Australian Guitar - - Technique -

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.

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