Adventures In New Standard Tuning

A Facebook friend turned me on to something I had never heard of before: New Standard Tuning for guitar.

There isn't a lot of information out there available for New Standard Tuning. Most of what's out there seems to reference everything else that's out there. In hopes of contributing something useful to the topic, I will briefly summarize the information you can get elsewhere, and then provide some of my own impressions on the tuning itself and its underlying logic.

The Stuff You Can Read Elsewhere
According to every other internet website out there, New Standard Tuning is a variant on perfect-5ths tuning developed by Robert Fripp, and most notably used by Robert Fripp's guitar ensemble, The League of Crafty Guitarists, named after Fripp's Guitar Craft educational enterprise, or possibly vice-versa. Apparently, the tuning has also been used by the California Guitar Trio, who is a bit of an offshoot from Guitar Craft and the League of Crafty Guitarists.

A simple YouTube search yields other, similar work by the Viljandi Guitar Trio, and a few other daring individuals. The vast majority of information and demonstration of New Standard Tuning more or less comes down to music that is essentially Fripp-ish in style and substance. Fans of Robert Fripp are unlikely to find anything "new" about other musicians' experimentation with NST - indeed, even the California Guitar Trio, who is arguably the most recognizable of the non-Fripp material out there - delivers NST with incredibly familiar construKction, if you catch my meaning.

At any rate, the story goes that one day Robert Fripp came upon the idea of tuning his guitar in intervals of perfect 5ths, like a 19th century double-bassist, rather than perfect 4ths, like a normal guitar. He gave it a try, and found that his highest string kept snapping, so he reduced the pitch all the way down to a minor third with respect to the next-highest string. The result is New Standard Tuning, tuned from low to high as follows: C, G, D, A, E, G.

Again, as you will read from other blogs and websites dedicated to the topic, the obvious benefits of this tuning are an extended range (the C is two full steps lower than the lowest note in Standard Tuning, while the high-G is a minor-third above the highest open string in Standard Tuning) and... freedom from any possible creative rut you may be experiencing. Maybe.

The recommendation is that we all adjust our string tensions if we want to play with NST, buy a composite set and go to town. But you don't have to do that to play around with it a bit. I use standard, .009-gauge electric guitar strings, and they work fine enough for the purposes of playing around.

When you first tune up to NST, right away you will want to start playing your most Fripp-inspired improv licks. The unconventional intervals between the strings will pull you into free-jazz territory. For at least an hour, you will make a lot of abstract noise and use droning strings a lot. It's inevitable. You're learning and experimenting.

New Standard Tuning - First Impressions
If you come from a rock background like I do, then the first thing you will notice about NST is that the lowest two strings are essentially identical to Drop-D tuning, tuned a full step lower. This makes for some groovy power chords, but this grows boring after a while.

One immediate benefit you will find, however, is that power chords are instantly available on every string pairing, save the highest two. Still, power chords don't sound great on the higher strings, so the applications are limited.

NST, Level Two
The next thing you are bound to try out is soloing. Here is where things start to get a bit interesting.

The way we are used to playing the guitar involves 4ths that want to resolve to 5ths, and 7ths that want to resolve to roots. That's because in standard tuning, the index finger is typically in a position to play a 4th or a 7th, and the ring finger is typically one step above. We get so used to this that we hardly think about it.

NST doesn't allow for this , however. The index finger is always in a position to resolve, either via the root or the 5th, unless we move our hand down two frets and force a 4th or a 7th to happen. Meanwhile, the ring finger tends to fall on intervals that want to resolve: 2nds, 6ths, or possibly major 3rds (two strings up).

The tonal result of all of this is that, while improvising in NST, the guitarist finds himself accidentally creating new dissonances that must be resolved in order for the musical passage to properly "close." The tuning gives the ear the impression that there is more to be said. This can only be good as a source for inspiration.

Take Another Step
Power chords and unresolved dissonances are an unsatisfactory place to leave-off with a new tuning, so I decided to inject a little more structure into my playing. I thought to myself, "If someone thought to call this New Standard Tuning, then one must be able to play some pretty standard tunes like this, if one tries."

I started off simple: "When I Come Around" by Green Day, the first song anyone my age ever learned on the guitar. I briefly worked out the intervals for the five chords in that song, and ended up teaching myself some three-string major and minor chords in the process. Making the adjustment was actually quite easy. Sticking to three strings at a time and playing some basic material helped wrap my head around the underlying logic of the tuning.

