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Hi all: Here's a question. I, like probably many of you, write music using a variety of tunings. I probably have 4-5 favorites, plus alternative capo-ings too. I was wondering what strategies you all use when performing? How to you arrange your sets, do you use an small army of guitars, etc. I have watched some more famous alt-players like Ani DiFranco, and she has a guitar tech that swaps out guitars between songs for her, but I am assuming that many of you don't have such a luxury. The last 1 hour set I played, I brought about 4 guitars set up, and that was fairly smooth, but all the gear makes it a bit tough on a small stage.

It drives me crazy when a player spends too much time fiddling with his/her tuning between songs. There must be a better way though -- what are your strategies for making transitions smooth?

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I only use one guitar. I'm in a situation now where I only change tunings two or three times in a gig so it isn't much of an issue. When I was using more tunings, we would plan our sets so the tunings followed one another in a logical fashion and used a few changes as possible during the set with the biggest changes taking place between sets. So we might go from standard, to drop d, to dadgad, to d, and so on... Then we told musician jokes while I changed my tunings. For small changes of only 1 or 2 strings, one joke usually sufficed. For more complicated changes, we would tell 2 jokes.
I think the most logical way is to use one guitar, and plan your set-list to logically follow the tunings as close as possible, for instance if you are using DADGAD, to go to an Open D (DADF#AD) you would just drop the G a half-step. I know it's difficult, because you want your set-list to be strategic as far as musicality also, but with multiple guitars you would probably check the tuning on each anyway, and by the time you take one off, pick up the other one, and check it's tuning, you could re-tune in the same time 2 cents!
If you don't want to carry multiple guitars, the best strategy is to start in standard tuning, then go to dropped D, then work your way down. That way you are only changing one string at a time. Just arrange your set accordingly.

Actually, one of the reasons that I adopted DADGAD for everything was because of my frustration with changing tunings in a live situation. Even back when I still played a 6-String (I play 12-string exclusively now) I found that changing just one string would require a slight tweak on all of them.
I've brought multiple guitars before. If i can limit it to 2, then that's not too much shuffling. But lately I've been doing small open-mic type gigs (or multiple artists) so just bring one guitar. I'm developing a good number of DADGAD tunes, so I can hit any mood in that tuning.
The biggest - which I just watched done masterfully on Saturday night, is to practice the tuning and the patter that covers it. Cosy Sheridan is real good at this, as is Martin Simpson. The other big trick is to group things. I almost always have 4 - 8 guitars on stage, but I put some in the first half, some in the second, and like that.
As others have mentioned, it helps to arrange your set list in a way that doesn't require going back to the same tunings several times. In my case, I try to play all my Drop-D, DADGAD, and open D-minor material bunched together, and then I might play all my tunes on Gsus4 (Orkney), Open G-Minor, and various related tunings. I prefer to gradually tune up, rather than tuning down, so with one guitar, I'd start out in the G-family tunings, pass through the DADGAD, etc. tunings, and then end up in standard eventually.

Bringing more than one guitar can also help, but for me, it depends on the gig. I've found that constantly switching guitars on stage can be just as, or more distracting to the audience as swift retuning. Most guitars sound slightly different, and often the pickups have different levels, so I've found it hard to keep tonal consistency that way. However, if I'm doing a radio show or a really short set where I don't want to waist any time retuning, then multiple guitars can be great. If I'm doing a long set, I'll reserve additional guitars to really different instruments, like a classical or 12-string guitar.

On the gear side of things, I really like having a pedal tuner to mute my signal as I tune, as I think this makes it a lot more listenable for the audience. I actually end up mostly tuning by ear, but of course it is often nice to have the tuner as a reference.

Ultimately, I think quick retuning is something that shouldn't be left up to chance, but that needs to be practiced as part of getting ready to perform a body of material.
I would have to echo the strategy of composing the set list with the tuning and in my case partial capo changes in mind. At times this has meant that I have dropped particular pieces altogether depending on the length of the set. And as Teja mentioned practicing the set with the tuning/capo changes is very valuable.
As I see it putting all your tunings together can be too repetative, too much like the previous song. If you have ever heard someone play several songs in a row in the same key and fret board position then you will understand what I mean.
I am always aware of the keys my songs are in and try to not repeat the same key back to back. I don't re-tune for alternate tunings but rather use the K-Lever partial capos. I still get all the different and beautiful chord voicing of alternate tunings without the hassle. I also avoid the strings adjusting to their new tension in the middle of the song.
Well, there's my thoughts on this subject, but the bottom line is, it all works and alternate tuning no matter how you get there, is a blast.
Blessing, Greg
Reply by Gary Lee Joyner on January 26, 2009 at 3:07pm
I understand reservations about partial capos. I owned several Third Hand capos for many years, pulling them out occasionally to fool with them. I thought they were cute and novel. It was clever to be able to make an E chord with two of them, etc. But they never fired my imagination, so I would set them aside time after time.
I had an epiphany at some point. I’m not sure what triggered it. One contributing fact—I switched to a headless guitar with the tuners in the body of the instrument. The tuners are under the strings making it cumbersome to change tunings, especially on stage. Necessity brought my attention back to partial capos. A light bulb switched on and I took off. Since then I have thought, hacked, and chopped my way to where I now have a couple dozen different customized partial capos. I sometimes use several at once. (Others are blazing trails in this area as well, notably Trace Bundy who is doing some wonderfully creative work.)
One way to think about the capo/tuning world is to visualize three models. Each offers a unique set of values and usefulness. Generally speaking:

