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Guitarists and "Standard" Tuning ...

Discussion in 'Band Management [BG]' started by Steve23, May 26, 2019.

  1. Steve23

    Steve23 Supporting Member

    Mar 5, 2015
    This addresses my greatest pet peeve ...
    I have just been replaced in a start-up cover band due to a text-a-thon (all hands on deck) concerning "the key of a song" ...
    The guitarist opens with naming the key for various "new" tunes ...
    "Ain't talkin' Bout Love is in A; EvenFlow is in D"
    "I think they are tuned down on the recording"
    I chime in, "Ain't Talkin' ... is in Ab"
    Guitarist: "But he tunes down a half step and plays it in A"
    Me: "the key is the frequency > cycles per second - how someone tunes their instrument is immaterial to 'the tune' - Ain't Talkin' is in Ab"

    More rattling about other tunes & their keys from the singer & the drummer ("I'll tune my drums down")
    Guitarist: "... same with Ain't Talkin' - it's played in A, but tuned down a half step"
    Me: "It's in Ab ..."
    "The instruments are tuned down so that the open string rings as Ab"
    Guitarist: "Yes sir, that be it"
    "That's why we play it in A Standard"
    Guitarist: "Is it easier for you if I tune down a half step? Doesn't matter to me"
    Me: "So that's the point ..."
    "Transposing the song means that the singer (who's already asked "isn't it in E?") can't reference the recording"
    Then ...
    Guitarist: "Only if you tune down to learn it"
    (I play a fiver - I don't tune down)
    "Otherwise I would need 4 guitars to switch to"

    It devolved from there ...

    I don't care what key a tune is played in (singers rule), but I DO care about how an outfit refers to the nomenclature - assumptions like this "they tune down & play it in A" is inaccurate ...

    I extricated myself soon thereafter from the conversation > a few days later, I was replaced ...
    The usual "going in another direction" stuff ...
    I'm fairly polite, but in trying to be professional in communicating, I sometimes get in a fact-based dryness mode & folks get butt-hurt ...
    This outfit had been "together" for three (3) rehearsals only, and I'd been waylaid before by learning tunes according to "the recordings", only to be wandering through half-step minefields at rehearsals ...
    Any thoughts?
    Last edited: May 26, 2019
  2. 4 Strings Good

    4 Strings Good

    Mar 6, 2014
    Are the singer/guitarist/drummer good musicians? Are they nice people? Do you like the songs? Are the band's prospects good?
    Plenty more questions like that before "how's their musical nomenclature?" figures into the mix.
  3. MattZilla


    Jun 26, 2013
    I've had to have the 'An F# is an F# no matter how you tune your guitar' convo twice, I think? Both times I just jumped straight to "what if we get a keys or sax player? F# is F#, period." I think that there's just bad chemistry flags that I see before I get into these situations.

    The quickest flag: "irregardless" and other non-words. If they can't use English better than a third grader, you can be certain that they view "good enough" as something to strive for.
  4. buldog5151bass

    buldog5151bass Kibble, milkbones, and P Basses. And redheads.

    Oct 22, 2003
    How DARE you talk/think like a musician...
  5. Reedt2000

    Reedt2000 Supporting Member

    Apr 26, 2017
    Central New Jersey
    I play in a band where the guitars all tune down a whole step but I don't (playing 5-string). They can't reference the actual chords or keys, only what fingering they use. I just determine what the actual keys are based on their poor descriptions "I play it in G with capo on the first fret" - translation=it's in F# (down a whole step for their tuning, up a half for the 1st fret capo). Once I know, I record the original into Audacity, pitch shift it so I can play it the way I need to and work on vocal harmonies, then show up to gigs and get paid. Arguing with the guitarists is pointless, let their ignorance be bliss and get yourself paid.

    EDIT: this band just brought in a keyboard player, guess who gets to explain what keys the songs are to him. (He was stoked one of us could articulate it :roflmao:)
    Last edited: May 26, 2019
    derg, nFinnyD, el murdoque and 19 others like this.
  6. ihaveaquestion


    Jan 9, 2018
    If he doesn't understand the concept of transposing, he shouldn't be in a band
  7. micguy


    May 17, 2011
    It gets worse when you have guys playing with capos - "It's in G, capo 4"

    You're the bassist - you should realize that sometimes, you have to be the adult, make up for the shortcomings of your guitarist, and play the tune in L flat. Arguing with them usually isn't the answer.
    nFinnyD, jfh2112, bfields and 16 others like this.
  8. lokikallas

    lokikallas Supporting Member

    Aug 15, 2010
    los angeles
    I deal with this all the time. We call out keys as “actual key”, and we have a couple of standard tuned sets, and a few 1/2 step detuned sets. The tricky part is on songs like VH, that are already tuned down. The keyboard player also can transpose 1/2 step down on the keyboard settings, which can complicate things. When talking to the guitarist we refer to the relative positions when calling out the various notes, as it is just quicker to understand. Then we have a few songs that are dropped tuning as well. A few simple discussions before the gig to make sure we are all playing the same “actual key” is all we need. Referring to an A string as A when tuned down is not a sin. It’s just convenient.
    FRoss6788, Robert B, MVE and 3 others like this.
  9. ForestFriend


    Apr 14, 2019
    Transposing instruments are simply a reality that have to be dealt with. If a group of sax players are discussing an alto part, they'll probably refer to a sounding C as Eb due to the nature of the instrument. Tuning a guitar down a half-step or whole step is the same thing - why relearn the notes on a guitar when you can just transpose it? I understand it can get confusing when people aren't transposing in the same key - but it is the norm that all the guitars and basses in a song will be in Eb standard tuning (or all in E standard, etc.).

