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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Guitar Tuning of the Week! - CFCFFC

posted by on June 10 at 12:36 PM

Alternate tunings are a great mystery to many guitarists. We typically learn to play by committing to sense memory the fingered shapes of various chords until our hands curl unconsciously into a repertoire of palsied claws capable of wringing pretty harmonic clusters from our instrument. Scales come next, and dexterity later still. The very idea of throwing every learned chord-shape out the window is a frightening one, akin to ditching our native language before adopting something new.

So as a prelude to the first (of one?) installment of “GTotW!” here are Tim Eriksen and Riley Baugus playing “Granite Mills.”

Allow me to introduce you to C F C F F C — the world’s biggest power chord.

A power chord — AKA a “Fifth Chord” — is not a proper chord in one sense, for it contains only two of the three notes of a required triad. But this conspicuous lack allows the Fifth Chord to exist in a liminal state, neither minor nor major, the hermaphrodite of music theory. (Or maybe the eunuch, but you get the idea). This spare simplicity gives it melodic range, but not much harmonic complexity; a guitar tuned in such a way as to force this limitation might squander its appeal pretty quickly.

This is why my discovery of musician Tim Eriksen many years ago was so enlightening. My exposure to folk up until that point had been slight and underwhelming, but there was something in this olde tymey music that hooked me. Was it the dusty veneer and Gothic undertones, perhaps, or its darkly droning celtic foundation? (Yes, all of the above.) As the leader of the Massachusetts-based, sometimes-folk, sometimes-rock outfit “Cordelia’s Dad” (King Lear?), Tim Eriksen is a virtuoso with this limited setup. Sometimes he’ll pluck a melancholy tune, as in this wintry yarn called “The Frozen Girl.” Other times he gets a bit spry and bouncy, a la “Gypsy Davy.” And as with any good power chord driven song, Tim can just hammer away on the strings, keeping his hand moving, the melody jumping, and the rhythm grinding —“Granite Mills” is one example, the tongue-in-cheek “Spencer Rifle” is another.

CFCFFC is a difficult tuning for harmonically rich songs — it practically forces rootsy music from your fingertips without your permission — but it’s also a great tuning for beginning musicians to tinker around with because unless you try really hard, you just can’t suck. It also makes possible a nice hybrid of rhythm and lead playing, something not easily done in standard tuning. Watch Tim’s hand as he plays the song above. His fingers are spelling out an intricate melody, doubling the one he’s singing, but his strumming hand pays little heed and keeps on swinging.

Here is Cordelia’s Dad playing “Granite Mills.” The guitar is harder to hear in this version, so I posted the simpler version first. If this sort of music moves you, I suggest picking up their first two albums, “Comet” and “Spine.” Both will satisfy.

But enough chatter. Get thee to a guitar and have a go. And let us know what happens.

Side Note: Tim Eriksen was one of the musicians tapped to provide the film Cold Mountain with an air of authenticity, though Jack White got most of the credit. If you remember the film, that’s Eriksen’s voice coming out of Brendan Gleeson’s mouth when the traveling musicians sing “I Wish My Baby Was Born.” Really weird. I’m probably the only one in Seattle who went to see Cold Mountain for Eriksen and Gleeson, so imagine my surprise. What an awful film.

RSS icon Comments


I like this feature; are you really going to do it every week? If so, I got a couple for ya . . .

Posted by Levislade | June 11, 2008 8:55 AM

By all means, suggest away. I am only intimately familiar with a few alternate tunings, and was only planning to write a handful of these. But I'm not opposed to learning a few new ones.

Posted by Darby McDevitt | June 11, 2008 11:00 AM

Here are my standbys (from heaviest string on up):
CGCGCE - pretty standard slide tuning, I think - pretty power chordy too, with a little major third at the very high end.
DDDEAD - I think I made this one up. It has the added benefit of including the word "dead."

There should be examples of both on my myspace . . .

Posted by Levislade | June 11, 2008 11:44 AM

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