Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

Detuning guitars

I had an interesting comment posted recently about George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ways of playing it. The song begins with an F#m-B barre chord change at fret II; later on the song changes key up a tone. Most people start with a capo at the II fret which removes some of the barres until the key-change and creates a more resonant sound. However, it has been suggested that another way to approximate the sound is to play on a 12-string detuned by three semitones. F#m-B would then be fingered with open string Am and D shapes. I haven’t tried it myself, but from what I know about detuning I’m sure this would produce a very effective result and might well approximate what is heard on the record. But it might not be what was done on the session.

The sound on the record was created by multiple acoustic guitars. Whether or not any of them were 12-strings at standard pitch I’m not sure but I wouldn’t be surprised – if you’re trying to get a big acoustic sound it makes sense to use a 12-string in addition to the 6-strings. Not only George Harrison, but Peter Frampton and members of Badfinger also played guitar on the track. I remember Peter Frampton describing this when I did a phone interview with him back in the late 90s. The result was a big acoustic sound.

The lesson of this is that imitating a guitar part from a recording as it was done may not be the way to get the sound if you’re trying to copy a multi-track recording. So in this case, it could be that there is no 12-string on ‘My Sweet Lord’ which has been detuned by three semitones – but if you happen to have a 12-string and can detune it it may give you a great resemblance if you’re singing the song on your own. Many years ago I worked out a way of playing ‘Stairway To Heaven’  on a six-string which added as many octaves as I could finger to the basic progressions in the middle in order to mimic the sound of a 12-string on the recording / live version.

More generally on the subject of detuning, tuning down by a semitone is a common hard rock / blues practice – Hendrix did it quite a bit, as did Thin Lizzy. Strings are easier to bend and vocalists can sing in the guitar’s E or Em chord shapes easier (the pitch is actually Eb). Riffs sound heavier. But it also works on acoustic, producing a deeper tone at one, two or three steps down. You may need to go to a heavier guage string if you go that far down. The critical point is what pitch the eight master-shapes will produce when you do this – this enables you to work out how to use it as a second guitar to a standard guitar that may have a capo on. Here are the master-shapes with their actual pitch at 1, 2 and 3 semitones down

Std     A C D E G Am Dm Em

-1       G# B C# D# F# G#m C#m D#m or Ab Cb Db Eb Gb Abm Dbm Ebm

-2       G Bb C D F Gm Cm Dm

-3       F# A B C# E F#m Am Bm

I hope this is useful.

I remember trying to work out how to play All About Eve’s hit ‘Martha’s Harbour’. The chords that produced the right ringing arpeggios didn’t seem possible in standard tuning but I knew their pitch was right. A capo wouldn’t fix it either. I got to ask the band’s guitarist Tim Bricheno how it was done and it explained the acoustic was detuned by a tone. As soon as I did it all the chord shapes worked.

More on guitar tones later.



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