From ‘Life’ (p 241)
‘The big discovery late in 1968 or early 1969 was when I started playing the open five-string tuning. It transformed my life. It’s the way of playing I use for the riffs and songs the Stones are best known for – ‘Honky Tonk Woman’, ‘Brown Sugar’, ‘Tumbling Dice’, Happy’, ‘All Down the Line’, ‘Start Me Up’ and ‘Satisfaction’. ‘Flash’ too.
Robert Johnson – devil’s own poet
I had hit a kind of buffer. I just really thought I was not getting anywhere from straight concert tuning. I wasn’t learning anymore; I wasn’t getting the sounds I really wanted. I’d been experimenting with tunings for quite a while. Most times I went into different tunings because I had a song going and I was hearing it in my head but I couldn’t get it out of the conventional tuning no matter any way I looked at it. Also I wanted to try and go back and use what a lot of old blues guitarists were playing and transpose it to electric but keep the same basic simplicity and straightforwardness – that pumping drive you hear with accoustic blues players. Simple, haunting, powerful sounds.
And then I found out all this stuff about banjos. A lot of five-string playing came from when Sears, Roebuck offered the Gibson guitar in the very early ’20s, really cheap. Before that banjos were the biggest-selling instrument. Gibson put out this cheap, really good guitar, and cats would tune it, since they were nearly all banjo players, to a five-string banjo tuning. Also, you didn’t have to pay for the other string, the big string.’
‘Or you could save it for hanging up the old lady or something. Most of rural America bought their stuff from the Sears catalogue. RURAL America was where it was really important. In the cities, you could shop around. In the Bible Belt, rural America, the South, Texas, the Midwest, you got your Sears, Roebuck catalogue and you sent away. That’s how Oswald got his shooter.
Usually that banjo tuning was used, on guitar, for slide playing or bottleneck. An ‘open tuning’ simply means the guitar is pretuned to a ready-made chord – but there are different kinds and configurations. I’d been working on open D and open E. I learned then that Don Everly, one of the finest rhythm players, used open tuning on ‘Wake Up Little Susie’ and ‘Bye Bye Love’. He just used the barre chord, the finger across the neck. Ry Cooder was the first cat I actually saw play the open G chord – I have to tip my hat to Ry Cooder.
He showed me the open G chord. But he was using it strictly for slide playing and he still had the bottom string. That’s what most blues players use open tunings for, they use it for slide. And I decided it was too limiting. I found the bottom string got in the way. I figured out after a bit that I didn’t need it; it would never stay in tune and it was out of whack for what I wanted to do. So I took it off and used the fifth string, the A string, as the bottom note. You didn’t have to worry about bashing that bottom string and setting up harmonics that you didn’t need.
I started playing chords on the open tuning – which was new ground. You change one string and suddenly you’ve got a whole new universe under your fingers. Anything you thought you knew has gone out the window. Nobody thought about playing minor chords in an open major tuning, because you’ve got to really dodge about a bit. You have to rethink your whole thing, as if your piano was turned upside down and the black notes were white and the white notes were black. So you had to retune your mind and your fingers as well as the guitar. The minute you’ve tuned the guitar or any other instrument to one chord, you’ve got to work your way around it. You’re out of the realms of normal music. You’re up the Limpopo with Yellow Jack.’
Jamming on my banjo-tuned Tanglewood with Kaori from Japan on her one-string Chinese Violin – Jesus Green, Cambridge 12/6/2010
I came to a banjo-tuned guitar by another route. I was having my banjo re-fretted by Con Rendell in 2005 (Mistley Quay, Essex – highly recommended) and he told me it was going to take three days – so I said ‘What am I going to play?’ – he passed me a 3/4 size guitar he had in his wonderful workshop overlooking the Stour Estuary and said ‘tune it like a banjo’ – so I did…
I replaced the low string with a guage 10 or 9 and tuned the A string to a G (now I use F sharp) and I fell in love with it… so I find what Richards is saying about the early blues guitarists switching from banjo… great stuff… seems to me (having never really played with it) that the standard tuning for a guitar is a compromise between a G tuning and an E tuning – which means you can’t just strum it and get a listenable-to chord… and Keith is right about indigenous instruments tending to sound good ‘ open’… percussively. The banjo is just a drum with strings on afterall. Thanks for the insights, Keith Richards.
How many of us were there?
Added Saturday 15 Jan 2010: Hang on! – I’d often play just the top 4 strings of a guitar to an open G with the top string dropped before 2005… did that a lot in Berlin with Geno’s guitar (2000) and also in Fitzroy Crossing – it was the only way I could play along or practice if there wasn’t banjo handy.
Heading to the Inn on the Green – maybe catch you later…
added 25.1.2011 (an extract from the John Harris Guardian blog):
The Rolling Stones’ guide to world politics: ‘Mick Jagger and Keith Richards will doubtless be thrilled with their new role as geopolitical gurus – but their songs have, on the odd occasion, dealt with such topics as a matter of deliberate intent. In the wake of the Gulf war, they released a single titled Highwire, pointing out how the US had once aided Saddam Hussein; on 2005’s A Bigger Bang, there was a piece about the Bush administration called Sweet Neo Con (it rhymed “certain” with “Haliburton”).’