How Do You Evaluate a Guitar Tuning or Partial Capo Idea?
It takes years of intense effort to gain a good understanding of how chords and melodies map out on any stringed-instrument fingerboard. When you venture into the world of non-standard tunings or learn a new instrument, you instantly face a whole new set of pathways and possibilities. Partial capos change the landscape of accessible things in a different way than do tunings, and more importantly, these ways haven't been used for long periods of time by millions of players. So there is a lot of work that is just starting to get done to sort through the ideas, try them out and to determine which ones are musically valuable and where we should focus our time and energy.
I've already spent decades doing this, and have identified some ideas that are vastly more fruitful than others, and I want to encourage people to use the "good" ideas that have already been identified, and not to spend too much time in tuning environments that have glaring deficiencies. All tunings are not alike– quite the contrary, a handful have "special" properties and flavors, and most probably aren't worth your time and effort. But how do you know? You have to jump in and try things.
Assuming you can loosen a string 5 frets before it loses all tone, or maybe raise it 1 without it breaking, you then theoretically could have about 6x6x6x6x6x6= 46,656 possible tunings using a standard set of strings. There are a hundred or so tunings that people actually use, though less than 1/4 of those get used often by a significant number of people. There are 11 million possible combinations of how you could clamp partial capos on different strings at various frets in each of those 50,000 tunings. Again, the overwhelming majority of them aren't musically worth the effort it takes to set up the guitar for them.
Only a handful of partial capo environments have proven to be really interesting and productive, like tunings, and my list of effective ideas is also at around a hundred or so. I have published the Big Book of Partial Capos, a 600+ page book assembling all my research on this. So how do we separate the wheat from the chaff and locate the good ones? I have already found that some of the best partial capo ideas involve using a combination of a tuning that isn't commonly used with a capo placed at an unusual location, so the possible pool of ideas to sift through is larger than the 10,000 you would generate just combining the 100 common tunings with the hundred capo ideas, but clearly much smaller than the 500 billion total possibilites of all possible capo positions in all possible tunings.
I'll admit that it's taken me a long time to grasp the enormity and variety of the new musical possibilites offered by partial capos, but for the most part, the guitar world in general has ignored the whole subject or at best barely scratched the surface. It's a rather opaque idea, and for various reasons it seems to be quite hard to see the underlying musical value at a glance, even if you are a good player. When I started in 1976, no one was making or using them, and the only idea floating around out there was the fundamental concept of partial capos– to skip the bass string when you put a capo at the second fret of the guitar. It was pretty easy to either offset or shorten a capo or even cut a notch in one, and the things it did to the logic of the guitar were small and manageable enough that the idea seems to have popped up a number of places. That's not surprising since it's a nice trick, and it solves a couple common problems in guitar in a nice way. Nobody had to make a new device, and hassle with research, patents or manufacturing.
I had a Third Hand capo [below] for several years, and pretty much used it for the Open A configuration (capo 002220) or the E Modal (022220), since I used Shubb capos at the time with wide neck guitars and had no need for a special partial capo to clamp just 5 strings at 022222 or 044444. Luckily I discovered Esus (capo 022200= below) around 1980 or 1981, which now decades later I have declared to be the single most powerful and enjoyable partial capo idea in standard tuning. Realizing its depth and beauty snapped me to attention about the power of the whole concept of partial capos. I began to arrange and write a lot of music for this configuration, and it became clear to me that the Third Hand capo blocked too much of the fingerboard than it needed to. There were notes next to and behind the capo I wanted to use. This led me to saw up some Shubb capos, and to really dive into the pool of research and experimentation, so to speak.
The issue of how to focus on the more "useful" partial capo ideas has popped up constantly, just as it does with new tunings. Since I am actively selling partial capos, I have conversations with people at a wide range of levels of understanding of the idea and of the guitar. So I am going to try here to try to describe what it is that makes me like a particular tuning better than another, or why I might try to discourage you if you tell me that you are fond of doing something with a capo. Once you get in tune and all the strings are ringing clear, you can start the evaluation sequence. It involves finding chord fingerings, scale patterns, and trying to play different types of songs and tunes. Playing the music bring into focus the mysterious but all-important issue of how it feels, and how the fingering positions transition as you move through the music.
It usually takes me a big chunk of a day to get a handle on whether I like a tuning, and it's often not an instantaneous thing where I get a quick sense of "yes" or "no." There are a lot of false positives and false negatives. I first discovered A suspended (a personal favorite discovery of mine= capo 002220/ tuning EADGCE) in 1980, and have used it intermittently for years, but quite recently I found exciting new things to do with it that eluded me all that time even though I was performing and composing with it. Other issues color the evaluation process, notably the issue of how good a player you have to be to take advantage of what the tuning offers. Stretching for left-hand chords, and skipping strings with the right hand are skills that beginners and novices don't often have, and some capo configurations (such as A suspended) require some higher-level skills to take good advantage of. My Liberty Tuning is the opposite, and probably offers more options to beginners than any tuning ever found by anyone. It is interesting that these two ideas are very similar, yet one generates much harder left-hand fingerings than the other. I even recorded a whole instrumental solo guitar album in Liberty tuning that used only the 2 middle fingers of my left hand to illustrate the point.
