I am a novice in Metal-production, though I am looking back on many years of playing guitar and home-recording. Actually I have changed my style towards Metal and I am confronted with Downtuning. It seems, that all modern Metal-bands, doesn’t matter if they play Djent, Death, Black or Progressive Metal tune down their guitars or use seven or even eight-string guitars. During my latest recordings I have experimented with lower tunings and I want to share my thoughts on this topic with you.
Black Sabbath and their lead-guitarist Tony Iommi are often praised as the inventors of downtuning, but if you are reading the story behind you realise, that the invention happened accidentally. In fact Iommi tuned down because his fingers could not stand the tension of a normal tuning. He was handicapped by an industrial accident (He lost his fingertips) and wanted to ease the effort of playing. So he tuned down three semi-tones and used light strings. The resulting eerie sound became his trademark and influenced thousands of other bands. While many famous bands of the 80s like Metallica, Slayer, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains count Black Sabbath as a major influence, also the younger generation of Black Metal and Djent recognise Sabbath as a forerunner of their genres. Especially the album “Master of reality“, which showcases this darker sound for the first time, is cited often as the inspiration for downtuning. Though the idea of downtuning was caused by his suffering fingers Iommi and the rest of the band also recognised the benefit for the Sabbath-sound:
- On the tracks “Children of the Grave“, “Lord of This World”, and “Into the Void“, guitarist Tony Iommi downtuned his guitar 1 1⁄2 steps to produce what he called a “bigger, heavier sound”. This also reduced string tension, thus making the guitar less painful for him to play; Iommi had two of his fingers partially severed in a factory accident years earlier. Geezer Butler also downtuned his bass guitar to match Iommi. “It helped with the sound, too”, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_of_Reality)
Does a downtuned guitar sounds heavier?
You can find countless discussions across the internet, if band X with regular tuning sounds heavier (or more Metal) than band Y with downtuned guitars. I don’t want to join this discussion here, because in my opinion you can not reduce a whole band to their tuning. The impression of “heaviness” and “power” is always caused by many different components. In my own opinion the mix and mastering is much more important than the tuning and the listeners of modern metal expect meanwhile extreme polished and perfect productions. To sum up a better produced album in standard tuning will always win against a weaker produced album, even if the latter band has tuned down to A.
Back in the eighties and nineties most albums were recorded in standard tuning. Tuning down a half step to E flat was also popular, some bands also used Dropped D. I am still a big fan of the band King’s X and their guitarist Ty Tabor. Ty has build up many of his riffs with the use of a Dropped D tuning. The tuning has helped to create the signature-sound of the band. Regarding heaviness nobody would assert, that albums like Metallica’s “Ride the lightning” and Megadeth’s “Peace sells … but who is buying” sound not heavy enough. But meanwhile it’s hard to find a band, which plays in Standard-tuning or which doesn’t use Seven-, eight, or more stringed surfboards.
They all do this for a good reason, because a lower tuning does sound different. Not only because all notes are lower, but also because you are playing in a different key. If you go down two full steps you are not playing in E minor anymore, you are playing in C minor and this means a bigger difference than most people expect. In classical music composers carefully choose the key for their works, because every key has a different character. According to Christian Schubart and his book “Ideas for an Aesthetics of Tonkunst”, written in 1806, every key is devoted to an emotion or a mood:
- C Major
Completely Pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naivety, children’s talk.
- C Minor
Declaration of love and at the same time the lament of unhappy love. All languishing, longing, sighing of the love-sick soul lies in this key.
- Db Major
A leering key, degenerating into grief and rapture. It cannot laugh, but it can smile; it cannot howl, but it can at least grimace its crying.–Consequently only unusual characters and feelings can be brought out in this key.
- C# Minor
Penitential lamentation, intimate conversation with God, the friend and help-meet of life; sighs of disappointed friendship and love lie in its radius.
- D Major
The key of triumph, of Hallelujahs, of war-cries, of victory-rejoicing. Thus, the inviting symphonies, the marches, holiday songs and heaven-rejoicing choruses are set in this key.
