Instrument Tuning Trivia: August 26, 2022

This Contest is Closed
The winner is Pat Dinges

Here’s a question for you pickers out there.


Which of the 6 usual bluegrass instruments has NEVER re-tuned out of its “usual” or “regular” tuning, at least by the well-known performers and recording artists? (Meaning relative tuning, string to string, not meaning A 440, etc.) Whether “on the fly” during a show or jam, or by carrying a second instrument in an alternative tuning, different tuning used by a different performer, or just tuning different to be different. We’re sticking to bluegrass now; not Celtic, blues or orchestral classical music. Also, capoing doesn’t count as “re-tuning”.

  1. Bass fiddle
  2. Banjo
  3. Fiddle
  4. Guitar
  5. Mandolin
  6. Dobro ™
  7. None of the above

ANSWER is “None of the Above”

Additional Bowden Comments

Congrats to winner Pat Dinges — a new winner I think! Well done, you know your instruments.

Oddly every one of the bluegrass instruments has at least one, if not several “alternative” tunings.

Bass fiddles are USUALLY tuned E-A-D-G (lowest to highest string). But there are at least a couple of variants. The “high” tuning omits the lowest E string and puts the A string there, D string next, then G string, but then a very small gauge treble string tuned to a high “C” note. The lowest bass tone is sacrificed to have more access on the fingerboard to higher notes. The Stanley Brothers’ bassist when they started with Mercury records in the early 1950s was tuned this way by John Shuffler (George Shuffler’s brother). Del McCoury’s bassist in the Dixie Pals, Dewey Renfro, also used high tuning. The “other” tuning comes from orchestras where an add-on device called (I think) an “extender” lengthens just the low pitched E string by lengthening the string. This “extender” pokes up slightly longer than the bass peghead. It has little mechanical “fingers” on it (like a capo for one string) that let it be sounded as regular E, or lower as E flat, D, C# and all the way down to a super low C note. Nate Sabat with Mile 12 (classically trained) has his bass set up this way.

Bluegrass banjo has 3 “typical” tunings. Open G, open D (sometimes called “graveyard”) as in “Reuben”, and “drop C” where the 4th string is tuned down 2 half steps to a C note. This is, in fact, the old standard 5 string tuning of the 19th century. Earl Scruggs used all these tunings. Earl also used an open D minor for a couple on instrumentals. Lamar Grier used an open G minor tuning on a Bill Monroe record called “Kentucky Mandolin”. JD Crowe recorded “Bear Tracks” with Jimmy Martin in open C! G-C-G-C-E. Old time clawhammer banjo players have several other tunings I won’t get into here. Let it be said that Uncle Dave Macon (an “all-around” banjo stylist who both picked and clawhammer) carried at least 3 banjos with him on stage, set up in 3 different tunings for different songs.

Bluegrass fiddling typically uses 3 tunings. First is standard or “Italian” tuning; G-D-A-E from lowest to highest. Next is “Calico” open tuning where the two lower strings are each moved up one whole step, while the treble string is tuned DOWN 3 half steps to C sharp. Calico tuning is A-D-A-C#. The bluegrass song most familiar in this tuning is “Black Mountain Rag”. It is used much more commonly in old time music. The final common alternative tuning for bluegrass fiddle is “open” A where the strings are tuned A-E-A-E. This is great for song in the key of A, as the entire vibrates sympathetically reinforcing the overwhelming sound of an A chord. Curly Ray Cline and Kenny Baker recorded a number of songs in this tuning, harking back to old time fiddling they grew up on. On the famous Bill Monroe record “Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen” Kenny Baker played several of Uncle Pen’s old tunes in open A, like “Jenny Lynn”, “The Old Gray Mare Came Tearing Out of the Wilderness”, and” Candy Gal”. This tuning is extremely popular in old time music too.

Bluegrass guitar comes in 2 basic tunings. The standard E-A-D-G-B-E is the overwhelming favorite. There is some use, particularly when playing in the key of D, that drops the bass string down from E to D, where gives a more powerful “whomp” and resonance to tunes played in the key of D. Tony Rice and Big Dan Crary liked to use the D bass tuning. Flat pickers are more likely to drop the bass string down to D, than strict rhythm players.

