Deriving Nic Jones’ Open-C Tuning

I play guitar in a few tunings. Probably my favourite is (low to high) CGCGCD. I often play it even a semitone down, as my voice prefers it, though guitar does not. It takes a custom set of strings to make for a passable sound, and I’m still not satisfied with the low C.

I learned this tuning from Nic Jones playing – you should go listen to him, if you’ve never heard of him. Other fingerstyle guitarists also use this tuning – Martin Simpson, for instance, and Dougie MacLean . But this tuning has only really taken off in the folk/trad tradition. Why is that?

Another point of interest is that I play a longscale cittern (a sort of big 5-course mandola) tuned DGDAD, made by the wonderful luthier John Le Voi. Why is it tuned that way? Well, it’s basically a mandolin made big. Mandolins (and fiddles) are tuned GDAE. I dropped the high E down to a D for easier access to the most commonly played note in traditional music (particularly useful in chords) and the low D is a natural bass note to add.

Fiddles and their tuning – GDAE – dominate the tune playing of traditional music. This tuning in fifths makes a lot of sense. Standard guitar tuning EADGBE – in fourths, with the exception of a very weird major third interval – never really made sense to me. But it’s understandable why guitars are tuned how they are: they are for playing a wide variety of keys on a long-scale instrument. Fifths are quite a stretch of the fingers – tunes that aren’t in D, G or A on my cittern (or some matching mode) are challenging to play in.  Guitars are for an entirely different sort of music, and the compromise of standard tuning is wonderful for the difficult and complicated classical music they were originally tuned for.

What would a guitar tuning look like if we insisted on GDAE tuning? If we could find a way to play comfortably with that tuning on guitar, it would make the traditional music so dominated by fiddles much easier to play, even if we could no longer play classical music so well.

Let’s start with those notes: GDAE. Certainly a guitar can accommodate them, with two strings to spare. Immediately we spot an improvement: we do not want to stretch to the fifth fret every time we want to play a D. Many players opt to tune down the E string. This is how tunings like DADGAD arise. Guitarists like Pierre Bensusan have shown how powerful that tuning is. But if we want to preserve the GDAE intervals of the fiddle, the next best thing is to just spend one of our ‘spare’ strings on that D note.  We arrive at the tuning GDADE. The ‘harp interval’ of the top two strings is something seen in other alternate tunings (like DADGAD, with its G-A inteval), and is extraordinarily useful in playing fluid series of notes in a less staccato fashion than standard tuning, as we can alternate strings across the phrase, leaving the previous note hanging in the air a little longer. This is particularly lovely for actual harp music – listen to Anton Emery play an O’Carolan (harp) tune on his guitar, making good use of his harp interval and open strings to mimic the harp sound. Martin Carthy takes this to a different extreme, with his tuning of CGCDGA – effectively CGDA (like a cello!) with two ‘harp’ interval strings – the C and the G – to make the tuning in fifths manageable on a guitar. With the tune in the treble, Martin Carthy does not have to stretch – those harp intervals save him a lot of trouble. But as he says – he has very few chords.

So in the interest of chords, let’s continue with our original plan. With most of our strings set at GDADE, we have a string spare, and it could be quite a low one. It could be a standard E, but the G on the third fret is accessible as an open string anyway. Since D is very common, let’s just add that  low D to the bass end of our instrument. We now have DGDADE. This is not easy for a guitar strung normally – tuning up the B to a D would snap the string, and tuning up the G to an A wouldn’t do it much good. We’d need a different set of strings. But before we think about practicalities, look: without the E string, it is the tuning of my cittern: DGDAD. Now things start to make sense.

Faced with physical limitations on strings (and maybe a preference on singing range), what most guitarists did was tune their guitar down: CFCGCD. And so we find ourselves practically at the Nic Jones tuning that started this whole discussion, with the low tuned down to an F.  In fact, this is a fine tuning in itself: Martin Simpson and John Doyle use this tuning. Pete Townsend (of The Who) has played at least one song in this tuning.  I am sure there are other famous guitarists I don’t know about. I haven’t really explored the CFCGCD tuning at all – it might be worth it, given my cittern is effectively in this tuning!

Many players prefer having the G in the bass instead of the F – that’s certainly where I started, having learned it from Nic Jones. Then the top five strings makes for a common old-time banjo tuning of (g)CGCD (double C).  Another very closely related tuning comes from tuning the middle C up to a D – this is another banjo tuning, called Sawmill: (g)DGCD. While associated heavily with the open-C tuning, Nic Jones actually seems to have used this tuning on maybe the majority of his recordings. I like it a lot – tunes fall out very, very easily in G. It is also only really a string different to open-C. The missing bass is either a C or D, depending on preference.

So there we have it. With a little thought at reconstructing the fiddle tuning of GDAE, we add a harp interval/helper string to make life easy for ourselves, pick a convenient bass note, drop the tuning due to practicalities and find ourselves with the CFCGCD tuning that is a common cittern tuning, and very closely related to a whole host of other commonly played tunings. It’s no wonder people like Nic Jones ended up with CGCGCD instead – tunes are rarely played in F (as opposed to G), and guitars aren’t particularly fond of having their strings reduced in tension so much.  But it’s interesting how a tuning that apparently is so completely different from anything we’d consider ‘standard’ actually makes a lot of sense when considered from the standpoint of a violin’s tuning, and how you might approach that tuning on a bigger instrument like a guitar.

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