I can play C shapes and be in the horn-friendly key of Bb. (But only on one guitar, for a couple of tunes, and because I had a specific fingerstyle part that wasn't possible in standard.)

    Generally, I'm instinctively in agreement with you.
    At the same time tho, there must be good reasons for tuning a half-step down, if so many people are doing it.
    I'm sure most of it is because their heroes do it and they want to copy them! But why would (say) Hendrix (one of the first to do it) have tuned down?
    My guess is it offered him greater bending capabilities, with the limited string gauges then on offer. Maybe also, that half-step was enough to accommodate his voice in his favourite guitar key (E)?
    Or maybe he just tuned it by ear one day, and it happened to end up in Eb... (Many of his recordings are not exactly a half-step down...)

    As you say, however, accommodating a singer's range is not normally a good enough reason. If someone can't sing it in E, a half-step lower is not likely to be enough to really help them.
    And IMO, the increase in bendability is counterbalanced by loss of tension (and volume and tone). OK, you then put heavier strings on to get your tone back. But then the bendability reduces...
    (IOW the advantages are mixed and complicated.)

    I suspect - in the end - it comes down to "SRV did it, so it must be a good idea..." :rolleyes: (Admittedly SRV did sound great; but I'm sure his downtuning played only a tiny part - if any - in his tone.)

    There are other issues with tuning down still further - encroaching into baritone guitar territory - to do with extra bass frequency in the sound, more "heaviness". (Hence the drop C tunings, etc) But Eb tuning has negligible effect in this respect.
     
  8. rob2001

    rob2001 Member

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    For my vocal range that 1/2 step makes a big difference. Yes, bending is easier but I like the tone from being tuned regular better. If I didn't have to sing I'd probably tune regular. Someone suggested transposing... yes it can be done but it blows if a song uses traditional chording. Kinda tough to transpose a regular E or C chord.
     
  9. JonR

    JonR Member

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    Depends on the song. Some (maybe most?) rock songs are indeed based on specific guitar chord shapes, and would change their character quite a lot if transposed.
    This is a slightly odd aspect of rock music, and of guitar folk too - it doesn't apply in other genres.
    In jazz it would be considered a severe limitation to inhibit key choice simply because of the demands of the instrument, or the inability of the player to play in other keys. Jazz guitarists use movable chords all the time, and rarely if ever rely on the specific properties of open chord shapes. Some keys are difficult on horns, but not impossible, and it doesn't change the character of a song to transpose it.
    Jazz guitarists all over shake their heads in despair... :rolleyes:

    There is of course the option of using a capo - which is the standard solution in the folk world to using familiar open chord shapes in strange keys.
    OK - it means raising the key rather than lowering, but you can sometimes go up the octave on guitar, if the voice needs to come down quite a way (at least a 4th). (If the voice needs to come down that much, downtuning is a pretty drastic solution, unless the guitar is already set up with heavier strings.)
     
  10. willhutch

    willhutch Supporting Member

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    Could it have something to do with tension/balance/tuning stability of the tremolo?
     
  11. KLB

    KLB Member

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    All alternative tunings and tensions bring harmonic changes between the fundamental and overtones.

    Try Robin Trower's setup:

    1.) Tune to D standard

    2.) Strings are 12, 15, 17, 26, 36, 48

    Also, for standard tuning, try tuning to A = 442hz up to 446hz. You'd be surprised at the subtle harmonic changes.
     
  12. rob2001

    rob2001 Member

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    I Agree with everything said here. Big difference between rock/blues/country, and jazz. Not that it's unheard of, but you don't often see jazzers using the "cowboy" E, C D F chords that have open strings as the equation. Transposing those chords a half step isn't a good solution. A full step is easier... G to F, E to D, D to C, etc... where you change the chord shape from the original shape.

