How Emmett and I Discovered my Current Tuning
I tried Emmett’s tuning for about 2 months when I first bought my Stick,and it made no sense to me. Because the Stick had only just been invented, there seemed no reason that my ideas should be worth less than Emmett’s, so I changed it.
I wanted to make it as much like a guitar and a bass as possible, so I had my left hand tuned in inverted 4ths and a third, (almost the same tuning that Daniell Schell teaches now), and dropped the high treble string to a 3rd also. After two years, I traded in my old stick for repairs, and Emmett promised to play my next one himself for a long time, to make sure it was exactly what I needed. He then decided to invert the Bass strings so that they would be like an ordinary guitar, then sent it to me that way–without asking or telling me.
I was furious at first, but then I thought “it might be easier to learn how to play it this way than to send it back”–and after less than an hour of playing I realised that this new stringing was much easier to play for 4ths tunings, and I’ve used it ever since.
This story illustrates perfectly for me the exasperating nature of
Emmett’s Genius. If he had asked me if I wanted to invert my strings, I would
have said no. I thought two years of playing was a long time back then, and I
didn’t want to start over. But because Emmett had the chutzpah to change my
tuning without consulting me, I ended up with a much better approach to my
instrument. EC’s ways are mysterious, but there is a compelling inner logic to
them, which always deserves respect and attention, even when you don’t agree
The story does not stop there, though. The more I played the more I felt the
need to have less of a gap between the low treble strings and the high bass
strings. So I tuned the treble strings down a whole step, making each low treble
string a whole step further up the fret board. When Emmett did this about ten
years later, he called it the Deep Baritone tuning.
Then a few years later King Crimson’s Discipline album came out. (Yes,
children, this all happened before KC had any stick players) Like every other
Stick player in the world I was fascinated by the “Elephant Talk” riff, but the
part that grabbed me was the intro–it was the first time I heard two hands on
the treble strings, and I thought it was magnificient. For years after that, I
played two hands on the treble strings whenever I could get away with not being
the bass player, until I could buy a second stick and customize it for all
treble strings. That’s the instrument I use today for all my solo work. I use my
Treble-Bass Instrument only when I play with my group Geist (Folk Harp, Stick
and Percussion). Stick Player Larry Tuttle said that both Geist and his band
Freeway Philharmonic are both playing in the same style, which he calls “Not
Really Folk Music”.
The last change in my tuning took place about two years ago. I’ve decided to go
for all 4ths, eliminating my guitar style high 3rd. It does make it very
difficult to play certain pieces composed in my original tuning, but it also
makes it possible for me to play the right hand of an “ordinary” stick. It has
been a strange feeling knowing that there has been for 20 years only one
instrument I could play. Not one kind of instrument, but one individual,
particular, piece of wood. Now I can compare and contrast my instrument with
other people’s and it is a strange and wondrous feeling. I’ve even learned to
play a few pieces using the 5ths bass tuning. Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom!
Touchstyle Instruments and Tuning
All touch style instruments have ambiguous intontation, and thus one has to
practice with awareness, to make sure you don’t touch the strings wrong and play
out of tune. The main reason for this is that touch style instruments are tuned
more loosely than plucked instruments. If you listen to early recordings of
Michael Hedges and Stanley Jordon, there are always a few notes that are a bit
out, but as they have matured technically this has become less and less
noticeable. I prefer to tune my instrument loose and deal with the tuning
challenges. Other stick players use thicker strings, and thus need to make them
tighter to keep them at the same pitch. The more tightly you tune a touchstyle
instrument the less trouble you will have with tuning, but it also becomes
harder to use certain expressive nuances.
I don’t consider this tuning challenge to be a weakness, for it is
equally true of the violin, the fretless bass, and the sitar. In fact I think it
is a strength, for it makes it possible to have personal control over your tuning
that can make the sound extremely sweet if you are aware that this is an issue
for the instrument. But it does mean that touchstyle players have an additional
challenge that other players of fretted instruments don’t have to deal with.
There are a lot of people who disagree with me about this and I can think of
two possible explanations.
1) Those people who didn’t struggle with tuning have learned how to play
in tune subconsciously, and thus solved the problem without being aware of it. I
think this was less likely to happen to the very first players than for the
second generation. When I started playing, I had no other stick players to
listen to, so it was diffficult to hold a clear audial image in my mind of what
an in-tune stick sounds like. I think that having such an image is an essential
guide for playing in tune. Most of the players I’ve talked to who’ve played for
15 to 20 years say that it was difficult to learn to play in tune. Those who’ve
been playing 12 years or less often say they had no problems with tuning. I
think the difference is that the second group had many different stick
recordings they could listen to and we early players didn’t. Listening to other
players helps tremendously in giving you a sense of what a stick is supposed to
sound like; Even hearing bad players helps you learn what you’ve been doing
2) A lot of players are not listening to themselves carefully enough to
hear that they occasionally play out of tune. This is not meant to be an insult.
