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The Complete Book Of Alternate Tunings

Includes hundreds of guitar tunings in all styles, from folk to celtic to rock. Covers artists such as Hedges, Kottke, Sonic Youth, Cooder, CS&N, Pearl Jam, and more.
Level: , 125 pages
RefNr: AC72648
Order From:
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Written by: Mark Hanson

Format: Method Medium: Book (paperback)
Series: Publisher: Accent on Music
Genre: * | Scales - General | * | Open/Alternate Tuning - General | * | Chords - Open/Alternate tuning | * | Open/Alternate tuning - Chords |

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Book of the Month 2002-11

Guitar Book of the Month - November 2002

Mark Hanson: The Complete Book Of Alternate Tunings

This book is very much what I would like the Alternate/Open Tuning section on this site to be sometime in the future: A major reference work for anyone who wants to explore and experiment with alternate and open tunings. I will say that it is the major reference work.

After an introduction, the book starts with a section on standard tuning. It is followed by sections on 15 open or alternate tunings that are covered more or less in some depth. The tunings are grouped into three groups: D-Family Tunings, G-Familiy Tunings and C-Family Tunings.

In each section we get an introduction to the tuning, highlighting som characteristics of the tuning, with refernce to guitarists who often use the tuning. We get tuning charts for each tuning, with instructions on how to tune i uinsons (fret one string to get the same note as the open adjacent string), and i octaves. I usually prefer to use octaves for tuning if the open strings are one or two octaves apart, and unisons in other situations. I find octaves good for fine-tuning. You may do it differently, but the point is that both approches are useful, and it is good that Mark Hanson present both.

After this introduction and tuning comes some scales in the keys i which the tuning in question is commonly used. For some tunings we get only one scale in one key, and for others we get both major and minor scales in several keys. Some tunings work best in major, some in minor. Some tunings will be used almost exclusivly for one key, others will work well in several keys. Mark Hanson gives us the scales we will normally use. Usually when he gives us the fingering for a minor-scale, it is the natural minor. But it is typical for his approach when he in his discussion of the G-minor tuning (DGDGBbD) says:

"I have chosen to show the G Dorian scale in the following example. The reason for doing this is that most tunes that I have come across in this tuning are played in the Dorian mode."

It is a practical approach from a person who not only know the scales and the theory, but also the advantages, limitations and applications of each tuning. Many of us with some insight in music theory can construct scales and chord fingerings for any tuning. But we could not make the good judgements on when and for what we should try a specific tuning.

When it is relevant, Mark Hanson explains the relationships between tunings. As an example, a section in the discussion of Open G tuning has the headline "Open G and Open D Tunings: Similar, But Different", where he explains the similarities, but also points out important differences between these two tunings. I like this kind of discussion. Too many guitar books will just tell you where to put your fingers, but here you get some insight that will help you understand the tunings.

Each scale is presented in four positions. The first is an open position (with open stirngs, close to the nut). The next two are closed position fingerings. One somewhere around the middle of the fretboard, and one high up the neck. The last fingering is what he calls a descending Waterfall-scale. I do not know if it is just me who has been ignorant. But this approach and the label Waterfall-scale was new to me. It simply is a descending scale somewhere up the neck, where you take advantage of open strings when aplicable. The approach gives a nice harp-like effect. In addition it can help you get smoother position shifts, if you shift position (of your fretting hand) while you are playing an open string. Just to give you an idea on how this approcah works, I include this example of a G-Major Waterfall-scale in standard tuning.

We get this kind of fingering approach for all scales presented in the book. It takes some time to get used to this way of playing scales, but it is a nice addition to the standard positions. As one reason for choosing an open or alternate tuning is to take advatage of open strings, this approach work particurlary well i open tunings.

After the scales, we get chord fingerings for each of the tunings covered. Again we get more chords for some tunings, and fewer for others. If you want more chords, you have to supplement this book with Mark Hanson's Alternate Tuning Picture Chords.

For each tuning we get a list of recordings where this tuning is used. I find such lists very useful. Music is an hearing art, and you have to hear how these tunings work in real music. His examples are take from a variety of styles, but with a strong bias towards fingerpickers. This should come as no surprise, as fingerpickers generally seems to use alternate tunings more that guitarists playing in other styles. And add to it that Mark Hanson himself is a master fingerpicker.