Next, I tried "Man in the Box," by Alice in Chains. Again, this song is dead simple in standard tuning, so I figured it would be another good one to figure out - especially considering that, unlike "When I Come Around," there are actual lead guitar licks in the song. What I discovered was that, not only was playing the entire piece quite easy despite my not having access to the open strings that are crucial to this piece when played in standard tuning. This was a real surprise. I didn't transpose the piece at all - I played it in the key of E, just as it's written. And the lead guitar parts were possibly even easier to play in New Standard Tuning.

I tried a few more songs that are familiar to me: "Spoonman," "Message in a Bottle," "Welcome to Paradise," and so on. The more I play with NST, the easier it is to play in NST. It sounds obvious, but it is not at all where I anticipated I'd end up when I first started playing around.

Some Final Thoughts
A few closing remarks on tonight's experiment...

First of all, the ease of access to power chords and a great extended tonal range makes picking up rock songs dead simple in New Standard Tuning, and makes transposing them a breeze.

Second of all, playing chords on more than three strings starts to get a little funny, especially when attempting more sonically "thick" chords, like diminished or augmented chords. That said, playing chords on three, or occasionally four, strings is an absolute breeze. For this reason, I actually think New Standard Tuning may lend itself particularly well to 12-string guitar applications (although string gauge issues may arise). I haven't yet attempted tuning my 12-string to NST, but I can easily envision a situation in which I tune the 12-string neck of my double-neck to NST and leave the 6-string neck in standard tuning. If I really get the hang of NST, I see this as being the most logical way to incorporate it into regular use.

Third, because the tuning is so incredibly power-chord oriented, I cannot immediately see applications outside of rock and experimental acoustic guitar music. I do think jazz soloists may fare well here, but when the solo is over, they may also find themselves locked into a limited chordal vocabulary that restricts more than it inspires. But I am certainly no jazzer, and this is just an impression I have.

Fourth, and most importantly, when one finally starts to wrap one's head around NST, it no longer feels "weird," or "awkward," and consequently doesn't even feel particularly innovative. It is a surprisingly normal tuning that offers players the ability to simply play a lot of standard songs in a different way. In that sense, I can see it ultimately failing as a source of inspiration, while I already consider it a smashing success as a way to learn and transpose songs quickly and easily.

In all, I am surprisingly impressed by NST. It is not nearly as useless as I expected it to be. It is so surprisingly comfortable, in fact, that I am a bit disappointed that it's not "weirder" than I expected.

Which begs the question: Why are so many of the internet's NST demonstrations so quirky and Fripp-ish? Where are the videos of people playing songs from the standard guitar repertoire in NST? Perhaps these questions answer themselves in disappointing ways, or perhaps the answer is that only a very small fraction of people stick with NST long enough to really figure it out.

Either way, I am glad I started fiddling around with this, and indeed I will continue to do so. It's a fun spin on an over-played instrument. Try it yourself and see!

1 comment:

  1. Those are some interesting observations about New Standard Tuning in this post from 2012!

    Having taken 10 years of cello lessons as a kid, I'm quite interested in New Standard Tuning. The bottom four strings in NST are identical in pitch to the strings of a cello, a 4-string cello banjo, a mandocello, and a "baritone tenor" guitar such as the Eastwood 2P (which is tuned an octave down from a tenor guitar). One aspect of NST that I really appreciate is that there's no need to go very far up the next to reach what would be considered a high register on a cello.

    A guitar in NST is in basically the same harmonic space as a 5- or 6-string viola da gamba or violoncello da spalla. Consequently I'd be very interested to hear a really good guitarist play Bach's 6th cello suite in NST, with or without a plectrum.

    In my opinion, NST could potentially be very useful in any context where a mandolin or violin is at home. That includes jazz, and guitars tuned in NST could play a mandolin-like chordal role. However, although chords and are certainly possible on a cello (and sound pretty feckin' awesome in the Bach suites, etc.),

    I think two primary roles for the bottom four strings in NST when not playing double stops or chords would be to play the inner voice, or to play the bass voice in traditional styles of music where a contrabass plucked instrument might sound too modern.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. Given that 8 or 9 years have gone by since you made this post, I'd be curious to hear if you continued tinkering with NST -- and if so, what your experience with it has been.

    Hopefully I don't come off here as a pedant trying to sound like a deep thinker. I'm just a very amateur musician who's intrigued by the possibilities of NST and eagerly awaiting his first set of John Pearse 150NS strings.