If you listen to all but the very best classical violinists, they frequently
play a note or two out of tune in their trickiest passages. But if you want to
get the best possible sound out of the stick, you need to be aware that eternal
vigilance is the price of good intonation.
How I developed my Rock and Roll Sound
My first Solo European Gig was in Bremen, Germany at a week long festival called
the Bremenale. It started out as a disaster and turned into a triumph. On my
first day, I played after a troupe of German teenagers playing African drums to
the dancing of two cute Frauleins in Dashikis, which put nobody in the mood for
hearing my spacey new age instrumentals. People walked away in droves, and those
that stayed shouted “Rock and Roll”. I finished my set as quickly as possible,
then thought about how suicide would make the week go a lot quicker.
The next day, however, the sound man decided to reequalize my tone to
make me sound like a rock and roll guitar. It sounded about as different from my
normal tone as a cello from a saxophone, but I figured, “well, If they want Rock
and Roll, I’ll give them Rock and Roll”. Nobody left, everybody applauded, so I
decided that is how I would play for the rest of the week. There were lots of
strange overtones coming out of my fingers at unpredictable places, which made
me play very sloppily, but by the end of the week, I could predict what sounds
could come where, more or less, and even I liked what I was playing.
So I went to Germany a New Age musician, and came back a Rock and Roller.
After months of experimenting, I eventually decided that without the Teutonic
wizardry of the Bremenale’s soundman, I could never get the right sound out of a
PA system. But, fortunately, I have found that a Fender all-tube amplifier will
give my sound the rock and roll edge I want, provided I touch the strings the right way.
You play the amplifier almost as much as you play the strings.
How to Listen to Music from Other Cultures
(Written for the newsletter of The Multicultural Music Fellowship of San Francisco
[MCMF]. In 1994, the MCMF was formed to produce the Festival of Harps(sm)
concerts series, and to promote multi-cultural music.)
I have frequently heard people criticize various kinds of world music by
saying “It’s O.K., but it all sounds the same”. However, I do not take this
criticism at face value, because I have heard the same objection, in exactly
those words, made against Jazz, Symphonies, Baroque, Rock and Roll, Country
music, Bluegrass, and Gospel. This criticism is usually made by people who have
made a sincere effort to listen to an unfamiliar form of music, and who believe
they are making an objective judgement about the music itself. It seems more
likely to me that what they are doing is revealing a fact about the structure
of musical ignorance.
Everyone knows that music expresses itself by varying certain qualities
of sound in certain patterns, such as melody, harmony, rhythm, and tone color.
What is not so well recognized is that every form of music is necessarily simple
within certain qualities, so that it can be complex within other qualities. If a
listener has developed sensitivity to one set of qualities, and she listens to
music that expresses itself mainly in some other quality, she will assume
(incorrectly) that what she hears is all that is going on. For example:
Symphonic music has extremely complex variations in dynamics (loud to soft) and
tempo (fast to slow). This is why a conductor, who plays no instrument himself,
is needed to control those two qualities. Most Baroque music has comparatively
little variations in dynamics or tempo. When Leonard Bernstein listened to
Baroque music as a young man, he compared it to the symphonic music he loved,
and all he heard was “a lot of sixteenth notes, chugging along like a train.” It
was only when he learned the intricacies of counterpoint that he was able to
appreciate the subtle beauty of Bach’s interlocking melodies. Conversely, people
who have become sensitive to variations in rhythm ( perhaps through listening to
Jazz or other forms of American music) frequently complain that Symphonic music
all sounds the same to them, because they are listening for syncopations and
cross rhythms, which are almost never present in symphonic music.
Given that this is true, wouldn’t the most sophisticated music be one
that puts as much variation in as many qualities as possible? No, for certain
kinds of variations inevitably cancel each other out. The tempo variations of
romantic symphonies make it impossible to do complex rhythms, because it is
impossible to hear a rhythm going against the beat unless there is a steady beat
to provide a foundation. It is also impossible to play jazz chords through a
distorting rock and roll guitar amplifier, because the amplifier adds harmonics
that clash with jazz harmonies. In the hands of a master like Jimi Hendrix,
however, this distortion can become an expressive tool that creates tone colors
that are impossible to create on a jazz guitar (and impossible to notate in
traditional western sheet music.)
Every culture’s music thus makes certain choices about what to vary and
what to hold constant. These choices train a sensitive listener’s ear, even when
that listener thinks of herself as being “musically illiterate”. When a person
hears a new style of music, she naturally tunes her awareness to where she has
heard the most musical variation in the past. If this new form of music has
little or no variation in that particular region, her reaction to the music will
inevitably be “It all sounds the same”. And indeed it does–to that listener.
But such a judgment should be taken as a starting point for discovery, not as
grounds for dismissal.
Hope this sheds some light on my interests!
Design by Lightning Labs, San Francisco. Website sponsored by Touch-Style Territory (www.traktor.com). Site contents copyright Â© 1997 Action Marketing Corporation, Nevada USA. All rights reserved.