I tried a friend’s 7-string guitar once; it was so deeply unnerving it literally gave me nightmares for a month. Alternate tunings effect me the same way.
I’ve played guitar, avidly, since I was five. All of my adult life, I’ve been aware of the physical boundary between The Axe and myself, but psychologically that boundary has always been pretty fuzzy. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s true: We are one. Things are simply what they are and have always been—every note of every string has a lifetime of rich history and associations I can almost call political—and having had perfect pitch since early childhood, if I hit the third fret of the A string and anything other than C results, it’s as freaky and disorienting as if one of my legs were suddenly 6 inches longer. I’m lost in my own body. Adding a 7th string has a similar effect; it’s like trying to walk with three legs.
It’s not that I disapprove of 7 and 8-string guitars, or of alternate tunings…I think it would be great to be able to access these tools for what I do. It just ain’t for me.
My dad used to bemoan my lack of fear where my personal safety was concerned—the stories are legion—but really, just change my tuning or add a string and I go from a fearless Superman to a blubbering freaked-out sack of gelatinous mush.
You can hear alternate tunings and lower parts in my recordings and productions—I do have baritones for the studio, and a Mandolin, etc—but that’s for recording. I train my fingers to do the moves, close my eyes and get through the track while G is where C should be, all the while building big muscle knots in my jaws, neck and shoulders, and beating back a growing wildfire of outrage and confusion in my brain. It used to be that afterward I could diffuse myself with scotch. Now that I don’t drink, I’m reduced to burying my face in a pillow and screaming like a little girl; this has the added benefit giving me a bonus bass octave for vocal sessions the next morning. Win-win.
If you can freely go back and forth between tunings and the number of strings on your axe, as many can, then this brave new world is at your feet and my hat’s off to you. To me, it’s as if you can flap your arms and fly.