Greg and Guitars

On Guitars

I’ve never been a guitar geek. Obviously, this is partly due to financial considerations - but I’ve been very happy with the two guitars I have used over the last ten years. My main guitar is a Takamine G series cutaway dreadnought. It’s heavy and bulky but as soon as I played it I liked it. It had to be a real all-purpose guitar that would work for live shows of all sizes, both amplified and unamplified. That meant the instrument had to tolerate some fairly dramatic fiddling with tunings, and it needed to have a good deep bass tone with clear, but not tinny, treble sounds. It had to work for strumming with a plectrum, and for fingerpicking and slapping. I needed something loud enough to play completely unplugged and something that was sturdy enough to be bashed around a bit as I don’t want to feel inhibited or precious about the instrument. I see it as a tool, not as an item to be revered. Similarly, I am not very particular about strings. I usually use sets of Martin medium gauge strings, but will take whatever is cheaper (within reason!) I will usually put a new set on the day before a show to let them settle a bit.

On Playing Technique

For most of my playing life, I used a plectrum but was never satisfied with standard strumming. I learned to be able to combine strums with picking out particular strings for effect. Gradually, I started to used the plectrum less and less and developed a finger-picking technique that is quite hard to describe. It involves using the thumb on the bass strings but then I use the first three fingers to simultaneously pluck strings upwards, and also my middle finger to flick downwards especially on the D and G strings. A syncopated, muting slap with the ball of the right hand has become integral to the way I time everything and I often find it hard not to do it which makes recording levels hard to manage!

My left hand is not very agile and although I use a lot of hammer-ons and offs, I really can’t play any kind of lead guitar. I remember chord shapes and finger positions visually and follow chord sequences based on finding which finger or fingers can remain in place as much as possible while moving the others. One of the joys of using alternative tunings is that similar handshapes can produce different results in different tunings, and allow the same left-hand shape to be used in different locations up the fretboard, allowing two or three strings to act more as drone strings tying the chords together.

On Alternative Tunings

My guitar is kept with the strings slacker than standard. Even in “standard” tuning, I tune down so that the E is found at the second fret of the bottom and top strings. This is for various reasons. 

Firstly, it is much more comfortable for me to play chords higher up the fretboard than right down by the nut.

Secondly, it gives more space for re-tuning upwards without snapping so many strings.

Thirdly, it adds much deeper and resonant bass notes to the range.

I almost always use a capo at the 2nd or 4th fret. This would seem to negate the point of tuning down, but it also has the effect of lowering the string action, making chords easier to hold down.

It was Dick Gaughan who first showed me DADGAD tuning, in the backroom at a folk club in about 1979. I was amazed. I didn’t know you were allowed to that! Very quickly I found that I didn’t really get on with the normal DADGAD tuning and that DGDGAD suited me better. That is still my default, go-to, tuning. In recent years, I have been tuning the bottom string down to C as a starting point. I like to experiment with very unlikely tunings to explore how to find unusual chords that couldn’t be reached any other way. I really have no idea what I am doing in terms of music theory but just go with what sounds right to me.

I find the tuning notation that Joni Mitchell invented very handy. It is based on the fretboard relationship between strings, not on any particular pitch or note. This means that the same notation can be remembered regardless of how the bottom note is tuned, or if a capo is used. It works by representing the button string either as a note, for example, “C” followed by a series of numbers which represent which fret has to be played in order to find the pitch for the next string. For example, a tuning I often use is X77342, so this means that I tune the bottom string to a nice rich deep tone (When playing solo, I don’t bother about tuning to concert pitch, I often adjust to the tiredness of my voice). Then by playing that string at the 7th fret, that gives me the correct pitch for the 5th string, and so on. In this notation, “standard “ tuning would be written E55545.

The notation also allows me to group songs for gigs in terms of similar tunings, reducing on-stage tuning times!

The main disadvantage of this system is that communication with other musicians can be difficult! I really don’t know what notes I am playing, or what the chord name is! Playing with others is something I really enjoy, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. I usually rely on the brilliance of my collaborators to adapt to my quirks, rather than the other way round.

Posted on March 18th 2021

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