Quote of the Day: Keith Richards on Open Tuning


Rolling Stones performing “Honky Tonk Women” on Top of the Pops in 1969 with Mick Taylor on second guitar — their best lineup ever.  The open G tuning drives the song’s roots very deep into the Delta blues upon which rock ‘n’ roll is based.

I’m reading Keith Richards’s surprisingly good autobiography, Life. Here he is describing his discovery of open tuning, which freed him as a composer and set him apart as a performer:

The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitar is that you’ve only got three notes — the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart.  It’s tuned GDGBD.  Certain strings run through the whole song, so you get a drone going all the time, and because it’s electric they reverberate.  Only three notes, but because of the different octaves, it fills the whole gap between bass and top notes with sound.  It gives you this beautiful resonance and ring.  I found working with open tunings that there’s a million places you don’t need to put your fingers.  The notes are there already.  You can leave strings wide open.  It’s finding the spaces in between that makes open tuning work.  And if you’re working on the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it, which you’re actually not playing.  It’s there.  It defies logic.  And it’s just lying there saying, “Fuck me.”  And it’s a matter of the same old cliche in that respect.  It’s what you leave out that counts.  Let it go so that one note harmonizes off the other.  And so even though you’ve now changed your fingers to another position, that note is still ringing.  And you can even let it hang there.  It’s called the drone note.  Or at least that’s what I call it.  The sitar works along similar lines — sympathetic ringing, or what they call the sympathetic strings.  Logically it shouldn’t work, but when you play it, and that note keeps ringing even though you’ve now changed to another chord, you realize that that is the root note of the whole thing you’re trying to do.  It’s the drone. (243)

No doubt some will think this is a laughable reach, but Richards is obviously expressing the excitement of finding something in music that is in the potential of music itself and independent of his intention, and about that Frye, of course, has something to say:

Often creative people begin with the sense of a small school to which they belong and they write manifestos defending that school.  However, as they get more authority, they tend to break away from the school and speak more and more with their own voice.  As the maturing process goes on, the voice becomes steadily more impersonal.  If it’s a great creative mind, it moves in the direction of speaking with the authority of the art behind it.  I’ve often drawn the distinction between listening to music, say, on the level of Tchaikowsky, where you feel that this is a very skillful, ingenious, and interesting composer, and music on the level of Mozart or Bach, where you feel that this is the voice of music.  And that’s not to say that the music is impersonal because it obviously couldn’t be anyone but Mozart of Bach.  Nevertheless, the feeling is one of having transcended the ego which is no longer opaque but completely transparent for revealing the authority of the art itself.  (CW 24, 488-9)

After the jump, Son House performing the open G tuned “Death Letter Blues,” demonstrating Frye’s principle that “originality” is really a return to origins.


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