Tuning a step down & dialing in the guitar
I've been having fun playing and figuring out how and where I'm going
to use the Gibson WM-45 (plain jane J-45 mahogany slope-shoulder dread)
I got in trade a few months ago.
Finding where a particular guitar sounds and works best is always a
gradual process for me - I have to try various string gauges and
alloys, and to really assess them properly they have to stay on the
instrument for a while.
Anyway, this guitar came in with a bone saddle and nut, and sounding
really bright, which is good in that it proved that it has adequate
Something I tried fairly early in the process, while it still had the
bone saddle on it, was stringing it more heavily and tuning down a
step. It sounded remarkably good, better than any guitar I'd tried
this with, which surprised me, since it has the short 24.75" scale.
But I liked it tuned D to D a LOT.
I monkeyed around with various saddles, and when I tuned it back up to
standard pitch for a while I actually preferred the original Tusq
saddle over the bone piece: it was warmer-sounding.
One interesting side note: the bone saddle it came with was just
straight, with no individual string intonation carved into it. Not
only was the original Tusq saddle warmer- (and better-) sounding, to my
ear, but it also stayed and played in tune much better, probably
because of the little jog it makes to accommodate the B string.
Anyway, after using it in standard pitch for a while. I decided to
restring it with heavier strings and tune it a step low again, this
time with the Tusq saddle.
The tone was a lot murkier this time around, which was interesting: the
Tusq brought out more low end and mids at standard pitch, but just one
step lower sounded quite different.
Fortunately, I'd already tried it with the same strings with the bone
saddle, so I knew I liked that sound. So Mike Fleck here in Anchorage
made a new compensated bone saddle for it, designed for these heavier
strings and the lower tuning.
It's kind of a surprising-looking saddle - what would normally be the G
string (which is the F string in this tuning) is way forward - but it
stays and plays in tune, and sounds great. Whereas before it was an
extremely bright-sounding guitar, even with the Tusq saddle, now it's
rich and mellow.
It's still pretty tight, though - I've been spoiled by my various
McAlister and Baxendale guitars, which are built more lightly, and
sound great brand new. This guitar sounds GOOD, not great, and is
going to take some serious loosening up before it reaches its full
Since I use medium strings on most of my guitars, I wanted to maintain
that sort of feel, so the set I ended up with is the John Pearse
phosphor bronze Resophonic set with one substitution.
The original Pearse set's gauges are 016, .018, .027, .039, .049, .059.
All of these gauges worked well tuned down a step on the Gibson, which
the exception of the .018 for the second string, which was too loose
and twangy. So I substituted a .020 plain for the .018, and that's
worked out perfectly.
Why string a guitar a step down? I suppose various people have various
reasons for doing this, but for me there's two reasons: one is that
some of the church music I do is in keys like F, and it's nice to be
able to get those keys while using more guitar-friendly chord
Another reason is laziness, I suppose, and also the effects of middle
age on my voice.
I'm a true tenor, and when I'm warmed up and standing and supporting
properly, I can hit any note Paul McCartney has ever recorded.
BUT....sitting around the house after dinner, playing the guitar, some
of those Beatles songs are just a lot of work to try to sing in the
original keys. Having a guitar right there on the stand in the living
room that's tuned a step down is just a joy: I don't have to transpose,
I can play the original chord formations, but I don't have to tighten
up my underwear to sing them, either.
Anyway, I know that at least of few of you out there have experimented
with tuning lower, and I'd be interested in hearing how you approach it
and what you use it for.
Wade Hampton Miller
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