View Full Version : Old Time Tunings

Michael H Geimer
Feb-24-2004, 12:14pm
I went to my first Old-Time a jam last Sunday. I showed up with a big akward Dreadnaught, 'cause I mistakenly thought there would be more Bluegrass stufff happening. Instead I found a stoic, seated circle of Fiddler's and Clawhammer types. I apologized for bringing such a 'large box', and reconciled myself to an afternoon of simple strumming and the occasional bass walk. To my tastes, that's a fine thing on a Sunday afternoon - no breaks, pedestrian tempos, simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. The Fiddlers spent most of the time that afternoon in cross A tuning - AEae

How do you all tune for these Old-Time fiddle tunes? Do you follow the Fiddler's and retune along with them? Do any of you try to learn the tunes in standard? Do you keep a second mandolin tuned open at home?

Also, what sort of back up would the mandolin do, if say, I didn't know the tune, but wanted to play along on the mandolin? Better that I should just switch back to guitar at those moments?

I do think I made a good impression on the group by keeping my volume down, and staying conservative in my playing. It was a very nice group of people. I am excited about going back for the next jam, and would like to bring a mandolin. So, any preparatory tips are welcome.

- Benignus

Jim M.
Feb-24-2004, 12:32pm
Hey B., which old time jam was it? You're in the Bay Area aren't you? The o.t. jams I've been to, they usually play a bunch of tunes in one key, and then everyone re-tunes or and re-capos for the next key if they need to.

I'd say learn the tunes in standard tuning. The purpose of cross-tuning the fiddles is for the drone notes, and you won't be doing much of that with mando. I cross-tune my fiddle and it's a pain keeping it in tune; it's doubly hard with a mando. The strings want to revert to whatever the original tuning was. If #you want a separate mando, you'll need three or four for all the cross-tunings - DDAD, AEAE, AEAC#, etc.

As for accompaninent on mando, open chords are probably best, though I think some chopping would work fine and probably be acceptable some of time depending on the group.

Michael H Geimer
Feb-24-2004, 1:04pm
Yep. I'm a Bay Area Kid - a true native, which seems quite a rareity at times. ( My family had to move out of SF proper back in '06. Guess why? )

I was at Progressive Grounds in up in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of SF. The scene was just as you describe, everyone basically stayed in cross A the whole time I was there. Apparently they were in some other tuning just before I arrived.

Thanks for the insight. I was hoping to get some validation of my desire to stay in standard tuning. The fifths were a big attraction to me in the first place, so I'd like to use them rather than go 'open'.

John Flynn
Feb-24-2004, 1:36pm
I never change tunings on my mando for old time. Compared to the other instruments, the mando has a lot of strings under a lot of tension. IMHO, it is hard enough keeping it in tune without trying to change it. If you change tuning, the mando will likely go back out of tune pretty quickly.

The fiddlers I play with who do cross-tuning either show up with two fiddles, one in standard, one in cross, or they re-tune when there is a tuning break and the banjos have to re-tune also. Most of the groups I play with won't wait for them to re-tune otherwise and so they would just have to sit one out if they wanted to change tunings.

Michael H Geimer
Feb-24-2004, 1:50pm
I'm soooooo relieved! I thought for sure you'd all tell me to 'follow the fiddlers'. Staying in gdae is so much more appealing to me. But I didn't want to start exploring more Old-Time fiddle tunes until I had general tuning strategy.

Thanks so much for the comments ... any other advice is certainly welcome.

- Benig

Feb-24-2004, 1:54pm
I've been involved with an old time / barn dance band for one year - just as long as I've been playing mando. Being a little selfish, I play guitar on the songs I haven't learned the melodies to, and mandolin on the ones I do. The lead fiddler will solo the melodies for me while I tape them, then I can practice at home between practices. I use a metronome to set the tempo, slowly at first, and increase its speed as I become more familiar with the tune. As many of this group's songs are in D there are no tuning issues for mandolin, and dropped D tuning on the guitar works great for many of the tunes. I'm a novice at this, but this method keeps me from messin' up too badly at the practices.

Bob Smith

" Repetition is the mother of all learning."

Feb-24-2004, 9:17pm
Tuning regular mandolin strings AEAE has got to be hard on the neck with the extra tension. I've had a lot of fun tuning to GDGD and messing around with all the drones that can be used; if you had a capo you could just capo it up 2 frets and match what old-time fiddlers do in AEAE.

Feb-24-2004, 9:30pm
Where I live, there are two predominant open tunings: #ADAD, and AEAE. #Like someone said,I would save the AEAE tuning for your cheapo mando, but ADAD tuning is no problem.

