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Are alternate tunings cheating?

by Larry

Had an interesting conversation with a friend last weekend.  We were watching YouTube showing each other different guitarists that we dig.  I showed him some Michael Hedges and William Ackerman videos,

which then led us to a conversation about open tunings. I explained to him that Hedges and Ackerman used/use alternate tunings almost exclusively. 

When I pointed this out, he seemed unimpressed and maybe even lost a bit of interest once I mentioned open tunings.  The first thing he asked was why not just learn/write the song in normal tuning; adjust yourself to the instrument instead forcing the instrument to adjust to you.  Interesting point but I had to disagree and explained that many of these songs would be impossible to replicate in standard tuning and if you could play it in standard tuning the mood or feel of the piece might be adversely affected.  He nodded as if to agree but not totally convinced.  His background is as a progressive metal guitarist and in his experiences, he has witnessed some players tune to an open tuning and just bar everything for every song. To him, that is a shortcut or cheating.  I agreed with him to some extent but that person still needs to have rhythm and a feel for the changes, so there is some sort musicianship going on there.   We went back and forth a bit more and I think he has more respect for alternate tunings but I don’t think I’ll see him playing any open C tunings any time soon.

So are alternate tunings cheating?  I don’t think so.  It’s just another tool at our disposal we can use to enhance our music and to, at times, make it easier for us to play.  If we really want to nitpick, we would have to call capos, effects, amps, computers,etc… cheating as well.  I guess I’m a cheater and glad I have all these resources to cheat with.  How about you?

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Vince April 19, 2008 - 2:59 am

That is total BS! Music is music, there are no rules and to say someone isn’t as talanted because of the tactics they use means nothing at all.

Its not about who is better than who, it all comes down to whatever moves you.

Alternate tunings provide oportunities for expernmentation. Anyone who says otherwise will never move out of the box they are comfortable in.

Next time your watching youtube, maybe turn off the monitor and actually listen rather than be absorbed in how much the player can “wow” you.

John Horne April 20, 2008 - 7:30 am

I’ve learned several of Michael Hedges and David Wilcox compositions in alternate tunings. I can tell you that the tuning is essential to revealing the intent of the composer. This is especially true in Hedges’ case where the guitar is essentially re-created to allow it to give voice to harmonic and melodic material that would not otherwise be possible.

I’ve also done several arrangements using alternate tunings.

I believe that the time I spent exploring these tunings has in turn helped me deepen my understanding of standard tuning!

Larry April 20, 2008 - 12:07 pm


Thanks for the comment. I never thought about exploring alternate tunings to have a better understanding of standard. I have always approached it the opposite; have a good grasp on standard before I move on to alternate.


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