I have taken to tuning down a half-step when busking. A lot of the songs I’m doing are pretty high and, much as I’d like to be able to sing those notes, the reality is that it’s simply a matter of physiology and I can’t.
That’s the beauty of guitar – it’s so easy to play songs in a different key. I remember doing transposition as part of keyboard skills in university and how difficult it was. On the piano, if you change key, the whole “feel” of a piece changes because of the arrangment of black and white keys. On the guitar, with the aid of a capo, you can put a song up a tone or two without there being any noticable change in how the chords “feel”.
Going down is a different matter, though. The method of tuning down a half-step (a semitone) is one that a lot of singing guitarists use to give themselves the option of singing things a bit lower. (To go lower still, it is necessary to change the chords you’re playing altogther. Not impossible, but would necessitate pretty much learning the song over again.) One of my guitar idols, Stevie Ray Vaughan, used to always tune a half-step lower and it’s also something that my friend Hamlet Sweeney does.
Stevie Ray Vaughan also used thicker strings and this was something suggested to me this week as a remedy for my sore fingertips. (I’m playing for a few hours every day now and my poor fingers are a bit ragged.) It’s an area I’ve never really ever paid much attention to – string gauges – but I’ll maybe try a thicker set next time and see how it goes. It should give me a bigger, richer sound, too.
SRV died in 1990 in a tragic helicopter accident and I still remember my dad telling me about it. I had had my first guitar for just a few months by then and I’d never even heard of him. Check out his instrumental version of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’.