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What Is Nashville Tuning, Anyway?
Unlike open G or DADGAD, Nashville tuning isn’t an alternate tuning in the way guitarists normally use the term. The strings are still tuned E, A, D, G, B, and E. The difference is that the four lower strings are tuned up an octave from standard tuning, while the highest two—the B and high E—are left unchanged. You can therefore also look at Nashville tuning as using the octave strings from a 12-string guitar in place of the E, A, D, and G strings.
To avoid confusion, we should clarify that some people refer to Nashville tuning as “high-strung” guitar. However, true high-strung tuning is a different but similar technique most often used for certain African folk music styles. It differs from Nashville tuning in that it only raises the three lowest strings an octave. The G string, the B, and the high E are left tuned to their standard pitch.
OK, back to Nashville tuning. Because you’re tuning four of the strings up an octave, you can’t use a standard set of strings. It used to be hard to find string sets made specifically for Nashville tuning, so you would have to either use six strings from a 12-string set or piece together your own set by buying strings individually. These days, however, it’s easy to find strings made for Nashville tuning. The D’Addario EJ38H set—gauged .010 (high E), .014 (B), .009 (G), .012 (D), .018 (A), and .027 (E)—is a great example.
Take It for a Spin So, you’ve invested in a new set of strings that will work for Nashville tuning, put the cat outside so you can restring in peace, and installed the new strings on your guitar. Once you’re all tuned up, strum a few chords and you’ll immediately be taken in by the chiming timbre coming from your old guitar, as well as the fresh new angle this tuning brings to even basic, first-position chords. You can only play this tuning for the first time once, and chances are you’re going to come up with some cool new song ideas—so make sure you have a portable recorder handy!
Give It a Whirl in the Studio
As we’ve already discussed, a Nashville-tuned guitar completes a 12-string guitar when doubled with a standard six-string guitar. But the combination of a Nashville and a standard guitar will be richer and more shimmering than what you would get by using a 12-string to play the same part. This is because of the unavoidable inconsistencies that occur when you combine two different performances.
But now that your 12-string has been pulled apart in a way that the laws of physics would never allow, why not take advantage of it? Try doubling a Nashville-tuned track with a standard-tuned guitar, but pan them opposite each other to achieve a huge, atmospheric 12-string sound. Add reverb or other effects to each track independently. Change their relative volumes in the mix as you move from one section of a song to another. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, only those who risk going too far can possibly know how far “too far” is!
Writing Inspiration and Live Application
Because Nashville-tuned guitar strings are clustered more closely together in pitch than with standard tuning, chords tend to be voiced more like a keyboard player would voice them. Chord progressions that might suggest certain melodic ideas on a standard-tuned guitar may lead you in very different directions because the notes within the chords will stand out to your ear in a different way. The harpsichord- or mandolin-like sound and higher pitch of the tuning might also inspire new vocal ideas. And it’s easy to stumble onto fresh melodies and arpeggios, because even tired old licks and chords suddenly sound fresh with Nashville tuning.
For live use, Nashville-tuned guitars lack the bottom end that solo performers tend to prefer for most of their songs (although they might try it as a special flavor for a specific song). However, guitars strung this way definitely shine onstage as part of a group, particularly when blending with another guitarist in standard tuning.
Don’t Let the One Downside Dissuade You
One problem with Nashville tuning is that there can be intonation and action issues when it’s applied to a guitar set up for regular string gauges. If you want to really explore this sound, you could set up a guitar specifically for it, or you could check out the new Nashville Special acoustic and acoustic-electric six-strings that Wechter Guitars now offers—they’re designed and set up specifically for Nashville tuning.
If you’ve never tried Nashville tuning, give it a shot! All it costs is a few bucks for strings and a few minutes to put them on your guitar. Who knows—before long you might consider having a Nashville-tuned guitar in your arsenal as essential as having a Les Paul or a Strat!
Sweetwater Sales Engineer Bob Furlong has a master’s degree in education from Wilmington University. For most of the past 20 years, he toured and recorded professionally as a drummer and keyboard player. These days he plays and records guitar more than anything else. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (800) 222-4700 ext. 1326.