What I do is learn a song in standard tuning, than tune up to transpose it in the open tuning. #This is usually not a huge lift.

If I go to an open jam, I always stay standard, because retuning is such a pain. #But if I go to smaller jams where I know the guys are patient, I'll muck with this stuff.

GDAD is a cool tuning because you can still play tunes in the key of G without retuning, but have the open D sound available as well, and can even play some A stuff.

Once you get rid of the guitar (which is common, and can be a blessing in disguise in Old Time music), #droning on the mando is not a lost cause. Without a guitar, your mandolin can really fill the void of a guitar, some would argue better than the guitar itself...especially if you have an old Gibson A or something that produces a similar round tone.

It should be said that some open-tuned fiddle tunes are nearly impossible to play in standard tuning...not that its not worth the challenge, but in the end it is easier and just sounds better in the open tuning.

Jim M.
Feb-25-2004, 12:20am
Dan B. plays a wicked Bonaparte's Retreat in it's original DDAD tuning. I saw him do it on his SOS mando that was just in the classifieds. I believe he kept that one tuned that way so he wouldn't have to re-tune too much. I'm hoping he'll put it on his next CD because it's one of my favorite old-time tunes and one I do on fiddle. It's my favorite cross-tuning, too, and if I was going to choose one for the mando that's the one I'd choose.

Feb-25-2004, 9:22am
I don't usually cross tune my mando, mainly because I think it's a hassle -- double strings = double retuning. I'm a very lazy man. I love the sound, though, so I will retune on occasion. I like the drone-y sound of GDAD (or even better CGDG on my mandola). I use an easier method...I cross tune my tenor guitar (fewer strings to retune; did I mention being lazy?). On my tenor I use AEAE mostly, but also ADAD, GDAD, AEAC#...

One thing I've never tried is tuning the strings in a particular course to different notes. I remember long ago reading an article in Frets magazine where Mike Seeger transcribed a bunch of old-time and blues tunes using some tunings like that.


Feb-25-2004, 9:38am
One thing I've never tried is tuning the strings in a particular course to different notes.

Bill Monroe also did this. Get Up John comes to mind...probably others. Never tried it myself either.

Tim Saxton
Feb-25-2004, 10:03am
I hear these types of old time sounds in my head. No matter how hard I try to play bluegrass it seems to come out with a strong old time flavor. I have often wanted to cross tune my mando but have never really had any point of reference.

Moreover, I live north of Seattle,Wa and have never been to anything like that kind of a jam and would love to attend one even if it was to listen and study.

Tim Saxton http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/coffee.gif

Michael H Geimer
Feb-25-2004, 10:59am
" No matter how hard I try to play bluegrass it seems to come out with a strong old time flavor. "

Yep. Me too. It was really cool to run into a whole group of people playing that way. I can't wait to back.

Thanks to everyone for all the great insight. I found just the sort of advice and overview I was looking for.

- Benignus

Feb-25-2004, 1:35pm
I'm just rambling with this one, but I feel there is a sort of appeal for archaic sounds that just draws me to Old Time. #I like alot of bluegrass, but mostly the instrumental stuff that is modal, because it sounds archaic and aggressive. #But that sound to me is what Old Time is all about, and Old Time is fairly devoid of other influences of blues and pop music, and also usually devoid of individual showmanship. #When I hear or play Old Time, its like I can imagine a bunch of poor guys 100, 200, 300, etc. years ago playing the exact same thing. #For the same reason, I like traditional Irish, Scottish, or otherwise Celtic tunes.

Michael H Geimer
Feb-25-2004, 1:57pm
I'll start by saying ... ditto to everything you just wrote!

In addition to the songs themselves ... I am really attracted to the idea of learning these tunes by ear, and from other people. There is something very wholesome about learning a tune in the same fashion as was done in the past. I know full well that it will take much time and immersion within a group before I acquire a decent repetoir [sp?] of fiddle tunes ... but it's the process that excites me, so I'm in no hurry to 'finish'.

No offense intended, but Bluegrass doesn't just move me the same way at all.

I keep adding on ... I recall a comment from the documentary High Lonesome - The Story of Bluegrass, to the effect that Earl's banjo picking style was a reflection of the modernization happening all around, that it had the same power and drive as the steam locomotives, and steel mills and factories popping up all around. Well, that's quite a different mood than the 'Ancient Tones' we often hear about.

- Benig

Feb-25-2004, 2:45pm
You know, really, the main criticism I have about bluegrass is the Skruggs-style playing. It gives me a headache. It sounds like a jackhammer. I know it takes skill, but to me it just doesn't sound very musical or melodic.

I love clawhammer and drop-thumb playing, so it can't just be the b@njo.

