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I'm not a guitar player, but have been reading some posts about alternative tunings. There are several mentions of how tuning a string up or down can change its timbre, but I haven't found anything specific about the nature of those changes.

Are there some principles or consistent patterns in terms of what timbral changes to anticipate when changing the tuning of a particular string? Are such changes affected by the specific guitar involved (acoustic vs. electric; number of strings; instrument size or shape; ...)?


References

The post that got me started was How to tell if a song is tuned in half-step down. That led me to Why tune the guitar other than standard? and What is the point in different guitar tunings?

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There are a couple possible interpretations of the question.

One is to take a song, let's say a simple Am - Em - Am progression, and to tune your guitar down a half step, and play Abm - Ebm - Abm.

There is some difference in sound just from being in a lower key. When you go lower, chords gradually sound "muddier". Is this considered a timbre change from the tuning? Well, when a metal guitarist talks about "how much beefier drop B sounds", this is probably what they mean.


Well, what if we were to tune our guitars differently just for the timbre and keep our music in the same (concert pitch) key?

There are two major contributing factors here:

  • A longer guitar string gives a brighter tone, whereas a shorter guitar string gives a darker tone.

  • A thinner guitar string gives a brighter tone, whereas a thicker guitar string gives a darker tone.

(You might debate my choice to use the words "brighter and darker", but there is definitely a particular type of sound that comes from longer, thinner strings*.)

Given that, let's consider a tune that doesn't use open strings, which we could easily play in different tunings. Let's imagine playing:

Guitar Tab

Let's tune down a half step now. If we want our strings to have the same tension as our E standard setup, we change our strings to a thicker set. Also, since we want to play in the same key, we have to move all our chords (/dyads) up a fret. Now every note we hear is coming from a thicker, shorter string now, so our Eb tuned guitar sounds darker.

But wait! We could also move the entire riff up a string! Now everything is being played on a thinner, longer string, so it sounds brighter instead! Which is it?

By playing every note in the lowest position possible, we can see that our low E, F, F#, and G got slightly darker, our G# is significantly brighter, our A, A#, B, and C got slightly darker, our C# is significantly brighter, and so on...

We could always choose to play notes higher up on the neck for a darker tone, so these statements describe how the brightest version of each note changed.

So what's the net timbral effect of retuning? It depends on what you're playing, and how you're playing it.


*Jason Pelc - Solving the Sound of a Guitar String | http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2007/ph210/pelc2/

I will update this with a better source if I ever do find one. This gives a model of a stiff string oscillator (like a guitar string) where high frequency harmonics are damped more on strings with a higher ratio of width to length- in other words, shorter and thicker strings are darker. There are also synthesized demonstrations of different strings, which will give you an idea of what I mean by "brighter or darker".

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  • "A longer guitar string gives a brighter tone, whereas a shorter guitar string gives a darker tone." I've not experienced that. I've never heard that as an effect. Would you care to cite a source for this? – Dave Jacoby Jan 24 at 5:27
  • I'll try to find a source. In the meantime, you can test this yourself by playing the 15th fret E string, then the 10th fret A string, then the 5th fret D string, and then the open G string. That's the difference in character I'm talking about. If you want to isolate the effect of string length, you can retune your E or A string up and down and play the same note on different frets. – Edward Jan 24 at 5:30
  • @DaveJacoby the shorter the string is, the shorter are the waves on it and the more it needs to curve to vibrate. This causes more attenuation, especially of the higher harmonic components. Thin strings sound brighter for the same reason: they curve more easily. – user1079505 Jan 24 at 5:56
  • @DaveJacoby If we didn't change our string gauge then we'd have to change our tension or our scale length. We can't change tuning and hold EVERYTHING else constant. String gauge is absolutely worth mentioning because in the real world, when people want to tune down, at a certain point they buy thicker strings. – Edward Jan 24 at 6:21
  • @Edward Yes. It should perhaps be pointed out that strictly speaking, even if you put a thicker string on for a lower tuning, you will still need to change the scale length, because the amount the pitch will go up when fretted will be higher for the lower string, unless it's also more elastic than the higher string. In practice this is probably not a big problem. – Scott Wallace Jan 25 at 11:36
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In addition to the other answers, if you lower the pitch of a string, then the amount the pitch is higher when first plucked (the "waaoh" effect) will increase, given the same displacement (how far the string is pulled sideways when plucking) and same elasticity of string. This is because the lower tuned string has less tension relative to its mass, so the increase in tension caused by its vibration is relatively higher than for a string with higher tension. This may or may not be considered a disadvantage.

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  • I'm not certain I understand. Are you saying that the pitch of looser string, when plucked, rises after the initial attack? – Aaron Jan 24 at 9:23
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    @Aaron The pitch of a plucked string is highest when first plucked, because of the increased tension caused by the side to side displacement. This effect is true of all strings. What I'm saying is that this effect is more pronounced, the lower the pitch of a string of given length and elasticity, with the same amount of displacement when plucked. I've edited my answer to be clearer (I hope). Thanks. – Scott Wallace Jan 24 at 9:29
  • Makes sense. Please consider adding that to your answer. – Aaron Jan 24 at 9:37
  • This pitch-change effect is demonstrated very clearly on the following video. youtu.be/-sfP76IZQdM?t=341 P.S. I just happened to be looking at this video last night! I have no connection the the manufacturers of the product being demonstrated although it's definitely educational watching the whole thing video. – chasly - supports Monica Jan 24 at 13:59
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    I should also perhaps add that in practice, this increase in "waaoh" can be mitigated by using a thicker string of the same or higher elasticity. The amount of initial higher pitch will remain the same (given same elasticity) for a given displacement, but because the tension is higher, the amount of displacement (how far the string is pulled to the side at release) will tend to be less for the same playing pressure, so the heavier string will have less "waaoh" than the thinner, at the same volume. – Scott Wallace Jan 24 at 15:00
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I'm assuming the question simply means not changing the gauge of the string, or its length.

So the factor involved is simply the tension of said string. There is a window of tension where that string will vibrate happily, and sound good. But there comes a time when the string becomes so loose, it just rattles. There will be a scientific reasoning behind it - not available from me. But the fact is, the slacker that string gets, the wider the vibration when it's plucked. On electric, that will be picked up by the pups, as a stronger signal. More movement, more electricity generated.So the sound of the open string, or when it's fretted, providing it still produces a discernible pitch, will have a different timbre than the original. The same spectrum continues in the other direction, too, until the string stops sounding at all - it's just gone 'ping'...

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  • pups? OP (c'est moi) doesn't play guitar, so doesn't know the lingo. – Aaron Jan 24 at 8:29
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    @Aaron - aw, come on, there's little else on an electric guitar that the sound is picked up by - how about *p'ups' ** - aka *pickups ? – Tim Jan 24 at 8:37

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