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Online Akustik Travels

A Tuning Digest

by Claude Samard Polikar

Photo by Craig Thomas for Unsplash

I know for a fact that most times some musical experimentations would never happen if it wasn't for these few simple tips. A true musical re-birth of inspiration awaits you in this quick refernce guide.

Every year, regardless of all the crazy things going on in the world, I'm sure you make time to travel around seeking new and different musical horizons interspersed by a few more leisurly moments of course. Tunisia, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Cuba... go with the flow - and as they say "when in Rome..." Now you suddenly realize that, that casual musician "look" of yours, you know, the one you have spent so many years polishing & refining, positively needs an upgrade. Tongs are "in" and those old Doc Martens or cowboy boots are definitely out. In a burst of utter outrage, your conscience froze you in your tracks when the time came to buy that local knick-knack to bring back from one of these worldly adventures.

Thank goodness, your brave but no compromise nature took over, steering you away from that ridiculous sheep-skin your fellow tourist so eagerly fell for, and made you go straight for the more worldly choice to purchase a unique hand-made ethnic instrument. Well done! In an attempt to keep this object, that was originally designed to be played, from collecting the dust in a corner for the next century or so, you deserve to be rewarded with a basic Tuning kit for this type of instrument, since you have gone to all that trouble lugging your trophy around the airport on your way home. A document that might come in handy some day. Considering the amount of fellow musicians that have called me over the years to provide them with this kind of information, I know for a fact that most times some musical experimentations would never even take place if it wasn't for these few simple tips. A true musical re-birth of inspiration awaits you. Think of the ultimate challenge to master the different acoustic tones and styles, the rewarding thrill of absorbing these and setting them like a gem in your own musical environment, samplings of your own design from playing around with these new sounds, the complete satisfaction of having made these and so much more. On a more down to earth side, in order to accomplish anything, you'll be needing two things before you begin: the instruments real name and it's basic tuning. Then of course, you'll have to play it right away since otherwise it's fate is written on the wall and sooner than you think, the instrument will forever be looming in that very dark corner, it's strings snapping at regular intervals, reminding you only of what could have been, instead of becoming that ghostly rattling thing or perhaps the next best thing to your everyday tennis racket, finally ending up in the garbage or tossed in the local incinerator. This must not, should not, will not happen!
African Banjoi
African Banjo

Before we start, there are a few things you should know. Tunings must always be read from low to high. Most African, Central Asian or Asian instrument tunings are relative. More importantly what counts are the measures between intervals, more so than the notes indicated. Sometimes musicians change the tuning according to the mode they intend to play in or ranges the singer has chosen, or better yet, they might even have a number of instruments at hand, tuned differently (for instance the Saz in Turkey). It is very unusual to find a standardly tuned instrument like you would a guitar in our western cultures. The A=440 standard pitch will mean more to you in your home studio environment then it ever will for them playing most times in "live" situations.

In Asia or in Africa, many instruments only have 3 strings, alone or doubled. If you're having trouble identifying those, you can very simply try a tonic for the bass, a fourth or fifth for the middle string and an octave up for the third and highest. Sometimes there are more confusing situations where the instrument is not tuned in a logical upscale mode with a string in the middle. As for the right hand's position, all types of techniques are used (even tapping, which was not a Van Halen invention at all, far from it) usually with a regular soft pick.

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  • BALALAIKA = EEA (Russia). The E's are in unisson.
  • BOUZOUKI (Greek) = GGDDAAEE (Greece)
  • PEDAL STEEL GUITAR = E9th tuning = BDEF#G#BEG#D#F# (USA) the 1st & 2nd strings go down from strings 3 & 4. Basic Nashville tuning C6 tuning: CFACEGACEG (or D) Jazz Tuning for the 2° neck.
  • CAVAQUINHO = DGBD - DGBE . 4 strings, (Brazil)
  • CHARANGO = CCGGEeAAEE. 10 (5x2) strings (Bolivia, Peru)
  • TRES = FfddAa, GgccEe , GgbbEe (Cuba) 6 strings
  • UKULELE = GCEA, ADF#B (1 tone higher). Just like the guitar but transposed a fourth or a fifth higher. Warning, the G (or A) are an octave higher.
  • NGONI, GIMBRI, LOTHAR : 4 strings = CdGD (Marocco, Algeria, Western Africa) 7 strings = cCGDGEF or cCDGDEF
  • OUD = (DD)GGAADDGGCC, 10 or 12 strings (Egypt, Mid-East, Maghreb)
  • SAZ = AaGGDD is the usual tuning. Warning, both Gs are one tone over A (Turkey).
    Some strings can be tripled.
  • SHAMISEN = BEB, BF#B (Japan)
  • PIPA = A2, D3, E3, A3
  • RONROCO (argentinian tuning) = DGBEB
  • DOMBRA (2-string Central Asia 4th tuning) = DG
  • DOMRA (3 Strings Kazakh) = EAD (Prima). From Contrabass to Piccolo and as in the balalaika family they come in different sizes and tunings to form a full orchestra)