A few years ago Roofwalkers was asked to play a show and our bassist, Raj, was unable to make it. The rest of us were into doing the show, and so decided to go ahead as a trio.
There are plenty of bands out there who are great at doing things on the fly—different players drift in and out, arrangements change every night, pyrotechnics displays come and go.
But for me, and our band, that doesn’t work. Maybe we’re just not that pro. But I’ve always found pleasure in getting things figured out for playing live, and then fine tuning as we go along.
In light of the fact that there would be no bass, I had an idea of how to cover some of the low end and missing volume. I suggested to Ben that he and I detune our guitars a whole step. My rationale was that we’d play louder and more reverbed-out, giving things a more druggy and heavy feel, without being weighty in a metal sense.
When we rehearsed the songs this way they seemed to take on a new character. And the music seemed to fit better with Ben’s voice.
Men’s voices can often get lost when backed up by guitar—they can occupy the same frequency range and things get covered up. (A cool visual reference of how instruments and their frequency ranges breakdown is the Carnegie Hall frequency chart). Ben tends to be on the quiet side when he sings, so the lower pitch on our guitars seemed to open up more space for his voice, while lending a different tonality to the songs.
Since that one off show as a trio we kept playing with our instruments detuned a whole step. Our bassist stays in standard tuning.
Lots of people play their guitars below standard pitch, including many who more commonly detune a half step. Famous detuners have included Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Weezer, Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath, Creedence Clearwater, and Aerosmith (for the uninformed/uninitiated, Aerosmith was actually cool at one point in the late 70s—check out the album “Rocks” if you haven’t). And of course detuning is the standard in modern metal—some of those dudes tune down two whole steps! Now that’s downright demonic.
I think what I’ve come to like most about the whole step down thing is that it’s allowed us to create our own distinct interplay of harmony between stringed instruments. Since the bass is still tuned standard, at points the guitars are holding down more low end. And sometimes one of the guitars uses a capo, while the other does not, and thereby new chordal textures come about, sometimes stressing non-root notes more than the tonic notes.
We’ve been writing more songs of lately where Ben tunes his guitar to DADGAD—a tuning found in a lot of British folk music from the 60s, and plenty of Led Zeppelin songs. With Ben playing in DADGAD and me down a whole step, we still share a common low reference point—that being D. The DADGAD, being a modal tuning and not encouraging use of a major or minor third, is a cool bed to lay other ideas over. I’m a big fan of keeping things in more modal terrain (i.e., no major or minor third) —this way you use major or minor thirds sparingly, and instead focus on other harmonies within a particular chord. When you do use the major or minor third the contrast then becomes much more striking. Our song “They Think They Own the Place” uses a lot of these ideas.