Here is an example of a tune that takes advantage of the extraordinary opportunities of a new discovery of mine. Notice how the tuning is doing most of the work of scales plus chordal and bass note support:
1.)Listen to the open strings and try to determine where the tonal center of the sound lies. In most situations, it's determined by the what either the open 5th or 6th string is sounding. The lowest-pitched note of any chord is the strongest force within it, so obviously a lot of accessible "capo tunings" in standard guitar tuning involve the key centers of E or A, since that's what the bottom 2 strings are tuned to.
One of standard tuning's largest powers is its ability to be useful and versatile in many different keys. Many tunings are all about the glorious choices and diversity of resonances in only a single key. There are also tunings and capo configurations that straddle more than one key in interesting ways, spreading the new resonances around a little more. Just like new tunings, most partial capo ideas involve a trade-off, where you surrender some things but gain others.
2.)Find the 1-4-5 chords in the key or keys that feel the best. Once you determine the best key or keys to play in, you need to find the best ways to play the 1-4-5 major chords, then look at the 2 chord, which appears often as major, minor or 7th, as well as the relative minor (6m). The flat 7 chord (in E this is a D chord) is also a good one to keep track of, and the 3 minor is the other of the 3 basic minor chords. We are looking for 3 things:
1) the strongest-sounding versions of the basic chords
2) the versions of the basic chords that don't require all your left hand fingers
3) versions of the basic chords that have interesting added notes
Partial capos are all about open strings, and an open string can either sound a note in a chord in a good place, it can sound the note so you don't have to fret it, or it can add an extra note to color the chord in an interesting or fresh way. There are a lot of examples out there of how a striking chord voicing was at the heart of a song's effectiveness.
In standard tuning, a solid C chord uses all four fingers of your left hand. In another tuning, you can often generate a strong chord with far less fingers (sometimes none!) which allows you to do other things with your remaining fingers. In the solo guitar world, if you can hold down a chord with less than 4 fingers, you can move melodies and harmonies around it and build a more varied and moving landscape by exploiting the new open strings and some newly available fingers. We are always looking for nice ways to get a big chord sound without using up all our left-hand fingers.
3.)Explore the "magic" chord voicings. I have not done much mushroom hunting, but finding cool chord voicings is a mystical hunting process of some sort. Luckily, in partial capo environments where you keep the guitar in standard tuning and add some capos, then the shapes that years of guitar playing have burned into your fingers sometimes instantly give you really fresh new chords. So you often at least get some quick reinforcement that you are on you way to somewhere good. Others will hide for a long time, and one day you will add or subtract a finger or two somewhere and something great will jump out. I've been trying to capture those for decades and build some maps, but I will say this new "Wonderland" is a vast world. There is a surprising depth and diversity of ways that the notes that make up chord structure can themselves be scrambled and rearranged, and then when those combinations are mapped onto varying tuning and fingerboard environments, another layer of complexity and beauty can be created.
Most partial capo ideas are primarily useful for solo players, especially fingerstyle, who learn to take advantage of whatever ways there are to get combinations of strings ringing together. When you just strum and hit most or all the strings at once, you have a different set of criteria for what "works. Even the difference between arpeggiating a chord and strumming the same group of notes can be huge.
If you really scavenge standard tuning, you can find about 23 ways to play an A major chord on a 12-fret neck. In my library of new chords I now have logged nearly 150 useful ways to permute the notes A C# and E among the 6 strings of a guitar. This may be indicative of the magnitude of what we are looking at. It's pretty hard to fluidly be able to use all those 23 standard tuning A fingerings, but it's probably more than just 8 times as hard to wrap your mind around all the other ways you can possible get an A chord to ring on your guitar if you tinker with funny capos and sometimes retune a few strings too. Whenever we play a stringed instrument in any given tuning, we are always looking at just the tip of a very large iceberg of all the possible ways that music can map itself onto it. And even a single tuning can tax the human brain to understand and learn to use it.
Not only do you get fresh ways to play familiar chords, you also begin to find whole new families of chord voicings. Sometimes these are fresh because they involve really widely-voiced notes where you might have some low bass notes ringing and some very high-pitched things sounding with them. There is also a more subtle new type of chord that involves close-voiced notes.