    I've used a capo as you suggest, to raise the key enough from a lower key to put it in a comfortable range. But that is when extreme changes are needed using open tunings/chords. I write a lot and i've often done as you say, transpose to a completely different key. But for some covers, 1/2 step down puts the vocals where I can sing comfortably. Now If I could sing better, i'd never tune down. I prefer the "snap" or sonics of a guitar tuned to regular E..... but not always!! There are times when I feel 1/2 step down tuning does indeed fit the song better. To me it can have a "grunt" to it that fits some songs and not others.
     
  13. rob2001

    rob2001 Member

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    + 1000
     
  14. shredtrash

    shredtrash Supporting Member

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    I'm a vocalist and a lead guitarist. As a guitarist, I couldn't care less. However, as a vocalist that has to sing 40+ songs a night in most cases, it really helps with the wear and tear. Also, the crowd will never perceive a 1/2 step difference.
     
  15. gw_bluesman

    gw_bluesman Member

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    Well open tunings make more sense to me ... I had mentioned slide for example.

    Many of you made good points and I guess as I said I tend to be more old school. Until fairly recently, I never used pedals ... just plugged an old Gibson into an old Fender amp and tone city. Now I added a FUCHs ODS to my collection and an Intellifex ... guess this old dog can still learn.

    Great dialogue guys !!!
     
  16. The Captain

    The Captain Supporting Member

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    AS soon as you need any note below open E, you need a down-tune. Drop D may be seen as a lazy way to fret power chords, but really, what it does is buy you another whole key you can go to, without changing anything else. (Yes, I know the other strings go out of tune and need to be adjusted, but the rest of the key of D stays in the same place on the fretboard)
    I am bit weirded out by the comments that suggest that down-tunings are undesirable. They are no different to using a capo, or any other alternatate tuning. They just create new sonic possibilitites.
     
  17. gw_bluesman

    gw_bluesman Member

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    I don't think anyone said that alternate tunings are undesirable... the original post specifically asked about "standard tuning".

    Tuning to drop D to play a song in D that is built around the D chord in open position just makes sense. However it doesn't seem like the same thing as tuning a 1/2 step down and just playing everything that way because your hands are too weak to bend notes or to meet a weak vocalist.

    I agree 100% that alternate tunings "CAN" have their place but unless I read this thread wrong ... it implied that someone would tune their guitar down a 1/2 step and play it that way period. In simple terms ... alternate tuning for a specific song or effect is a great tool ... but I do not get doing it just because ....

    It's like driving a car, the correct way is to use ONE FOOT ... now on a steep hill, you may need to use 2 feet so you do not roll back but to drive with 2 feet ALL the time is not correct and "usually" leads to early brake wear.
     
  18. The Captain

    The Captain Supporting Member

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    ^^^ I guess I have no problem with the idea of just tuning down a half-step and staying there, cos ther is no intrinsic "rightness" to tuning in what is commonly known as "standard", it is just a convention.
    Eb tuning is just as conventional among those who use it.
    It's just a different feel and tone, neither right nor wrong.
    It doesn't wear the brakes out either, but it is a good reaon to own more guitars. I really need another FR eqipped git so I can have one in E and one in Eb.
     
  19. Flyin' Brian

    Flyin' Brian Member

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    I see the Doobies regularly and Tommy Johnston has one of the more recognizable rock voices from the 70s. It surprised me that they still tune/play/sing in standard tuning and they all hit the notes 30+ years later.
     
  20. re-animator

    re-animator Senior Member

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    Tuning down a half-step has made a HUGE difference for me.


    At this point I generally leave my electrics in standard, but my acoustic is always in Eb. E works better for the lead singer I work with, but with acoustics I am generally singing myself, so Eb is just a much better fit for me.


    I feel like such a doofus for never tuning down before about 2 months ago. I did it because hendrix did it, but I was so surprised at 2 things:

    - how much easier it made vocals (believe me, i need all the help i can get!)
    - how much BETTER it made my acoustic guitar sound. I used 12s, and it opened the guitar right up. Chords just bloom and make you shiver. Its great.
     

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