At the end of each section, we get some Related tunings, which are, as the headline indicates, tunings closely related to the on discussed in the section. We get the notes of the tunings, and sometimes information on recordings where these tunings are used.

After these main sections, dedicated to the selected tunings, there is one chapter of Other Tunings. Here we get a more brief description of a number of other tunings. Then there is a chapter on Playing Slide Guitar in Open Tunings, with a discussion on the use of various tunings in this context. It is followed by a chapter on Hawaiian "Slack Key", with dicussion of Hawaii tunings.

I think Mark Hanson should have given us the minor pentatonic scales for the Open D and Open G tunings, as they will be your main scales if you are playing blues slide guitar in these tunings. But if something is missing, it is better to do something about it. So go here for minor pentatonic scale in Open D tuning and here for minor pentatonic scale in Open G tuning, and you get what I think should be in the book.

This first part of the book is rounded off with a discussion on How to Design Your Own Alternate Tunings, where Mark Hanson discusses various approaches to experiments with composition and arrangements in alternate tunings.

The second part of the book is a colletion of information on Artists' Tunes and Tunings. In some reviews of the book, I have seen some complaints about this section, as it is "only" a list or artists and tunes. I find the list very useful. If you are trying to figure out how an artist is playing a song, this information will help you. These kind of lists can never be complete, and "your" tune may not be included. But you get information on this artist's favourite tunings, and by listeing to the tunes listed, you can get some guidance to dechipher the playing.

I have to admit that when I first got the book, I was a bit disappointed. I had expected some arrangements of tunes in the various tunings prestented. But then I started to play my way through the scales and chords given for some of the tunings, and in a way it unlocked and opened up the tunings. An arrangement can be good as an introduction, but will often lock you in. You learn how to play this arrangement, but it will not always help you in making your own arrangments. Mark Hanson's approach is a bit more demanding, as you have to experiment on your own. But it is rewardning, and my experience is that some of the rewards come quite quick. It does not take long before you are making up some simple alternate tuning arrangements on your own, and you are on your way to develop you own approach to these tunings. And if Mark Hanson should have given examples, what kind of examples should he have chosen? Blues? Country? Celtic guitar? New Age? Contemporary rock? His approach is stylistically neutral, and will be of value no matter what style you play in. But you may want to have another book in addition to this one, that explains more in depth how some guitarists use alternate tunings in your style.

After a while, I realized that the kind of criticism that I initially had about this book was of the kind that I want more of everything, and I want some kind of information that is not covered. But on the other hand, I think that a book of this kind not should be longer than about 120 pages, which is the size of the book (128 p). And all these wishes do not go together. I see this book as a reference work, and not really as an instruction method. If you want to explore alternate tunings, you should have this book combined with one or two others.

First: If you want more chords, you should get Alternate Tuning Picture Chords in addition to this book. If you want to learn more about how alternate tunings are applied in various musical styles, you should get a book that covers the style. I good place to start can be the John Renbourn Fingerstyle Guitar, which was featured as the Book of the Month October 2002. If blues is your music, I will recommend Dave Rubin's Open Tunings for Blues Guitar. If you want to explore celtic guitar, the two book/CD sets Ramble to Cashel and Blarney Pilgrim will give you both good listening and transcriptions of the music. If you want to jump the DADGAD bandwagon, no one knows more about the tuning than Pierre Bensusan, and you should listen to his music and study some of his books. There is also Alternate Tunings Guitar Collection, but as I have not seen the book, I cannot really say if this is a book you should have. In my Open Tuning section, you will find references to more study material.

In conclusion: Which other book(s) you should get on the subject of open- and alternate tuning depends on you playing style(s). But no matter which style you play, The Complete Book Of Alternate Tunings is a work of reference that you should have if you want to explore the world of open and alternate tunings. It is a "Must Have", but it should not be your only book on the subject.

Further References

The main pointer for further references is to my Open Tuning Section. If I have something to say on the subject, and find the time to say it in writing, I will say it there. But: I said that I find the lists of Artists' Tunes and Tunings very useful, and that such a list can never be complete. Mark Hanson has an update or supplement on his, or rahter his publishing company's website. Then there is another list on the website of the Acoustic Guitar Magazine. And finally: I am collecting the same kind of information, and will put it on this site in the Open Tuning section. But this is a work in slow progress ....

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