Here is an example. In their songbook, the rock band Steely Dan talked a lot about what they called the "mu" chord, and confessed that they became enamored with it in their songwriting. It is a major chord with a special kind of added 9th that isn't commonly done. Because the guitar strings are usually tuned 5 frets apart and your hands are only so big, there are only a handful of ways to add a B note to an A chord without removing the C# that is near it in the same octave. It doesn't sound that important, but the mu chords are very striking, especially when you arpeggiate them.
There are not very many voicings like this in standard tuning, but when you get in certain tunings or capo configurations, sometimes they come flying out. And just like the A chord, where we saw that there were hundreds of ways to rearrange the order of the notes, with a 4-note chord like this add9 you also have a wide variety of possibilities. it makes a huge difference which octave the added notes fall into. Here are a number of the many mu chords in the Esus capo configuration:
There are also a myriad of new ways to play add11 chords and 6th chords that add one extra note to a basic major or minor (or even a neutral or modal chord with no 3rd) It is even possible to find close-voiced chords that have the add9 and the add11 together with the 1-3-5 (I call them 9/11 chords) and they are also quite hypnotic and harp-like, and pretty much non-existent in standard tuning. Most of the 9/11 chords I can find in standard tuning are not that great. Because a good D9/11 has an E and a G added to the D chord, you can use the open high E string to add the 9th in the same octave as the D and F#. It' hard to get excited about many of these but you can get the idea. Arpeggiate them and you'll hear more.
I have gotten very excited about a lot of 9/11 chords that have come up in my explorations. And there are minor 9/11's and 6/9/11's, all of which involve "overlapping voicings." Maybe I played the harp in a previous lifetime, because I seem to instinctively love harp-style arpeggiated chord voicings. Rare and difficult in standard tuning, they are a common by-product of certain types of tunings and capo configurations.
4.)Find more chords and positions. Players have long turned to certain tunings just for specific songs, and it's been common throughout my life to see performers scroll through many tunings to play carefully arranged music. The opportunities each tuning provides dovetail with the songs in just the right ways, and performers who use altered tunings spend a lot of time exploring, arranging and creating guitar music that works, and of course this is the whole purpose of non-standard tunings. We use new tunings to obtain new resonances, new fingerings, and fresh harmonic and melodic options, and it's no secret that not all music works well in all tunings. Standard tuning is a powerful musical environment, and even though new tunings have exploded in popularity in recent decades, only a handful of high-level players have chosen to focus only on a single tuning and to try to apply it to a wide range of music. (some names come to mind: Pierre Bensusan, Carl Kress, Martin Carthy, El McMeen, Dave Evans, Albert Collins, Albert King, Keith Richard...) What most of us do is to try to match the tuning to the music that works best in it. Let's look at a simple example...
One of the things standard tuning does well is the "flat 7" E to D chord change or the A-G, D-C, or the G-F. It's usually modal music that requires this, and I've often heard this change referred to as the "drop chord." In a common "open tuning" of the guitar, such as G (D-G-D-G-B-D) D (D-A-D-F#-A-D) or C (C-G-C-G-C-E) or even DADGAD, the 1-7b chord change is weak, because the tuning's main purpose is to provide a big and powerful 1 chord. When the low string is tuned to the tonic note, the nearest 7b note is at fret 10 on the bass string or on the 5th string. Thus the only way to play a full 6-string flat7 "drop" chord in these tunings involves a barre chord at the 10th fret, which can be difficult to manage unless you are playing slide. Or you have to mute the 6th string, which makes the drop chord weaker in 2 ways, by having a bass root almost an octave higher than the 1 chord, and by having fewer strings ringing. It's pretty hard to rock out on a rhythm groove when you are trying to avoid hitting the 6th string, and it's pretty much only something fingerstyle players can do.
I have found that many partial capo configurations, including Esus, allow you to play songs with very strong voicings of both chords. Here are some examples in Esus. They are just variations on the regular D-C chord shapes in standard tuning:
In another blog post I'll show you how you can play a very common modal song that doesn't work well in any common tunings.
Another concept that emerges when you do a lot of guitar playing is that of "positions." Sometimes you can stay at one part of the fingerboard and complete your musical thoughts relatively easily with notes and chords that lie nearby, and sometimes you have to do a lot of jumping around and stretching to reach things you want. The ways in which tunings and fingerboards work together to create both awkward and graceful fingerings and transitions is the essence of what learning to play really well is all about. We've all probably seen a really skilled player whose hands seemed to be barely moving, though the notes were pouring out. By finding the optimal locations on the neck and getting our hands into convenient positions and shapes we can greatly facilitate the process of playing the notes we want, especially when we create the music expressly for the purpose of taking musical advantage of the notes that are convenient in that tuning. A lot of classic riffs and sounds come from easy fingerings in standard tuning, and we can create our own musical flavors and sometimes our own distinctive sound by harvesting what a fresh tuning environment can give us.
