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Finding My Inner Joni

Getting adventurous with some tasty tunings.

Let’s face it, if you had a PB&J for lunch on the same plate at the same table every day, you might get, shall we say, palate fatigue. At some point you may start considering a tuna sandwich or a bowl of pasta just to keep things interesting at meal time.

Well, the same thing goes for creativity. What if we wrote every song in the same key? Yawn.

I’ve noticed that when I compose on guitar by myself (which I’ve been doing a lot these days), I tend to default to the same chord progressions, the same voicings — in other words, my old tricks. Sure, I can slap on a capo and lift my range but lately I’ve been hungry for more adventurous techniques to perk up my spirit.

Although I’ve long been fully aware that alternative guitar tunings can transport us to uncharted creative territories, there seems to be an opposing force that keeps me from straying from the norm. Why?

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three main reasons:

1. I’m lazy. Many people can tune their guitars by ear. Not me. So having to change tuning means hoisting my body from that comfy chair and fetching a tuner. And what if, on the way to fetch it, I lose the idea that was percolating? Sure, I should keep a tuner clipped to my instrument — that’s why tuners have clips. But even then, I’d eventually have to …

2. … tune the strings back to standard position because that’s where most of my songs “live.” My fantasy is to one day own 5 acoustics — all of which could be left in a designated tuning and I’d never have to lift a finger except to play them. In the meantime …

3. What if, while performing a song in an altered tuning, I forget to tune back to standard for my next song and unmindfully position my fingers as if I had? This could result in one huge disastrous clam!

Sigh. There are endless excuses. Perhaps you have some yourself. The truth is, for me, it feels like work to learn something new. But I should know better, because whenever I do expand my palette (as well as my palate) and challenge myself, I discover the unexpected. And I always thank myself later.

That said, it’s not like I’ve never dabbled in alternate tunings before. I’ve actually explored the Joni Mitchell favorite — the “Big Yellow Taxi” open E — quite a bit. It’s effortless. In fact, sliding one lone finger up and down the fretboard produced some magical results. My harmonic synapses were so stimulated I churned out two new songs (“Christmas In LA” and “17”) within an hour of getting started.

But it’s been awhile. So, inspired by Mac Randall’s “Altered Tunings” Yamaha blogs in which he states that “a whole universe of possibilities open up when you turn a few pegs,” I decided to revisit that creative space again. I’m not a sophisticated musician. At first, unfamiliar terms in the article like “minor-second intervals” and “modal” were intimidating. But when I listened to his audio examples, I heard what he was talking about. “You don’t always know what you’re playing, and that’s a good thing for your creativity,” he writes. I couldn’t agree more. I’m a songwriter. I don’t need to understand why. Just make me feel.

I decided to start with what Mr. Randall calls the “Ed Sheeran” tuning (E-A-D-E-B-E) and got busy. I’m already thanking myself. Here I am playing my new song “Muscle Memory” in that tuning, using Ruby, my Yamaha FS-TA Transacoustic guitar:

Next time, perhaps I’ll remove my low E-string like Keith Richards does. Or maybe I’ll graduate to detuning two, or even three strings! As for that potential disastrous clam when performing? Well, like my song says, we have to have faith in muscle memory — that with enough practice and repetition our fingers intuitively know where to fall. (The little cheat sheet with titles and tunings discretely affixed to the side of my guitar doesn’t hurt either.)

The important thing is that I’m getting more comfortable being somewhere outside the box. I have more options, and I’m having more fun. Plus I’m excited about the possibilities, which makes life (and creativity) more interesting.

And that makes getting up out of my comfy chair worth it.


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