Michael H Geimer
Feb-25-2004, 3:07pm
Gosh ... I'd suggest keeping it down, so the banjo pickers won't overhear you ... but then again ... how the heck they gonna hear you over all that racket! <g>

Once again. Ditto to all your thoughts above.

Feb-25-2004, 3:08pm
I too am drawn to old-time because it reminds me of the time when playing music was a part of everyone's life and not just the "professionals." Bluegrass, like so many other musical forms now, is about showmanship and mastery of an instrument. Old-time, to me, is about heart and soul.

I listen to Bluegrass and other musical forms, but my heart is in old-time.

Michael H Geimer
Feb-25-2004, 3:23pm
"I too am drawn to old-time because it reminds me of the time when playing music was a part of everyone's life and not just the "professionals."

You just summed up my personal 'Mission Statement' as far as music is concerned. So ... you get a Ditto, too! http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif

You guys are all great. You're making this thread wonderful validation of my thoughts surrounding Old Time music. Basically, I thought I was an oddity in my opinions - of course, I still am an oddity - but it is great to hear other voice thoughts in the same spirit.

- Benig

Feb-25-2004, 4:57pm
I think that one problem with on-line forums is that they attract people who are very serious about their instrument. This includes focus on instrument brands, proper technique, musical proficiency, etc. While all of these things are fine, they are not for me. I play instruments that have a sound that pleases me and a price I can afford. I play as well as I can, knowing that I will get better but not trying to be the next Grisman or Thile. I like listening to the old recordings with all the warts and shortcomings.

Like you, I am glad to know there are kindred souls out here. Now I won't feel so alone as I read through the various posts. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/mandosmiley.gif

Feb-25-2004, 5:02pm
come on now Mike...ya ain't that odd and your take is 100% on line with my view. I doubt I'll ever impress the players with my skills, but if I can get somebody to join in either singing or playing Im in my own little heaven!

Oldtime... music made by the people, for the people!http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/cool.gif

Michael H Geimer
Feb-25-2004, 5:26pm
" ... come on now Mike...ya ain't that odd "

Hmmmm ... should I mention the adage about 'birds of a feather' ... or the one about 'the pot calling the kettle black' ... you choose. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/tounge.gif

John Flynn
Feb-25-2004, 5:38pm

Well said in both of your posts. That is exactly where I want to be also. Sometimes the other discussions are pleasant diversions and sometimes they are just pointless and I have to kick myself for even getting involved. But what you said about old time is the reason I am involved with the Cafe' at all. I played mando for years and didn't even know about old time. Once I got involved, everything changed and I was hooked. Now I am fascintated by every aspect of it.

Some things I love about OT are:
> No one is trying to make a fortune out of it, so there is no pressure to artificially change it to make it more sellable.
> Your "mando-heroes" in old-time are people you can actually go out and see play just about any week, jam with, take lessons from and even call on the phone or email with.
> When you play OT, all the musicians are in it together. The group either sounds good together or it doesn't. There is no thought of "Well, my solos sounded great, but the group sucked."
> When you buy an OT CD, you get 20+ tunes, not just 10 or 12.

Anyhow, I am rambling, but thanks again for your thoughts on this.

Feb-25-2004, 8:23pm
some other random thoughts about old time pickin-n-grinnin:

-as Johnny mentioned, its all about the group wall of sound. You can play around within that wall of sound, and because there is an overall melodic drive, it only adds flavor to the larger sound. Likewise, if you screw up, its not going to sound horrible because your "teamates" keep driving and it just sounds like a little "burp".

-because of the above, old time is very accessible to beginners. A beginner can hang back and just play chords, play simple versions of the melody, even if that's only a couple or three notes, and it still sounds great. The beginner feels as though they are involved in making beautiful,melodic music, and they are!

-If Show-boat Shawn shows up trying to impress everyone, his obnoxious licks will most likely get drowned out by everyone...added bonus: alot of times such egotistical players get so frustrated about not having a chance to be center stage, that they don't come back.

-if you have tolerant people to play with (which may not be the case all the time), you can incorporate a number of instruments into an old time jam and it will sound great. dulcimers, autoharps, bouzoukis, xylophones, a piano, ukeles...you name it within reason (like I don't think a Sax would sound too keen in OT).

-if everyone knows the same tunes, someon can just scream the name of a new tune out, and you can switch to it. voila, an instant and spontaneous medley...I've done this for hours on end. And because noone is playing lead, you can stop to pee and come back and the music never stopped! http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/laugh.gif

Feb-26-2004, 3:25am
Okay, I'll admit it--I don't do OT (now). I mostly play Irish (and mostly, so far, by myself). But the attitudes y'all have expressed really resonate. Maybe I'll have to try to find some local OT....

