I used to play guitar exclusively in alternate tunings, and I got really good at it, and audiences really, really loved it. But I hated it. And I hated my identity as a fingerstyle guitarist. And I hated performing fingerstyle guitar. Well, it wasn’t always like that, and it certainly didn’t start out like that. But I want to share with you how it got to that point and what I learnt through the process.
Many years ago there was a point in my life when I decided, with absolutely certainty, that I wanted to be a guitarist. And not just any guitarist, but an excellent, professional, and unique one. I was motivated, passionate, and excited. I spent day after day practicing over 10 hours a day, and slowly but surely I was reaching technical excellence in my craft.
However, an interesting phenomenon was also taking place at that time in the world of acoustic guitar. This was the time when percussive fingerstyle playing was exploding in popularity; when Andy McKee’s ‘Drifting’ went viral on YouTube, and budding guitarists around the world were mesmerised by McKee’s eye-catching technique of placing his left hand above the fretboard and tapping the bass strings. I was one of them.
To achieve the proper effect of tapping-out-chords-with-your-left-hand-above-the-fretboard-and-looking-incredibly-cool-while-doing-it, one had to retune the guitar strings away from ‘standard tuning’ to what are called ‘alternate tunings’. In its simplest form, you’d just drop the low E string down to a low D. But most of the time guitarists would retune several other strings, opening up wonderful possibilities of chord voicings and shapes otherwise unattainable on standard tuning.
Now I dived head-first into this world of alternate tunings and percussive guitar playing, and driven by my pursuit of musical excellence, I became really good at it. I was composing and performing original tunes with all manner of alternative tunings and percussive hand contortions, and audiences were mesmerised by my ‘unique’, ‘avant-garde’, ‘ground-breaking’ style of playing. Mind you, I was still a teenager then, so audiences were perhaps more forgiving of lapses in technique and stage-presence.
Before I even understood the fundamentals of standard tuning, I became a master of over 10 alternate tunings, or so I thought. My composition process was simply this: retune the strings to some crazy unheard-of tuning, noodle around on the fretboard to find shapes that sound good, and create a song out of it. To my own credit, I did this pretty well and am still fond of many of my original songs created in this manner.
However, I soon realised that to play any one song, I had to first tune the guitar to that exact tuning. Thereafter, I found I could only play that song (or a few songs sharing the same tuning) in that tuning, and could only play it exactly as was composed from point A (beginning) to point B (end). I had no understanding of the musical concepts underlying each song. They were essentially just a series of buttons to press on the fretboard in a very precise and sequential manner, which I had rehearsed to muscle-memory perfection.
I began to feel like a machine.
I dreaded performing, for aside from countless strings breaking on-stage, every setlist was dictated by the tunings of each song. I lost the artistic freedom to curate a musical performance to tell the story I wanted to tell. I found myself incapable of spontaneous music-making for I only knew the specific fingering positions that worked ONLY for that particular tuning, nothing else. Most devastatingly, I found myself void of any self-confidence as a musician, let alone a professional one. I began to doubt myself. I began to think that I achieved ‘success’ as a musician only because I looked cool putting my left hand above the fretboard. I began to despise playing the guitar, for I could only play those 10 songs and nothing more, nothing less.
Then I stopped.
I couldn’t go on like this. My passion, my identity, my profession, and my mental health was at stake. I cast my entire repertoire aside and stopped performing altogether. I took on a non-music-related job for two years that thankfully allowed me the time to work on my music.
I tuned my guitar to standard tuning and never ventured beyond that. I intentionally sought out musical cultures that were fundamentally improvisational in nature, leading me to jazz, Carnatic, and flamenco music. I took lessons in all three styles, and I worked hard.
It was gruelling and painful, for it felt like starting from scratch again. I realised how little I actually knew about music, how I could barely play the most basic chords on standard tuning. But my passion for music spurred me on. Two years and countless hours of practice later, I left that full-time job and was ready to finally be a musician.
By no means am I perfect, but I have found my confidence and identity as a musician. I finally feel like I understand my art, and I know the abilities and limitations of the musical tools at my disposal to create the music I want to create. And that’s how I’m able to create this piece for you today, how I’m able to tell stories through world music, and how I’m able to empower others to share their lived experiences through music, in the various community arts projects I have embarked on.
Alternate Tunings Aren't the Problem
Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with alternate tunings. In fact they are amazing and many brilliant musicians have used them meaningfully to create remarkable music. What’s wrong was the way I approached them, without understanding, knowledge, or intentionality. I simply wanted to create music for the sake of creating a song and receiving man’s approval. I ended up becoming a musical machine.
Today, I can fearlessly revisit an alternate tuning, fully aware of what I know and what I don’t know, and I have the skills to navigate it confidently. So if there’s one thing I want to share with you if you are an aspiring guitarist, is to focus on musicianship. Don’t rely on tabs, they are after all just numbers telling you which fretboard buttons to press. Study and discover why those buttons are to be pressed in that precise arrangement and order, and soon you’ll be well on your way to deciding which buttons you want to press.
Written by Neil Chan