- D Minor
Melancholy womanliness, the spleen and humours brood.
- Eb Major
The key of love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God.
- D# Minor
Feelings of the anxiety of the soul’s deepest distress, of brooding despair, of blackest depression, of the most gloomy condition of the soul. Every fear, every hesitation of the shuddering heart, breathes out of horrible D# minor. If ghosts could speak, their speech would approximate this key.
- E Major
Noisy shouts of joy, laughing pleasure and not yet complete, full delight lies in E Major.
- E minor
Naive, womanly innocent declaration of love, lament without grumbling; sighs accompanied by few tears; this key speaks of the imminent hope of resolving in the pure happiness of C major.
Complaisance & Calm.
- F Minor
Deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave.
- F# Major
Triumph over difficulty, free sigh of relief uttered when hurdles are surmounted; echo of a soul which has fiercely struggled and finally conquered lies in all uses of this key.
- F# Minor
A gloomy key: it tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language.
- G Major
Everything rustic, idyllic and lyrical, every calm and satisfied passion, every tender gratitude for true friendship and faithful love,–in a word every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart is correctly expressed by this key.
- G Minor
Discontent, uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme; bad-tempered gnashing of teeth; in a word: resentment and dislike.
- Ab Major
Key of the grave. Death, grave, putrefaction, judgment, eternity lie in its radius.
- Ab Minor
Grumbler, heart squeezed until it suffocates; wailing lament, difficult struggle; in a word, the colour of this key is everything struggling with difficulty.
- A Major
This key includes declarations of innocent love, satisfaction with one’s state of affairs; hope of seeing one’s beloved again when parting; youthful cheerfulness and trust in God.
- A minor
Pious womanliness and tenderness of character.
- Bb Major
Cheerful love, clear conscience, hope aspiration for a better world.
- Bb minor
A quaint creature, often dressed in the garment of night. It is somewhat surly and very seldom takes on a pleasant countenance. Mocking God and the world; discontented with itself and with everything; preparation for suicide sounds in this key.
- B Major
Strongly coloured, announcing wild passions, composed from the most glaring colours. Anger, rage, jealousy, fury, despair and every burden of the heart lies in its sphere.
- B Minor
This is as it were the key of patience, of calm awaiting one’s fate and of submission to divine dispensation.
Translated by Rita Steblin in A History of Key Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries. UMI Research Press (1983).
Funny, isn’t it? But while the romantic descriptions of the different keys might sound outdated for the modern Metal-aficionado, it makes a difference, if you choose Eb major or A major as the main key of your song. In classical music up to the romantic period the key of a work or a movement was selected consciously. Now back to Metal: I still love the early records of Metallica, the inventive sound, the songwriting, and of course their first albums were highly influential. But there was always one thing, which let me stifle a yawn sometimes: Most of their songs are in E-minor. The decision for E minor is clearly caused by the tuning and because it’s easier to create Riffs with an open low string. But when you listen to ten songs in a row in E-Minor it gets a bit boring. When I listen to modern Metal-bands I recognise the same boredom regarding keys, but now all songs are in C or lower. Now it’s the time for an appeal: Use more different keys for your songs!
I am not against downtuning to achieve a darker and different sound, but why not varying the tuning from song to song or building up main riffs without the low open string? You will see, that you can enter different emotional areas with the use of a specific key.
Is Downtuning the right tool to support my song?
Instead of a general discussion about lower tunings and about guitars and basses with an extended range this is the most important question. A band should not decide to play in C throughout, because every other band in the genre is doing it, or because they don’t dare to enter the studio or stage without a seven or eight string guitar. Black Sabbath for an example liked the different and darker character. So it was an artistic decision, but why this decision worked so well? In my own opinion there should be a relation between the lowness (What a word) of the tuning and the tempo of the song. Take a look on two different wave-forms of a sound:
Both graphics used under creative commons rights and are taken from https://m.everythingmaths.co.za/science/grade-10/10-sound/10-sound-03.cnxmlplus. Follow the link for a more detailed explanation.
