Not quite as exciting-sounding as Alien Vs Predator, I'll agree, but as anyone who has had the misfortune to be trapped in a lift (elevator) with an acoustic guitarist will be able to tell you, altered tunings are absolutely where it's at for the unplugged crew…
Now I'll admit up front that I don't like using altered tunings for a couple of good reasons. Firstly, I don't like the change in string tension that dropping or raising pitch can bring about '“ I like the '˜feel' of the neck and strings to remain as constant as possible. (It's better for the instrument, too, in my opinion.) Secondly, I've seen so many of my acoustic-playing friends break strings during frantic retunings between songs in a live situation and this puts me off, too. Playing solo is hard enough on the nervous system as it is without introducing another variable into your time in the spotlight.
There's a folk player in the UK called Chris Wood who says that constant retuning in concert inevitably means that you end up playing the entire gig on a slightly out-of-tune guitar, which isn't a good thing. I couldn't agree more; but what's the alternative? Even DADGAD tuning can start getting a bit stale after three or four tunes and so something has to give. Ages ago, when I first started writing pieces for my new album '˜Arboretum' I was experimenting with a capo and came up with the idea (which I've since found just about everyone has had at one time or another) of using the capo to block some and not all strings in DADGAD, instantly giving you new tunings, many of which you couldn't normally tune to.
I'll give you an example; on '˜Waterfalling' from the new album, I use a capo on the second fret covering strings 2-6. This effectively gives me a tuning EBEABD '“ another way of looking at things would be that it's DADGAD with a dropped top string. This simple adjustment gives me the opportunity to get more strings ringing during the song's arpeggiated sections. It's simple, takes around five seconds to snap the capo in place and doesn't cause retuning panic syndrome when playing live.
Now, '˜Waterfalling' is obviously not an extreme case, but there are further examples: '˜A Stranger's Tale' has a capo at the 5th fret covering strings 6-3 giving me the tuning GDGCAD, which would be virtually impossible to get to by tuning '“ I personally wouldn't want to be in the vicinity when someone was tuning their E up to G, A to D, D to G, etc.
Since I began my experiments with partial capos (as they are called) I've found that just about everyone in the acoustic fingerstyle clan uses them '“ both G7 and Shubb make them and there's even a type of capo (called '˜The Spider') that will allow you to stop any string or strings you choose, leaving the rest open.
Another advantage of using a partial capo in DADGAD means that the strings remain relative to each other no matter where you've positioned the capo. So if you've spent hours in the woodshed becoming familiar with DADGAD tuning in general, you don't have to go back to the beginning and learn another tuning just for one or two numbers.
So there you have it. If you want to see a little video I did during a workshop in London a few years ago demonstrating the use of a partial capo (see above).
Check out David Mead’s new album Arboretum (free download available on this page)