1. Standard tuning. Decidedly well-conceived and flexible. Familiar shapes, scale patterns, CAGED system, etc. We know how to navigate to a degree determined by our individual level of development.
2. Altered tuning. A new world. New shapes. Easy to get lost. The opportunity to explore a fresh system with new road maps for finding one’s way home. New sounds. Intervals not readily available in standard tuning. Many find ideas and inspiration in this context that maybe wouldn’t have come in standard tuning. A common perception persists that altered tuning simply means easy chord shapes for beginners to execute quickly. This is true to a point, of course, but altered tunings can also offer advanced players as much difficulty and challenge as they may crave.
3. Partial capos. Often compared to altered tuning, causing more confusion than clarity. This is a distinct approach that has selected benefits of each of the others while bringing some of it’s own to the game. Familiar chord shapes are there (they are most noticeable in bar forms) because we are still in standard tuning. Any shape that only uses notes fretted above the capo(s) will function “normally.” The inclusion of unfingered strings in chord shapes, intervals, and linear runs reveals the magic of partial capoing. Notice that I avoid the terms “unfretted” or “open”, because not all of the strings are actually open. Some interesting mind-bending occurs regularly as you work this turf. You may be playing along, getting the sounds you expect, when suddenly a surprise sound leaps out at you. On the other hand, in the process of discovering new sounds you may forget that you are in standard tuning when equally suddenly you remember that all your familiar shapes are still there. The turf is the same, but the opportunities have changed. Partial capoing can be explored with a minimum of technique and knowledge, but greater knowledge of the fingerboard and music theory will increase your potential. Partial capoing already has us thinking outside the box, but may I encourage you to think outside of this new box, as well? For example, the partial capo that creates an Esus chord when applied to strings 3-5 at the second fret can be placed in other positions. It doesn’t take long to figure out that coming from the other side of the neck creates an A chord. (These two approaches are often termed DADGAD and G Tuning, respectively, because they mimic the open strings of those tunings. I prefer the more accurate designations of Esus and A.) But it doesn’t end there. It can be placed on other frets. One of my students has gotten a great deal of mileage out of placing his Esus capo on fret four. Multiple capos increase the potential logarithmically. I have many pages of capoing diagrams that resulted from exploring capo position potential. Sometimes I try to figure out a way to capo an interesting scale environment, or search out unusual intervals and unisons between capoed and uncapoed strings, and so on. Sometimes I randomly place capos to see what turns up. Sounds that seem unuseful at first can reveal treasures after some experimentation. There is an endless world of creative potential. Mixing partial capos with altered tunings expands the palette even further. I teach a two hour workshop on partial capoing that leaves people’s eyes spinning and yet barely scratches the surface. Exciting stuff.

By the way, I picked up a set of the new Kyser K-lever capos at Winter NAMM. They successfully address a problem in partial capoing that has been apparent to anyone who has explored this world in any depth. It’s the issue of fretting open bass strings on frets that fall under the capo. I eagerly anticipated their arrival and I’m having lots of fun with them. I stopped by the Kyser booth several times during NAMM, often not saying anything and just watching the response as Greg O’Haver demonstrated the capos to individuals. It was fun to see the light go on in their eyes. Everyone was excited by the design.
I enjoyed connecting with Greg again. He’s a fine man and fully deserves the success that is sure to follow this project. We sat together at the Acoustic Café concert on Friday night, appreciatively consuming delights from the excellent food and beverage buffet. We also were able to hang backstage and see old and new friends. Greg didn’t miss a trick, eagerly showing everyone his capos…the hardest working man in show biz.
I must mention that I am also using Peter Einhorn’s new Spider capo. Peter and Greg have each significantly raised the bar in the capo world. The Spider brings the possibilities offered by the venerable Third Hand capo into the new millennium. Very cool. Three Spiders will greatly reduce the number of customized capos I have to haul around. (Capos get heavy, especially problematic when checking baggage on an airplane.)
The capo world is imperfect. It is an art, not a science. I love to see the creativity and design potential that it unleashes in others and myself. But most importantly, I love to hear the sounds.
Gary Lee Joyner
Sometimes it depends on the venue. When I'm performing solo, my set list is about 40/60 with the greater percent being in altered tunings. If I can, it's nice to bring two guitars. Usually, I keep one for standard and retune the other as needed. If space won't allow for two guitars, I carry one and organize my songs so the tuning changes are as infrequent as possible. I try to keep in mind varyng keys and styles, as others have mentioned. I check my tuning frequently anyway, especially after capo changes, but I've definitely become a fast tuner, so I hope it's not too distracting. Much less so than listening to an out of tune guitar would be, I'd think.
Depending on the venue, stage layout, and other logistics, I will take two to four guitars. I keep one guitar tuned to half step below standard and use one or more guitars for the altered tunings. This allows me to switch between tunings much quicker and to offer different set lists for each performance. If I'm forced to take only one guitar, I then group my songs by their tuning; i.e., I'll start with DADGAD, then DADF#AD, DADFAD, CGDGCD, and any others, ending with my tunes in standard.
I only bring 1 guitar but use 4 tunings. I use standard, drop D, Double Drop D, and D tuning. I set my sets up so I only have to tune 1 or 2 strings every other song or so. I tune back to standard at break.


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