THE DEVIN TOWNSEND TUNING
Devin Townsend is one of my favourite guitarists, because when you strip it right back, he streamlined his guitar approach to get the maximum possible sonic depth and harmonic sophistication with minimal technicality.
His favoured Open C tuning makes it possible to play some really, really tricky stuff without having to take his mind away from singing like a metal god. This Open C tuning (C, G, C, G, C, E) is broad in pitch, and even more broad in possibilities.
A while ago in an interview, I asked Townsend to explain his approach to the guitar and this tuning, and he summed it up thusly: “What do I see the guitar as? Well, I see it as a bunch of things. I see it as a tool. I see it as a weapon. I see it as a bunch of blocks. I see it as a bunch of patterns. I see it as a bunch of baggage as well.
“And because I’ve been in this weird tuning for so long, I see it almost exclusively as a writing tool, as opposed to anything else. Inevitably, someone will put a guitar in your hands and be like, ‘Well, play something.’ But I use it to write songs, y’know? I’m a guitar player, of course.
“I saw an interview with Steven Wilson where he’s like, ‘I’m not a guitar player,’ but I mean, he is a guitar player! I’m a guitar player. I love the guitar. But I agree with him in the sense that I’m not a guitar player in the way of my identity being invested in my ability to do things on it.
“I’ve got a certain capacity for technique that allows me to articulate pretty much anything that comes into my head, and a lot of the things that come into my head are rarely the types of things that require acrobatics. But when people put a guitar in my hand and they’re like, ‘Solo!’ what am I supposed to do?
“So I’ve got a reservoir of ten or twelve shapes that I’ve been playing for 30 years that I’ll pull out. But the reason why I have those in a place that allows me to perform them marginally well, is that I can apply those shapes to almost any idea I have, whether it’s the sweeping or the tapping or the string skipping or the riffing – those shapes allow me to play any thought that I have.
And that’s what I do! [The guitar] is truly a vehicle for me to articulate my emotional or artistic process, and that’s where it ends.”
So let’s have a closer look at this tuning. It essentially gives you a one‑finger major chord, which is great for creating big walls of sound that you can then augment with other instrumentation. But notice that three strings are tuned to C – that means that if you play, say, an E note on the fourth fret of the lowest string, you’ll find another E on the fourth fret of the other two C strings.
Ditto for notes on the two G strings. The system breaks down when you get to the E string, but let’s ignore that for these purposes. This opens up all sorts of textural possibilities, because you can play huge, stacked power chords simply by laying one finger over the lowest four strings. Or you can fret octaves, which you can then slide around in a more efficient way than the regular ‘power chord shape, but with one unplayed string in‑between’ fretting that you would use in standard tuning.
Another great asset of this tuning is that you can create scales using pairs of strings. Figure #1 shows you how you can play a complete F Major scale by using the same exact pattern on each pair of C and G strings. You’ll note that if we keep with the pattern, the last note of the scale is doubled up as the first note of the next pair of strings, which means you can do some really cool note displacement stuff.
But Figure #2 is similar to what Townsend described as ‘A Major Scale Kinda Thing’, which omits the fourth note of the Major scale, as well as that doubled‑up note, instead giving you a scale that can feel midway between Major and Lydian, since it doesn’t contain the defining note of either.
Following this are four little scale‑like patterns that you can experiment with. These are really handy because the wider interval between the C and G strings means you can get some pretty dramatic leaps that might not be apparent if you’re playing in standard tuning.
You can apply these ideas to any tuning that includes multiple octaves of the same notes – for instance, you could stack octaves of, say, C and F. ‘CFCFCF’ would be a really cool one to experiment with.
As with any tuning, the goal is to know the tuning so well that you no longer need to think about it – it simply serves as a conduit for your music. And yet tunings like this can open you up to melodic and harmonic ideas that might not have been apparent before.