    It might be easy for you to move down one fret playing a mostly monophonic line, but keep in mind that rock guitar parts often take advantage of open chords, harmonics, open pedal tones, etc., so some songs might be significantly more difficult and sound different if played in a different tuning than the original.

    Personally, I think instead of fussing about what key a song is in, just decide if you're doing everything in the original tuning, or everything in E standard tuning, etc. Even if you learn by ear, it doesn't take that long to look up a tab or two to see what tuning the band usually plays in. It's usually pretty obvious if you're playing a lot of low E flats or Ds.
    MVE, Jazz Ad, DJ Bebop and 2 others like this.
  10. Steve23

    Steve23 Supporting Member

    Mar 5, 2015
    All good points ...
    As for whether they're good players - possibly, but they cut me loose, so my decision to "stay or go", is moot ...
    The take that I didn't articulate well here (& wasn't put forth as a throwdown argument "there"), is the fact that I don't care what key the song will be played in, I just get warped trying to figure out which world the guitar player is referencing ...
    I just need to know:
    Are we playing an Ab song in A?
    Are you tuning down a half step, but still calling the third fret, A string "C"?
    If you say that you "saw them live, and they played it in A" (even though the recording that was the impetus for that tour is in Ab), do YOU know if they were tuned down, or what?

    If the SOP is to list songs to be learned based on the original, then folks should know what key it's in and give a heads up if the singer (or, whomever) wants to transpose ...
    That's all that I'm asking over the years & for some "musicians (read guitar players), it's a big ask ...
    It's not fussing if the "decision" has never been made & the current intent is to set a standard of communication ...
    smogg, DJ Bebop and jamro217 like this.
  11. JRA

    JRA my words = opinion Supporting Member


    here's one: "play that 'A' for me so i can find my key....thanks!" :D
  12. RyanOh

    RyanOh Gold Supporting Member Supporting Member

    I'm on board with the guitarist on this one. Lots of rock bands tune a half step down but write in standard key.

    On the other hand, Stevie Wonder actually writes in Eb...so that's the key.

    What happens if you find a recording that isn't A440 or exactly a half step down?

    **yes I play guitar too. I get the whole tune down thing.
    Kevnn4, FRoss6788, zubrycky and 7 others like this.
  13. JRA

    JRA my words = opinion Supporting Member

    transposing is a basic skill. those who can't do it = don't have enough basic skills. if you can transpose = it doesn't make any difference about the "tuning" --- unless you want it to make a difference.
    zubrycky likes this.
  14. 3Liter


    Feb 26, 2015
    On more than one occasion I have to explain to my harp player what harp HE needs to play when I’m in G for instance. I tell him it’s one stringover on the same fret. ;). He has no idea what I’m talking about and looks Ike he’s doing Chinese math while he figures it out, I understand all this, but change my terms for the other person. Not worth arguing over.

    Now the drummer however.....
    zubrycky and jamro217 like this.
  15. RyanOh

    RyanOh Gold Supporting Member Supporting Member

    Sometimes it's not about transposing. If a riff requires an open string to work correctly, you're making life really difficult.

    Sorry the OP got fired over it
  16. I also deal with this. I bring an extra bass tuned down a full step just to make the guitar player happy. I play 5 strings but he doesn't understand. He never gives me a key, or even the chords. he just plays the chord and looks at me at figure out what chord he is playing.
    While I can do that, and while I am very easy going, I just can't handle this type of communication. I look him in the eye and say "What chord is that?, What are you playing? Just say the chord, surely you know what chord you are playing?"
    Even nice guys have their limits..........
    3Liter, Garret Graves, smogg and 2 others like this.
  17. aprod


    Mar 11, 2008
    You are wrong. If the recording artist has tuned down their instrument you need to be aware of that fact and either tune your instrument down to match the tonality of the recording or remain in standard tuning and transpose to match the fretting of the original. You see this all the time when covering Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray. They tune down a 1/2 step to Eb and we all know to play in E.
    robd, Element Zero, FRoss6788 and 6 others like this.
  18. Reedt2000

    Reedt2000 Supporting Member

    Apr 26, 2017
    Central New Jersey
    This is exactly the point. Saying we know to play in E is only relative to standard fingering on a guitar or bass. If you play pride & joy in the same key as the record, you're playing in Eb, regardless of whether you change your tuning or play it on a 5 string, or whatever.

    The issue (I think) is that there is a disconnect between a lot of guitarists and the larger musical system. Reading tabs not notation, thinking only in fretboard shapes not chord names. This tuning vs key thing is another example of that (IMHO).
  19. Tony In Philly

    Tony In Philly Gold Supporting Member Supporting Member

    Oct 25, 2007
    Filthydelphia, USA
    it sounds like you just dodged a bullet. They have responsibility to you to tell you the key and then you can make all of the appropriate adjustments.
    smogg, MynameisMe, DJ Bebop and 2 others like this.
  20. Skillet

    Skillet Supporting Member

    Nov 25, 2011
    Looks like the band got if figured out.

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