You wouldn’t think mandolin tuning would EVER be changed because of the difficulty of tuning the dang thing in the first place! Bill Monroe retuned his mandolin several ways. First was “Calico” tuning like the fiddle, on the instrumental “Bluegrass Ramble”. A-D-A-C#. Next was a really wild tuning on “Over On the Old Kentucky Shore”. It let Bill hit some very spooky tones, with ringing open notes and bluesy harmonies — this tuning doesn’t even have a name. Then came the instrumental “Get Up John” which was sort of an open D tuning that Bill said he heard his Uncle Pen play on the fiddle sometimes. Bill made it more complex by splitting pitches between pairs of strings, which made some outer-space harmonies when fretted. Mandolin players just call it “Get Up John” tuning. Bill fooled with a lot tunings, looking for “special effects” sounds. Late in his career he wrote and recorded the sepulchral “My Last Days on Earth” which is in open C# minor!!! Again, there were split tunings on courses of strings. Bill’s final retuned number was “Stone Coal” in open C. Mandolinist Buzz Busby was also known for using some of these alternative tunings. Usually Bill, or mandolin players channeling Bill, carry a second mandolin kept in an unusual tuning, just to play these particular songs.

Finally, the old Dobro(tm). Way back yonder when Hawaiian music started up, the standard tuning was a slack or low pitched open E chord across the 6 strings. E-B-E-G#-B-E. The alternative for Hawaiian music was called “High Bass” for an open A chord across the strings. A-C#-E-A-C#-E. Both of these tunings came into country music via Clell Sumney (Cousin Jody) and Bashful Brother Oswald, and even earlier artists like Cliff Carlisle. Since the “High Bass” tuning puts tremendous pulling tension on the steel guitar neck (tuned much higher than a regular “Spanish” guitar), a lot of Dobro(tm) players lowered the “High Bass” tuning for an open G chord. G-B-D-G-B-D. This is only slightly higher tension than a regular guitar. In any case, when bluegrass music came along, the players tended to select either the original Hawaiian old open E tuning, or the open G chord (sort-of-high bass) tuning. Shot Jackson was the champion of the E tuning and he played on LOTS of bluegrass records in the 1950s and 60s. Buck Graves was the proponent of the open G tuning, because the highest 4 strings happen to match the tuning of the banjo, and Buck transferred some of Earl’s banjo licks to the Dobro. Brother Oswald with Roy Acuff’s Smokey Mountain Boys stuck with open A High Bass, but they weren’t a bluegrass band. Interestingly, Buck Graves recorded ONE NUMBER in High Bass with Flatt & Scruggs “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” in the key of A! on Josh’s first session as a Foggy Mt. Boy about 1955-6. In later years, Mike Auldridge (who played his Dobro(tm) in open G tuning), got himself an EIGHT string Dobro(tm) and recorded a few songs in what is sometimes called C6 tuning, which had been developed in the 1950s for electric steel guitars with 8 to 10 strings. Although I can’t quote any Jerry Douglas alternative tunings, no doubt a guy as creative as him has done some. Currently there is a popular wave of tuning the “open G” Dobro(tm) tuning down 2 half steps to open F, for a low throaty, bluesy tone.

All of this retuning just goes to show how the creative musical mind is always looking for a new and different sound, even if they’re reaching back decades to some things once used, but abandoned.

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden recently retired after a 45 year career in the paper industry, and moved from Connecticut to Big Indian NY (Ulster County) where he ekes out a precarious existence as a groundskeeper. Dick has been performing bluegrass music on banjo and guitar since 1966 in his home state of Maine, throughout New England, and internationally with The Case Brothers - Martin & Gibson. He has performed for HVBA with the Old Time Bluegrass Singers, and also sent in a squadron of Dick Bowden's Flying Circus. Most recently Dick has played Dobro (tm) with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Dick has written many articles for Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Today, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass magazine) and HVBA.

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