Nice email today from Robert Hults who asks (among other things) about my guitar tuning. I did some searching and found and cleaned up the following blurb from a version of sb.com circa 1997:
SBST (Steve Ball Song Tuning)
6 - 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1 String
C - G - D - A - D - G Pitch
- 5 - 5 - 5 - 4 - 4 - Interval
I adopted SBST in January of 1992 during a period after the final League of Crafty Guitarists tour in 1991. It was a cold and dreary winter in Brookline, Massachusetts where I had just moved from West Virginia following the completion of Guitar Craft Services (my second start-up) and three intense years of work and living at Claymont Court near Charles Town, West Virginia. I had been using the Guitar Craft Standard Tuning (GCST, also often referred to as NST, or 'New Standard Tuning') exclusively since June of 1986, but I was at the beginning a new phase of solo song writing and work as a musician out from under the occasionally-warm wing of the League.
Also at that time, GC 'spin-off' groups such as Prometheus, with Sanford Ponder, Nigel Gavin, and Pat Mastelotto, was just being born, as was a live project called "Curtains" with Tobin Buttram, Nigel Gavin, Karen Thomas, and Steve Jolemore, not to mention the Californa Guitar Trio, Los Gauchos Alemanes, and Gitbox Rebellion.
This tuning appeared at a time when life was (musically and otherwise) rather bleak and hopeless. This tuning provided fresh vocabulary to explore and articulate some new music which now has an unmistakable thumbprint once you become familiar with the thumb. I have never found a reference to anyone else who uses this particular tuning, which given its symmetries and consonance, seems surprising.
Technically, the SBST is a bridge between the old standard tuning (mostly fourths) to the Guitar Craft Standard tuning (mostly fifths). To my ears, most songs (that is music which has both words and instrumental accompaniments) written in the GCST have a quality of walking on long stilts. There are rarely many intervals, harmonic or melodic, in these guitar accompaniments that are closer than a major third except in the top of the voicing. Close voicings (from a single guitar) in GCST are possible thanks to the minor third between the first and second string, and this is often the only practical place where close voicings occur with any regularity.
By dropping the E string (2nd string) in the GCST down to a D, a symmetry appears which is at once pleasing, natural, and harmonically colorful compared to the organic (but rather 'empty') sound of the open GCST.
Both the GCS and SBS tunings contain only notes that are natural harmonics of the open C string. This is intentional and it gives both tunings a striking consonance and harmonic balance compared to the old standard tuning which has a never-naturally-in-tune honking major third stuck right in the middle of the instrument.
This open E string in the OST sticks out like a sore and wounded thumb such that, to my moderately sensitive ear, and I actually find it difficult to endure most acoustic guitar songs written, played, or performed in the old standard tuning. I can really only endure the old tuning if it is used as part of an exceptional performance or accompanying an exceptional singer who is so engaging that I don't notice the crappy, unintentionally-out-of-tune strumming going on underneath. Those musicians who know me well, know that I would be quite content if I never had to hear another second fret D / D-sus-4 chord in the old standard tuning. For me, the D / D-sus4 in the old tuning is the musical equivalent of a smiley face which neither makes me smile nor helps me to have a nice day.
Partial list of SBST Songs
I Want to Live Here
I am (not?) in Love
She's Not Coming Back
Doesn't Make it Right
When the Money's Gone
Gunshot Superfly (Electric Gauchos)
Back in New York City (Peter Gabriel)
Love Song (Jonatha Brooke)
Building Bridges (Brock Pytel)
Today, I keep my Taylor acoustic (being played by Isabel Williams, above on the right) and my Steinberger tuned in SBST while my Ovation 1867 (being played by John Lupa above on the left) and PRS are tuned in the GCST.
Thanks for your mail and questions, Robert.
* * *