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Online Akustik Travels

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Tunings

by Claude Samard Polikar

Band legend Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young famous for their sophisticated vocals and acoustic guitars were back on their 1999 album "Looking Forward", so I will take this opportunity to have a word about their unique and somewhat revolutionary open-tuned sound.

For those of you who weren't born in the 60s or for those showing the first signs of Alzheimer's, let's go back to the good ol' days and have a "has been" revival with the band. It's true that nowadays, in a world full of 130 BPM techno beats and hardcore rap, the 70s are best remembered with moody harmonics and subtle arpeggios. Placement of 60s-70s folk hits in films and commercials, sales of acoustic folk guitars during Covid or the international success of Ed Sheeran are proof enough that there’s still a place in our hearts for acoustic guitars, occasionally using alternate tunings, and their legendary representatives such as CSN&Y, forefathers of the "New Age" generation, with performers such as Ben Harper or Sonic Youth who use alternate open tunings on their tracks.

Stephen Stills and David Crosby were the very first to have reached world fame thanks to these unconventional open-tunings. I can still remember those long and tedious hours spent checking their tunings, all the while realising they couldn't just be the result of some crazy "stretch" effect. It had to be more than that and the problem was so unlike blues open-tunings which are so easy to pick up (either G/A or D/E); CSN&Y explored new tuning alternatives, sometimes quite extreme, very much in the 70 spirit.

Stephen Stills was quite the high-strung type (no pun intended), who would strike his guitar like an army Marine. The french musicians who watched him at the time, were very impressed with the high-volume/Martin-guitar combination. His open-tunings had a bluesy approach, akin to Neil Young's. In addition to their "standard" chord, both used a "Drop D tuning" which was a lowering of the low E to D and sometimes also the high E to D, thus called the "Double D Drop". You can hear samples of these on Still's "Bluebird" track and on Young's "Cinnamon Girl" or on "When you dance I can really love".

David Crosby, who wasn't as clever a guitarist as Stills was nonetheless, along with Joni Mitchell, one of the great tuning innovators of the 60s and 70s, which did a lot for guitarists in general. At the time, guitarists were pretty inhibited about using a capo or an open-tuning. It was like "cheating". Thanks to Crosby it was thereafter considered a way of extending the guitar's potential, a way to create an atmosphere. Here are a few of the tunings he used, before those created by Michael Hedges, Alex de Grassi or Will Ackerman: EBDGAD in "Guinnevere", "Deja Vu", "Compass", DGDDAD in "Laughin", DADDAD in "Music is Love".
By CMA-Creative Management Associates/Atlantic Records - Public Domain
A general feeling of awareness was quite the thing at the time, an awareness that extended to different cultures and civilisations. CSN&Y, the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys, ditto (peace-lovers). In the midst of Viet Nam and Asian wars, with their Gurus, Zen and drugs had a great influence on these rock, folk and blues musicians. Opposed to all the violence going on in the world, their "hits" were quite "spaced-out", as they discovered new sounds with the sitar, and otherwise using their guitars to approach the sitar sound. The truth is that it didn't take much for these western cultured musicians to spice up their lives! Even if today's World music has done a lot to educate our sonic values, we're not too difficult as an audience: 4 strings that twang along in unisson, a little oriental scale and it’s like landing in Tangiers or Tokyo! On the other hand, it gets a little trickier if you're trying to find the right chords to play this kind of music, a good gimmicky thang, a good track, well played, well sung that'll give you instant fame, not just some stylish effect. That's what Stills has succeeded in doing with "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes", written for Judy Collins. Stills is the master of the EEEEBE tuning, that he also uses 1/2 tone lower on "4+20" and on "Bluesman". This tuning is modal (no thirds) as well as being slightly bluesy. The familiar basics that Stills uses to riff with, have 2 high strings with a standard E and B. Using 5 E's of which 2 are doubled unissons, covering 3 octaves transforms any guitar into some kind of unidentified sounding object. Solarazaf, a spectacular guitarist from Madagascar with whom I was having a conversation with, says the sound is closely related to a Kabossy, a traditional instrument. The tuning sounds very "ethnic" almost like an Indian sitar with its "sympathetic" strings. The 1969 version was played in E. But as with many artists that have had a more long-lasting career, the tones have dropped since to adjust to a lower range that's easier for a singer (even for the die-hards, you can have a word with JJ Goldman about that !). The 1991 live gig recorded in San Francisco was therefore played in D with a slight alteration of the DADDAD tuning instead of DDDDAD.

And if you really want to go all the way, then you'll need to buy a 1939 D45 SS, just like Stephen Stills'. Martin only made 91 copies between 1933 and 1942, but it's alright now since they produced a "Stephen Stills Signature" model. The price? Around 40-50 K if you find one on Reverb...!