One Theme, Three Tunings

Most guitarists use standard tuning (E, A, D, G, B, E) as their default orientation, figuring something along the lines of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Some players may not even be aware that the guitar can be tuned any other way. Whatever the reason, there’s no denying the ubiquity of our old faithful standard—which has been in use since before 1800.

Simple traditionalism isn’t the only reason for the dominance of standard tuning. The fact is, it’s wonderfully versatile. Virtually any style of music can be played in standard tuning, in practically any major or minor key. Guitarists are a curious lot, however, and throughout the years, they have looked to alternative tunings as a way to expand the instrument’s boundaries. Such tunings can make otherwise impossible harmonies easy to manage, and they can expand the overall range of the guitar—usually extending the bass register by tuning the lowest strings down. Another advantage of alternative tunings is that—with the right coupling of a tuning and an arrangement or composition—they allow more open strings to resonate throughout a piece of music.

In this seminar, we’ll take a single piece of music through three different tunings to see how each tuning suits the music. For our musical yardstick, we’ll use the main theme from G.F. Handel’s The Harmonious Blacksmith, originally composed for harpsichord in the early 18th century. This seminar will help familiarize you with non-standard tunings. As you play through them, consider how these alternatives might suit your own tunes and arrangements.

Here are some points to keep in mind as you work through the examples:

• This arrangement is fairly true to Handel’s original. One essential difference is that this version has been transposed from the original key of E major to G major. Why the change? Because in E, the melody sits either too low to set sonorous harmonies below it, or else—shifted up an octave—too high to exploit open strings. The melody lays nicely in the key of G, and leaves us enough room below to harmonize it effectively. Putting the melody in a guitar-friendly octave is an important consideration when crafting any arrangement.

• Each example is arranged using two- and three-part harmony, approximating the piece’s original setting for harpsichord. Before tackling the first arrangement as written, however, be sure to familiarize yourself with Handel’s melody on its own. You can do this by playing just the upstemmed notes in this example.

• Once you’re familiar with the melody, be sure to emphasize it as you play each example. The harmony notes should support, but never overpower the melody.

• The indicated tempo is the rate this piece should be played at, ideally, but take things slower at first to ensure that every note rings clearly.

• Though The Harmonious Blacksmith is a classical piece of music, you needn’t employ traditional classical guitar picking-hand technique to play these examples. Use manicured nails, bare fingertips, pick and fingers in combination, or whatever technique you’re most comfortable with.

• The three tunings explored here are among the most common guitar tunings, with standard tuning being the most universal. For further study, try arranging The Harmonious Blacksmith in other tunings. DADGAD and D modal (D, A, D, G, B, D) are good options if you’re staying in the key of G. If you choose to transpose the melody to another key, other tunings may make better sense.