Sound A represents a higher pitch, while Sound B is a lower pitch. You can easily see, that the Wave of the higher Pitch is faster. Have you ever listened to a low instrument playing fast? I mean low instruments like Bass and Tuba, but also Bassoon, Violoncello, when we go a bit higher. Within the family of percussion-instruments I would think of low Gongs. Now imagine them playing something really fast like … wait a second … the 5th Caprice of Niccolo Paganini:
If this caprice of Niccolo Paganini is played by a Bass the impression is … slow, though this guy plays it really well:
In my opinion even an electric guitar played by a skilled shredder is sounding slow compared to a highly skilled violin-player and the reason is, that the violin plays within a higher region than the guitar. A higher pitch corresponds better to faster tempos, because the wave of a higher pitch is also faster. In fact many fast Metal-records use standard or Eb tuning while Low tunings are used by bands, which are playing mostly mid-tempo or slow. Looking back on “Master of reality” by Black Sabbath no song on this record is fast. The lower tuning supports the doomy, weighty atmosphere like a slow, merciless mealstream. On the other hand a low tuning will not support a hectic, aggressive and restless atmosphere. If we transfer this observation to our topic, tuning down for Metal, we could follow this strategy:
- Standard tuning for fast songs
- Low tunings for slow songs
Do I need a seven or eight string guitar?
I asked myself this question, when I started with modern Metal. Like every player I am addicted to buying new guitars and gear, so this is a welcome excuse, isn’t it? But after I had started to work on some songs I recognised, that I don’t need a new guitar, I even not need to tune down. First you have to ask yourself, if you really need the extended range of a multi-stringed guitar. You can tune down to C on every six-string using heavy string-gauges. The results depend on your instrument, a Fender-scale will usually suits better, because the longer scale supports the clarity of the low strings. On the upper side of the neck the range of the high E (now C) -string will just be two notes less compared to standard tuning. You might ask yourself, if the few extra-notes are worth the wider fretboard and weight of a seven or eight-string. If ever I would buy a multi-stringed guitar I would choose an instrument with a longer scale as the Fender-standard to get an advantage on the lower strings, or a six-string with a longer scale. Otherwise I don’t see the advantage of a Multi-string.
Coming back to my own experiments I use a BC Rich “Chuck Schuldiner” Stealth. The guitar has a Gibson-scale and when I tune down to C the low E/C lacks definition even if I use a heavy string. After I had purchased my Kemper Profiling amp I was very curious how good the Transpose-feature would sound and it totally works even for studio-recordings. Here is a demonstration on Youtube:
I can not hear any difference in sound-quality, when the transpose-feature is engaged. From my own experience you can feel a difference, because the machine needs a bit of time to process, so it feels like a bit more latency, but still very playable and the results are very convincing. Just for Kemper-users: It’s crucial to place the Transpose into the first slot of the effects and not as a Send-effect and second I got the best results with very fresh strings.
If you don’t have a Kemper, there is no reason to cry, because there is a cheaper alternative, the Digitech The Drop Pedal. Though I have not tested it myself I trust this guy hear and the resume of his review:
It’s not possible to adjust the scale-length of a guitar. Therefore the use of the Kemper’s Transpose or the Digitech has many advantages:
- You keep the definition and clarity of the low string
- You don’t have to use heavier string-gauges, what means a better playability
- No need to buy another guitar
- No need to change the tuning
- Easy change of the overall tuning
To sum up I see for myself no objective reason to buy an multi-string guitar in 2017 for going down to C or B tuning. The only arguments could be a longer scale to get a natural definition of an additional B-string, the look, or the dislike of the slight latency of the digital solutions. Or you want to get rid of a bass-player like Animals as leaders, which use eight-string guitars. Going down to F# with an eight-string can not be substituted by digital devices like the Kemper or the Digitech, because the lower you go the more it sounds artificial.
But before you order something like this to play Metal
read this article again.
Listen to my latest attempt to play Metal on Bandcamp (Kemper Transpose to C):