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Is there a reason some guitarists tune down half or whole steps, other than preference or style?

It bugs me sometimes when I would like to play along with a song only to find that it's played down half or a whole step.

I have purchased software that enables me to adjust the pitch of songs without affecting the tempo, etc, and my guitar tab software can transpose tabs, but knowing why artists do this in the first place would be helpful.

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They do it to bug you; Some artists are like that you know, they forget where they came from and who's buying their music. And, I agree, it would be considerate of them to say when they are going to tune down a half or whole step, though, out of courtesy to them I think we should let them tune two steps or more unannounced. :-) –  Anonymous Jan 20 '11 at 20:40
    
I remember reading that stevie ray vaughan used the thickest strings he could find and then tune a semi tone down so that they become a little more manageable. –  Neil Meyer Oct 19 '13 at 12:01
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9 Answers

up vote 26 down vote accepted

Lots of reasons; the most prevalent reason is probably so that they can keep the tune within the range of their voice. Jimi Hendrix was famous for this; tuned a half step down.

Other reasons; to create a different atmosphere in the music; as in the case of Metal where instruments are down-tuned to create the darkest most aggressive sounding riffs possible.

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And Muddy Waters was known for capoing on the second fret and playing and singing songs in F#. Perhaps that suit his voice better. –  Wheat Williams Jan 6 '13 at 16:37
    
This answer assumes the guitarist is using predominantly open chords, but I still doubt that one semitone down will affect the range of any song enough to make it worthwhile.Does a 5 fret bar A chord sound much different from a 4 fret Ab chord ? (Obviously not in a key situation) –  Tim Mar 6 '13 at 10:32
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I was under the impression that drop tuning also makes it easier to do some power chords. For example: dropping the tuning on the E string allows single finger power chords.

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Advantages:

1) better accomadates a particular vocal range try singing simple man by LS in standard tuning. LS tuned their guitars down 1/2 step.....another good example....several Neil Young songs....down by the river...only love can break your heart. Even neil on occasion, when his range shifts for whatever reason, tunes his guitar down a half step... the song the Joker by Steve Miller is tuned down a full step.

2) makes bar chords and lead a bit easier to play because of less string tension

3) can possibly extend life of strings? maybe? I don't know for sure, but it make sense.

4) Can always capo up to standard tuning, whereas going from standard to lower tunings requites physically retuning your guitar

Disadavantages

1) When asked to sit in with other musicians, re-tuning to standard, if that's what they're using, can be a pain in the ass. Unfortunately, the term "standard" tuning, besides the fact that it is the guitar tuning used most frequently, can play havoc with a musicians ego and/or subconcious. I've heard more than a few musicians, begginners and advanced, speak of "non-standard" tunings as if those who used them were "out of the mainstream" and, as such, were either cheating, or vocally weak. This is easily demonstrated as sheer non-sense when taking a look at the plethora of famous singer/songwriter/guitarists who use, or did use them, routinely.

2) When it's really desirable to capo up to standard, having the capo on the first fret makes playing chords up the neck confusing, because it reconfigures fret markers. Super good players can account for that I suppose, but when I capo up from a half step down, I prefer to capo up to the second fret when possible to avoid these "odd" positionings. If all chords of a song are near the capo (i.e. predominately open as opposed to bar chords), this is not an issue.

3) Does tuning a guitar a half or full step down change how a guitar matures over time? I don't know. It would be interesting to ask the worlds greatest luthiers whether the physics of any particular guitar design pre-supposes that the guitar will be played in standard over most its life.

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It's because to make the pitch of the guitar tune agrees with the vocal's pitch :) If one doesn't tune properly , the pitch would sound different . For example playing a 'C' note , and suddenly a 'C#' pitch will be heard . If the vocal sings a C , guitar must play a 'C' too .

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On the assumption the vocalist has perfect pitch and is a pedant, this could be true. –  Tim Mar 6 '13 at 10:33
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For a variety of reasons:

  • They like the sound of the looser strings and lower pitches (many dark metal acts)
  • They like the snappier, jangly sound of tighter, higher pitched strings (e.g. Johnny Marr of The Smiths)
  • They want to play certain open-string chords, while keeping the song within their vocal range
  • They want to play certain open-string chords, while being in a key that is convenient for their accompanying musicians (for example, you've learned chords in E; I want to play the melody on a diatonic melodeon in D)
  • They didn't use any form of reference pitch when tuning
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The short answer is that guitarists use alternate tunings to make it easier to play songs in keys other than E, A and D.

One example of a reason for this would be to accompany a singer who insists that a certain song needs to be sung in a lower key than the one the guitarist learned it in.

Another example would be when the guitarist determines that in a particular song, he needs to play low notes that are lower than the low "E" on the guitar when it is in standard tuning.

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I have done this in the past with 12-string guitars for the simple reason that it makes the high G string last longer! On a 12, the G string has a double that is an octave higher, making it significantly higher and tenser than any string on a normal 6-string. It's always the first string to snap.

Another reason why records don't always seem to be in the expected key is that varispeed recording was very popular at one time. The Beatles used it a lot; Rain was slowed down, while many other songs were speeded up. Strawberry Fields Forever was made of two halves, one slowed down, the other speeded up.

Some guitarists tune their guitar up a tone, whether to fit the range of a vocalist or to get a brighter sound from the tension in the strings. Johnny Marr would do that. (Of course this is far less of a problem if you're playing along as you can just use a capo.)

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An additional point is that a guitar tuned a half/whole step down will be easier to play with higher action or larger gauge strings due to the less tension on the strings required to maintain the right pitch. I believe I have an interview with Stevie Ray Vaughn around here somewhere where he cites this, as well as many other reasons, as to why he played a half step down.

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"why he plays". Um... "played". –  Anonymous Jan 20 '11 at 20:47
    
Fixed the typo, and RIP. –  Jduv Jan 20 '11 at 21:09
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It also makes it easier to rattle the strings against the frets == acoustic distortion. –  luser droog Jun 28 '12 at 4:25
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Another reason is to make it easier to bend strings. A great example would be Jerry Cantrell from Alice in Chains. He constantly bends up a semi or whole tone and mostly all his songs are in Eb standard or Drop C# tuning.

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I'm not sure that's the main reason. It seems it played a role for Iommi (Black Sabbath), though, to ease the tension on his faux fingertips. –  Pif Jan 22 '11 at 7:48
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protected by NReilingh Jan 5 '13 at 22:33

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