While I'm here, quick notes to a couple of things mentioned above (though otherwise somewhat off-topic (the other OT)):

Differently-tuned strings--Radim Zenkel put out a disc called "Galactic Mandlolin", with each piece in a different tuning. One string of each pair was in standard, then the other was a different interval above it (gg#-dd#-aa#-ef, then ga-de-ab-ef#, &c.). Not remotely OT, and a few of the pieces are barely listenable, but interesting....

Saxophone--Last year at NW Folklife I sat & listened for a couple of hours to a jam on English Morris dance tunes (mostly), played by a button accordian player (natch) & an Eb sopranino sax, plus a rotating lineup of fiddles & concertinas. I didn't have an instrument with me, but the sound was really cool.

Feb-26-2004, 8:09am
To Benignus:
I sincerely hope you continue to be involved with Old Time music. This past December our local OT patriarchs held their annual, (and my first), Christmas open house. At the gathering in their beautiful old home were at least 20 friendly and supportive musicians of all ages, along with their families. Besides all the good music, food and fellowship non musicians were gathered around the hearth reading, telling stories, knitting, quilting and sharing in what our friends call the "pioneer" skills. Except for the electric lamps, one would have thought they had taken a step back in time. To me this embodied the true spirit of old time music and how it was originally experienced.
Best wishes,
Bob Smith

Michael H Geimer
Feb-26-2004, 10:28am
And to think, all I really asked about was how best to tune up for Old-Time?

There's an event each year up in our Gold Rush country called Tiny Town. Some friends go each year, and spend a week living true Gold Rush style, sharing the history and culture, telling stories, etc. They've suggested to me that I should come along, that I would really enjoy it. I'm sure I would, but this year Starberry Festivus is what it's all about.

Last fall that was my first proper festival - Strawberry here in CA. I was very excited about the enjoying merger of two passions, camping and music. What fun! Plus, I met a bunch of Cafe folk, all of top notch character. I can't wait to go back come spring.

Now, I figured the fest would be all about jamming and meeting other players, and that was indeed my focus. But one act in particular really captured my attention. They were The Reeltime Travellers. They inpsired me with both their music, and their sincere love of Old-Time. I got to see them three times that weekend - every performance they played! They opened my ears to the big differences in approach, and even outlook between BG and OT. At that point I more or less knew where I stood, but wasn't sure where to go ... Bristol TN, maybe? http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif

So, I'm 'in' so to speak. I just need to keep myself immersed, and keep playing the music.

Also, knowing that you guys are hanging out in this room, I'm going to ask a lot more questions about the style, as there is still a lot I'm hazy about.

Hey ... Did you guys know that St. Benignus was a really old irish musician? He was St. Patrick's choir director. Seems now might be the time to mention it, FWIW.

- Mike

Feb-26-2004, 10:36am
I retune my mandolin to from GDAE to DDAE sometimes when my band is playing a three-song set of Washington's March, Bonaparte's Retreat, and we do Bill Monroe's Scotland in this key with this tuning. Scotland is very cool in D, the Ancient Tones are very present. It's that low D drone string.

It's a trick to retune though. It probably takes 3 to 4 tunings before the neck stops moving around and everything is right. I have the same problem tuning for "Get Up John."

Feb-26-2004, 2:22pm
Gee, I never did talk about tunings. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/tounge.gif

I have enough trouble keeping my mando in standard tuning. I'm nowhere ready to think of alternates.

Feb-26-2004, 6:36pm
Jim: Could very well happen, I like that tune (or those tunes!) a lot. I now have about 4 settings, and was messing with it on the resonator the other night! Drop D on a National sounds pretty cool too!

This is a cool thread, glad I found it. I like using DDAD, GDGD, AEAE, and AEAC#.. the last one is the "Black Mountain Rag" tuning also great for "The Hanged Man's Reel". A lot of these intervals occur on bouzoukis, which is kind of how I got in to them to start with. I've always loved the droney style you get in DDAD fiddle, such a wonderful big dark sound.

Scotland is a killer tune, my favorite Monroe tune. I have the Sam Bush fiddle cut (EmmyLou- Live at the Ryman), a couple others. Anyone know a really good mandolin version out there? I've been working on that tune for years trying to get it right, it's a great study- full of subtleties and swing and "gear changes" (to quote Darryl Wolfe!)

Feb-26-2004, 6:51pm
BTW, I suppose loosely related to the original post, if anyone has found a good way to tune a mandolin in 4ths without too much sloppiness or tension on the strings, clue me in.