Guitarists and record producers of all stripes have used Nashville tuning for years as a way to make a six-string guitar track sound like it was recorded with a 12-string. But the usefulness and appeal of this method of stringing a standard acoustic or electric guitar hardly ends there. For the cost of a new set of strings, you may just find that—in addition to endless possibilities in the recording studio— Nashville tuning can open the door to a whole new world of inspiration for songwriting and live playing, whether you use it on electric or acoustic guitars.
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.
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