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I like playing compositions in various tunings, and retune the guitar frequently. I only have one guitar, so that leads to two problems:

  1. Strings tend to break (much) faster when tuned up, e.g. D to E.
  2. Strings tend to buzz when tuned down, e.g. low E to C.

I realize that perhaps solving this problem in a professional setting may indeed require multiple guitars, but as an amateur I can compromise on many parameters as long as I can practice without excessive grief. So, what ways are there to solve these two problems?

Thanks!

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6 Answers 6

There are a few aspects of your guitars setup that make it not ideal to have to switch tunings. My personal instrument (bass) can take many tunings to a point as the strings are more robust, but you end up with a few issues around the action (the angle of the neck relative to the body, which causes the fret buzz), the nut width and possibly the bridge setup. It's not really ideal, and it's less important for me as chords aren't a concern. There's generally a way around whatever I'm trying to do. I play guitar less, but have run into the same problem.

My guitar strings are a lot more temperamental than my bass ones simply because they are thinner and have a lot lower tolerence for changes in tuning. I know you ruled out a second guitar, as ultimately that is the best solution, but you are trying to cover an awful lot of ground on one guitar. On guitar the only change I'll really do is low E->D as anything beyond that affects the tension and tonality too much. On bass I tend not to, but have been known to go down a semitone on the lowest string if I really feel I need the extra range.

I find changing the tuning too much can affect my playing as the patterns on the fretboard shift. If you're happy with moving the tunings to play then I would suggest:

  • I know you ruled it out, but for the large range you're trying to cover a really cheap second guitar would reduce the strain on strings constantly being retuned, provide a potentially better setup for a different tuning and save you time constantly retuning while practising. If you get two you can cover more ground and have strings specifically for higher or lower tunings. A professional musician will have loads obviously, but for £60 you can get a guitar just to practise on, with a more serious instrument if you need it. It won't be best quality, but may save you money long term with the strings you'll be buying constantly by increasing/decreasing tension.

  • Failing that I'd tend towards strings that are lighter than a middle ground. Whilst having strings too loose isn't ideal I would say it's more optimal than trying to increase the tension beyond what they are designed for. You do have to be careful of not damaging your current guitar as the neck won't be that happy with constantly changing tuning.

  • Without knowing the songs you're playing/writing it's hard to say, but possibly look at playing chords elsewhere on the neck and staying in one tuning. If you're covering songs they may sound different so that's your decision to make.

Ultimately, there's nothing wrong with retuning constantly, however in your case the amount of ground you are trying to cover is quite large, which is what will cause problems.

EDIT

Just a quick update as I checked what I have on my bass on the moment as an example. I have strings of gauge 35, 55, 70, 90 (If I remember rightly) tuned to EADG. I prefer really light strings for ease of bends (yes, on bass...) and slap bass, but it does mean I won't be able to drop the tuning too far. What I mean about the setup is that the action and such is set up for these very thin strings, and trying to drop the tuning will make them far too loose to play properly and will sound dreadful.

For comparison I also have a really old bass on BEAD tuning. The thicknesses there are something like 75, 95, 110, 130 (they're really old so can't remember exactly). I would not want to push them into higher tunings really as they are already pretty tight. I don't really play this one that much. I might change it to DADG or something instead as I rarely use C# or lower.

This means my two different basses have totally different actions, bridge settings and the second has an adjusted nut to accout for the thicker strings. Rather than trying to have one bass in the middle to try and cover both it's far easier to have two. The first is a (soon to be replaced) Fender P Bass and the second a cheap Ibanez BTB200, and realistically I never gig with the BTB.

This is quite a bass-heavy answer, so I texted my guitarist mates to see what they said. One generally doesn't change tuning, but has a cheap second guitar (his first one that got replaced recently) if he really needed to. Another doesn't go far enough from EADGBE to really need a second, but he does drop the low E to a D occasionally. He prefers to use a capo and find other ways of playing the chords. He said he would like to, but the second guitar would have to be gig-worthy. He often uses weird tunings on an accoustic to experiment though.

The basics of setup will carry over from bass, but I'm aware alot of these tunings are based on the open string notes, which I avoid at all costs on bass unless truly necessary, having lots of song specific tunings are perhaps unecessary. Hopefully there is some use to be found in all this.

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Regarding gauge: lighter strings buzz less? But will break more easily? Or is it the other way around? Regarding tunings, I'm playing other people's compositions, so I'm stuck with very strange tunings like CFCGAE, or tunings that tune B to C, G to A and D to E (while the other strings will actually be tuned down). And then there's good ol' DADGAD. –  Vladimir Gritsenko Aug 6 '13 at 21:20
    
Lighter strings won't want to be tuned as low as they will have to be insanely loose to get the pitch right - leading to more fret buzz. Overtightening them will causing them to break more easily. The issue isn't the amount of tunings, but the difference between the top end and bottom end. With a second guitar you would be putting less stress on the strings by having them closer to optimum tension, as well as having less variation from that. –  Folau Aug 6 '13 at 21:24
    
So for tuning down I'd want thicker strings, and for tuning up - thinner strings? –  Vladimir Gritsenko Aug 6 '13 at 21:31
    
Yup, that's exactly right. For the same tension a thinner string will produce a higher pitch (relation of thickness to frequency of oscillation). –  Folau Aug 6 '13 at 21:32

If anyone is familiar with Kevin Cadogan and his work on the debut self-titled album by Third Eye Blind, then you know that half of those songs are in alternate tunings (at least 3 variations of open d suspended, as well as tuning to different hz, i.e. semi charmed life is in A448 to sound brighter).