5.)Find the scale patterns and play some simple tunes. The guts of fingerstyle guitar is how to keep some chords ringing while you move melody notes against them. This often involves having "spare fingers," since it's tricky to move a melody elegantly against a chord when you are using all 4 fingers to form that chord. Each new tuning or capo configuration adds and subtracts to the set of possibilities, and some are much better than others. Most fingerstyle players have favorite keys, and a player might like to play out of C position or maybe A position. The feeling of having a favorite comes from long hours of playing many songs in many keys and comparing the resonances, transitions and fingering options.
In each tuning, I usually play some nursery rhymes, then some simple hymns (Amazing Grace, Simple Gifts) and Carter Family melodies (Wildwood Flower or Gold Watch and Chain) to see what happens when I try to keep chords ringing and move melodies the way I do as a fingerpicker. Sometimes you can't reach things, or you can't gracefully get from one part of the song to another, and sometimes you can. If things are working, I'll try to play in minor or modal keys, and it's fun to try some blues chords with flat 7's and 9ths to see what happens. The blues has been so associated with a few open tunings of the guitar that it's a hard genre of music to map onto fresh tuning landscapes like this. It's unclear whether the goal is to play it the way it has been done or to approach it from a new perspective and generate fresh flavorings. So far none of the acoustic blues players I know have embraced the partial capo, yet if the capos had been around Mississippi in the 1920's I feel pretty sure that all the players would have used them.
6.)Try some advanced stuff. I've always been intrigued with the idea of playing fingerstyle fiddle tunes, and this is one example of an advanced guitar skill that partial capos can help with. I'm married to a fiddler and I did some street fiddling in my youth, and I understand the beauty of the fiddle tune world, where there are many thousands of mostly 16-bar melodies floating around out there, filled with 16 notes, slurs, trills, triplets and ornaments that color the melodies with another layer of expression. Players all over the world learn, write and share them, and they often dominate jam sessions in Celtic and bluegrass worlds. In my new favorite "hybrid tuning" (Tuning: D-A-D-G-C-E+ capo 007770) I find I can play fingerstyle fiddle tunes better than any other tuning I have ever tried, where a lot of the 16th notes are played in harp-style on adjacent strings.
Fiddle tunes need to have a melodic flow and a vitally important rhythmic drive, and generally sound quite stiff when played in standard tuning on guitar using standard guitar-string plucking techniques. This is why they are generally considered the domain of flatpickers, but for the most part they are just playing the melody lines and not trying to harmonize them and make them into solo guitar pieces. Even the greatest flatpickers like David Grier and Dan Crary only rarely play totally solo without a rhythm player, and their arrangements don't flow and resonate like a good solo fingerstyle piece often does.
The banjo and the dulcimer are both open-tuned instruments that are often employed to play fiddle music, though they do it differently than a fiddle or mandolin would. There have been two schools of banjo playing that involve arranging fiddle tunes: the frailing or clawhammer style and the newer melodic or chromatic style. Both of them offer ideas for a guitarist, and I have found that some partial capo ideas allow precise, flowing 16th notes that sound very "natural" and others allow some "faux-frailing" techniques.
I also look for harp scales, which are an elusive fruit on the guitar, where the idea is for successive melody notes to each be on different strings as much as possible. On a standard-tuned guitar, you generally play 2 to 3 notes of an open-string scale on a particular string before moving to the next string. Each time you pluck a string you stop and re-start it, so the harp scales are more flowing and legato, with lingering resonances that can be lovely and refreshing in the sometimes overly-staccato guitar world.
Another thing I look for in a tuning is its ability to play modal music, which in my world means the music is built on chords that are neither major nor minor, with only roots and fifths. In standard tuned guitar it's not easy to avoid chords with thirds in them, and the common ways of playing modal chords have been done over and over and are very familiar sounding, and not as rich as some other options that are lurking in new fingerboard environments. Here are 12 ways to play modal chords in standard tuning. My guess is you might already use 1 or 2 of them. (#7 and #11)
Instruments with fewer strings (like mandolin, banjo and dulcimer) have an easier time avoiding 3rds in their chords, and the vast majority of modal music played on guitar is done in non-standard tunings. Adding 6ths, 7ths, 4ths and 9ths to modal chord foundations make a new set of extended chords, and the world of partial capos is rich in this kind of thing. It can take a while to find the good ones.
Later I'll post some specific examples of songs that either worked well or didn't work in certain tuning environments, to illustrate the issues and strategies I am talking about here.
Good luck and take your time. Guitar fingerboards are deep, and sometimes really great fingerings and voicings hide for a long time.
This is another posting where I'm trying to help guitarists of all levels understand and accept partial capos as a pathway to valuable new music... Thank you if you made it this far, and please check back to look for new posts as I get them done. I plan to cover a wide range of issues and topics.