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.


4 responses

  1. Shane McHugh

    Thank for your comments Rikky. I’m the one that asked the question.
    I recently bought a big Guild F-512 along with finally playing my Rickenbacker
    12 string a lot and noticed (since I’m a big Beatles/60’s fan) that in working
    out some favorites for the first time detuning is indeed the way it was done
    (though as you said questionable for live stuff). The Seekers I’ll never find
    another you is down a step (3 half steps for the 2010 reunion).
    and Kicks by Paul Reve e and the Raiders (wrecking crew really)
    is with a capo 1 making the riff an easy E minor riff rather than Bb with
    1st and 3rd frets. BTW that detuning sometimes helps with singing
    such as Kentucky Woman (Diamond) played in C sounds in B.
    Back in the 70’s these things were almost unknown. I knew a guy
    that learned the Rain Song in standard tuning while at sea in the
    Navy and it looked hard. I showed him how to tune to make it easy
    (I got it from a tab book). So the advent of guitar tab made some
    things a lot easier in the 90’s.

    Some people did do things the harder way though. I grew up in Salem,Mass
    and in 1974-75 Bobby Hebb (of Sunny fame) lived up the street and
    used to come into the supermarket where I had an after school job.
    I always asked him to show me Sunny because I knew 3 chords but he
    said it was too hard and I should take lessons first. Today I know that
    a modulation happens almost every verse making bar chords
    (there is a tremendous version of Sunny by him from 72 with Ron
    Carter playing bass on you tube) so there were no tricks in that song.

    Also, I took lessons briefly from a very good player who cut meat
    named Jim Femino who told me not to bother with country music
    as it is square. Today he lives in Nashville and is a top country
    songwriter. Look him up. We never know how tastes might change
    and more important is not to prejudge music by someones opinion
    as like Arthur Lee said “Forever Changes.”,

    One last thing. My Sweet Lord played with a large 12 string capo 2
    is as close as one guitar will get. For me a G7sus4 for a hard days
    night is better than trying to figure out what Paul and George Martin
    were combining with an F6 George was playing though it is fun.
    No wonder the Beatles quit touring in 66′.



    March 26, 2014 at 3:53 pm

  2. Shane McHugh

    Just for the record and for the benefit of anyone reading upon careful
    examination the best way to approach My Sweet Lord to make it sound
    like the record is the previously mentioned detune 3 semitones BUT
    capo the fifth fret and play in E minor as George did at Bangladesh.
    A minor will work but the deciding factor is found in the CD Early
    Takes where he fiddles with some notes before playing which cannot
    be found in A minor. He clearly plays in E minor at the fifth fret.
    Maybe the record was done differently. I saw an interview where he
    said that there were 5 acoustics on it and he and Phil Spector picked some.
    No wonder studio muscians get confused over what they played on
    years ago. They and the producers don’t even remember sometimes.
    BTW Creeque Alley works in the same way but with a capo 3. Try playing
    the opening notes with a B7 chord and the song sound like the recording.
    Of course live I’d play these songs with easier chords as Harrison did
    but it is good to be aware of the various techniques previously unknown
    to us. The release of alternate takes is valuable as Rikky has mentioned
    the Pet Sounds box in his book.
    A great lesson in this is how important hitting the right strings are.
    Some chords need all 6 strings (like the Rickenbacker 12 string
    on 8 Days A Week) but the upstrokes may need to avoid the high E
    and B strings. Former Box Tops guitarist Gary Talley who is currently
    A Nashville session muscian has this as a pet peeve as most acoustic
    players (including some famous ones) just randomly hit strings with each
    chord with no regard to proper bass notes etc.

    March 29, 2014 at 3:25 pm

    • Thanks Shane for these additional comments. I must say the idea of then playing with a capo at the 5th seems odd – partly because it would decrease the resonance of the detuned guitar and also because at the key change there would be many more barre chords. As you say, alternate takes when released are sometimes very revealing about guitar technique.

      March 30, 2014 at 3:52 pm

  3. Shane McHugh

    I think there are a lot of alternate MSL takes. Perhaps I’m mistaken or George
    was experimenting. I’ll put this to rest. My large Guild F-512 capo 2 start
    with E minor, hit a hard upstroke on the and as the chord changes and it
    sounds great. Detuning 2 half steps and playing in A minor gives the drone
    sound in the beginning but the first way is best.
    Since the 70’s we’ve gone from being in the dark about these things
    and now have too many alternate takes to chose from in all kinds of music.
    Maybe someone will find your or my demos and say “I think Rikky really
    meant to play it like this” – lol. No wonder John Fogerty says that he
    erased a lot of Creedence alternate takes. McCartney has said that he worries
    that released takes will someday compete with the one he wanted and
    confuse things years from now

    April 1, 2014 at 12:24 am

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