Kevin recorded most of those guitar tracks with his MusicMan guitar that was "set-up" for various tunings. I don't know the details of what he or his techs did to achieve stability across the different tunings, but it is my understanding that he preferred that guitar so much that the set it up for a middle-ground setting, which accommodated the action/range parameters of detuned strings as well as the brighter standard set ups.

I imagine they changed the strings (type/gauge etc.) for each song, but the hardware of the guitar remained unchanged. many of the overdubs were done with a different guitar (a gibson RD artist I think) but those lead-oriented overdubs were less concerned with open string harmonics and other intonation issues.

So there is some hope that you can achieve this with one guitar, but I personally tried it on my Strat and it was quite impressive how it remained intonated relatively well (the floating bridge helps with this neck flexibility). But recently I was able to purchase some cheaper electrics and permanently set them for those open tuning songs, and it's much better that way, so work toward that.

If you'd like to research Cadogan's open tunings some more, check out GearSlutz page featuring producer Eric Valentine commentary on 3eb's debut album. He is also generously responsive to facebook private messages, just try to be concise.

Good luck!

-michael

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This is an area of much interest to me so if I may share my thoughts and experience which is a lot years of still trying to figure it out .

Multiple guitars would be the best answer and each would have to be set up a accordingly. I play acoustic and use many open tunings though not many on the high side .

A open C is what I am using as of right now on a Epiphone master built dr500 . fret buzz and intonation is always a battle . One thing I found is no one guitar is equal but build is everything.

You can set the action by controling the Nut and bridge heights fairly easily enough but neck set not so easy and very so important for the style of your music.

I had an old Yamaha 312fg 12 string when I had it set up neck set was part of it. fret buzz was minimal and action was .. best guess 3/32" at the 12th fret or less. hard to believe but true. It handled my open tunings like a dream but i wanted new , a thinner neck , electronics so I sold her.

Things you might also try , sting gauge, I believe one post said to up the gauge when you go low and lighter when higher . and that's dead on but what you might need is a custom set . I have 3 G strings tuned so I need to match the g string if I tune the B to open G its to floppy with a set 56's so by upping B the string to two G's It helps out . but the multi tuning will be a night mare if you change tunings across the board like you say. Also matched string gauges tend to loose character between each other ... See more stuff to figure out ! LOL

if your talking acoustics the best thing to right off is find the right guitar that can best handle your tunings and then work from there and also find a great Luthier not a good one a great one to talk about neck sets .. you'll be surprised how many guitars are not set right from the factory.

Good luck ,hope to hear what you find out in your search.

Ags

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Adding to Folau's answer, I've heard that there are certain types of string that will last longer too. By this I mean there's a difference between nickel/steel strings, and bronze strings.

Personally I use Earnie ball cobalts and love them, but someone else will be able to give a more detailed rundown of what types last better.

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I'd have to ask my guitarist - as a bassist who has always used the same type I don't know, but it could easily be true based on tensile strengths of different compositions. –  Folau Aug 6 '13 at 21:37

The best way is to obtain another guitar and have different gauge strings on each - lighter for the higher tunings and heavier for the lower. You are asking for a racehorse and a carthorse to do the same job. As you've already found out, it won't work.It will also be kinder to each guitar as the necks won't have to put up with differing tensions.Why you would want to tune up, I can't see. If you have a particular favourite non-standard tuning, you need to address the gauge of each individual string - if one is permanently lower, go up a gauge or two, and vice versa. This way, the tension across the neck will be similar to that of a standard tuned guitar.The instrument will thank you for this in the long run.

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As to why would I want to tune up: Rylynn by Andy McKee is ECDGAD, for example. As for gauges: by "going up a gauge" do you mean having a lower gauge, i.e. thinner strings (just making sure I understand)? –  Vladimir Gritsenko Aug 6 '13 at 21:29
    
A higher gauge = thicker string.Thinner string = lower gauge. –  Tim Aug 6 '13 at 22:31

As far as the strings breaking, that's just going to happen. The strings we use are designed for a certain amount of tension and when they are tuned up the increased tension leads to easier breakage. Heavier gauge strings will have higher tension also. So a lighter gauge may be helpful for you if you've been playing heavy ones but it will change your tone, though lighter strings break easier so it may not help.

For the buzz you could try a few things. If you adjust your truss rod to give you a little more action it could alleviate the buzz but you don't want to adjust to the point that the action is too high as it can affect intonation and playability. If there are only certain strings that buzz (probably the lower ones) you could try to raise the bridge. That would work better if you have individual bridge saddles as you can fix one string without it affecting all the others. You could also try propping the string up at the bridge or the nut to gain the extra action on an individual string.

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