Instruments and tunings



These are the instruments I use, though my main instrument is undeniably guitar. In addition to these, there are also a few flutes, shakers, maracas and whatnot around the house. I also frequently use my digital piano and my MIDI keyboard if doing any arranging.

Funny enough, despite the very long list of instruments here, I purchased almost none of them. They find their way to me as gifts, inheritances, and so on.

 047 My main guitar is this Blueridge jumbo cutaway. It has a neck like a baseball bat, and I like it that way. This model, BR-J33CE, is long since discontinued, and it it is from the early days of Blueridge, so nobody knows much about it at all. It apparently has a solid spruce top and mahogany sides and back, with a rosewood fingerboard. I picked it up in Tuscaloosa Alabama around 1993 or 1994. The electronics have been replaced with a Fishman pickup, as the on-board stuff finally died, but we got it wired up to the original pots.
This recent acquisition is my nylon-string crossover guitar. It’s a Cervantes Crossover I, with solid palo escrito back and sides, and solid cedar top. As a crossover, it has a 48mm nut rather than the more typical 52mm of a classical guitar, but it’s otherwise mostly built like a classical.
 053 This Baby Taylor is my travel guitar, and it has been abused like mad. It is a pretty old 301-GB, the top has a vertical crack, and the back was inverted once by an aggressive flight attendant (!). It still sounds beautiful though, and I actually use it relatively often for recording.
 046 I inherited this 1961 Gibson LG-0 from my father-in-law. It has been badly treated over the years — it looks like he actually took varnish to it at one point. The action is fairly high. I took the pickguard off, which greatly opened up the top. It sounds great on slide and with the right sort of fingerpicking stuff — otherwise, it can be a little chunky. It is super-resonant though!
 045 This is another guitar inherited from my father-in-law. This one is a 1961 or ’62 Melody Maker D. This is my main electric guitar; I don’t play electric that much, but this is just a huge pleasure to play. It is all original — electronics, bridge, tuners, everything — except for a couple of the fretboard dots. Alas, the original alligator chipboard case fell victim to a damp basement.
 044 This 1894 S. S. Stewart banjo was in the same damp basement as the above two instruments. When I lifted it out of the case, it fell through it. I wrote about this instrument extensively here.
 040 This 1950’s Harmony baritone ukulele was inherited from my paternal grandfather. It has a very rich tone for such a small instrument, thanks to being all solid mahogany. It’s likely nothing special, other than the virtues given it by age. Since it is a baritone, it actually plays basically just like a small guitar. You can hear a sample and read a little more about it here.
 048 This Washburn bass was a gift from Todd McKimmey when we moved away from Austin. I make no claims to being a good bass player at all, but I do pick this up relatively often, and have written a couple of tunes on it.
 042 The Venezuelan cuatro was the instrument played by my maternal grandfather. Even though he was Puerto Rican, the family lived for years in Venezuela, and I suppose that is where he learned it. It uses a strike plate for percussive play, and four strings in reentrant tuning, like a soprano ukulele. However, it has an instant Latin sound to it. This one was a gift from my mother, and was built by Taylor Orozco García in Bolivia.
 041 This Michael Kelly Legacy O mandolin was a birthday gift from my wife after I started getting into musicians like Chris Thile. I can manage a fair amount of chords on it, but I do still have trouble playing around with scales.
 049 This is a charango purchased in Argentina, built by Artesanías Jujeñas Coro. The charango was an integral part of the Andean music I heard while growing up in Peru. It has a very distinctive sound, quite unlike most of the other instruments here.
 043 This Applecreek mountain dulcimer was another gift — Christmas one, I think — from my wife. I have to admit that it is likely the least-played instrument in my collection, due to its position sitting on top of a shelf! I tend to keep it in an unusual tuning, because of a song I once wrote on it… which makes it hard to play anything else.
 055 John Smedley gave me this Star Wars Stormtrooper guitar as a present upon the launch of Star Wars Galaxies. It’s a limited edition, and it’s a Nomad, so it has a battery-powered speaker built in. It sounds a bit like a dying duck that way, unless you overdrive it. But it sounds pretty good plugged in!
 054 This is one of the fabled Rock Band “real” guitars. I use it for MIDI guitar — it has clever technology that offers better tracking than most fancy MIDI guitars on the market, actually!
 056 We have lots more laying around. The kalimba was purchased in a Buenos Aires park from its maker. The bamboo flute came from a folk festival. And so on….

Guitar Tunings

I rarely play or write anymore in standard tuning. And ever since Don Conoscenti introduced me to the wonderful world of the partial capo, I’ve been doing a lot of that too. Here’s some of the tunings I enjoy playing in:

  • EADGBE: Standard.
  • DGDGBD: Open G, for Chuck Brodsky’s “Blow ‘Em Away,” Greg Brown’s “Poet Game,” and lotsa blues. I also find it to work nicely for Spanish-inflected pieces.
  • DADGBE: Dropped-D (tune low E string down to D).
  • DADGBD: Double dropped-D (tune both E strings down to D).
  • DADGAD: a classic modal tuning. I play Richard Thompson’s “’62 Vincent Black Lightning” in this tuning, as well as much of my own material.
  • DADGAE: This has some very nice qualities to it. I play modal stuff and also jazzy stuff in this tuning.
  • DADF#BD: This is a lot of fun for blues in a major key.
  • Standard, partial capo 4th fret, all but high E: This gives you a distinctive sound in C#minor.
  • Standard, partial capo 2nd fret, strings 3, 4, 5: Both Don Conoscenti and Diana Jones are using this a lot. You can play standard tuning chords and modal scales at the same time. Try it. You may never go back. You can take a standard Kyser capo and put it on upside-down (use the rubber foot on the strings instead of the regular part) if your neck is wide enough. Otherwise you may have to cut a capo yourself.
  • DADGAD, partial capo 2nd fret, strings 3,4,5: the DADGAD variant of the above. Lots of harmonics, lots of potential.
  • DADGAD, partial capo 3rd fret, all but two lowest strings: You have to put the capo on backwards for this one. Very dark.
  • DADGAD, partial capo 5th fret, all but two lowest strings: As above, but up. Great for fluid picking.
  • DADGAD, partial capo 7th fret, all but two lowest strings: Like playing a high-strung guitar in D, with access to the bass notes. I play with my thumb over the neck a lot on all of these tunings. I even have one piece written up at the 9th fret capo with this setup…
  • CGCGBbC: I got into this thanks to the playing of folks like Don Ross and Andy McKee.