What is Nashville Tuning?

D'Addario EJ38H Nashville Tuning Set

Have you ever wanted to achieve the unique sound of a 12-string guitar but don’t actually have a 12-string to hand? Or, perhaps you often find yourself wanting to add unique guitar parts to your recordings to help create something a little bit ‘different’. Well we may just have the solution for you. Allow us to introduce you to ‘Nashville Tuning’.

So what exactly is Nashville Tuning?

In a nutshell, Nashville tuning takes the octave strings within a 12-string set and puts them on a 6-string guitar.

This particular tuning is quite unique as the guitar is still tuned as normal (E, A, D, G, B, E) however, the bottom 4 strings (E, A, D and G strings) are all tuned up an octave with the top 2 strings (B and high E-string) remaining tuned as normal.

So what does Nashville Tuning sound like?

Because of the octave strings they use, Nashville tuning brings a very “12-string” like quality to a 6-string guitar. They can add a completely new dimension to a song and help bring even simple, common chord progressions a different voice.

Whilst writing this blog, we tried out a few sets ourselves on both an electric guitar and an acoustic guitar and the difference it brought was really eye opening. This simple change gave both guitars a very bright, shimmering tone with an almost zingy, mandolin type quality to the sound, particularly on our acoustic. Playing single notes also gave a unique articulation you don’t usually get from a standard tuned 6-string.

Nashville tuning is more commonly used when accompanying another guitar in standard tuning. You’d be forgiven for thinking that both guitars played together will sound just like a normal 12-string guitar… nothing too exciting there, right!? But two guitars played in this way can create a much bigger and more diverse sound than an ordinary 12-string guitar could produce on its own. Not to mention, having two guitars allows each player to construct different parts that really complement each other, helping to add further interest to a performance.

There’s also obvious benefits in the studio too. By having the luxury of separating these two guitars when recording, you can pan the guitars left and right, set them at different levels and also apply different effects to both guitars too… the world can be your oyster here really!!

Just ask these guys….

Nashville tuning (sometimes referred to as High Strung tuning*) has actually been around for decades. In fact, Nashville tuned guitars can be heard on a plethora of famous recordings by some huge artists including Keith Richards, David Gilmour, Johnny Marr, Mark Knopfler, Elliott Smith, James Taylor, Ry Cooder, Joe Satriani, Alex Lifeson of Rush and more. The tuning has even found its way onto Jazz recordings with Pat Metheny having used Nashville Tuning on a few of his tracks.

Here are some notable recordings that feature a Nashville Tuned guitar;

The Rolling Stones – Jumpin’ Jack Flash – Intro
The Rolling Stones – Wild Horses
Pink Floyd – Hey You
Elliott Smith – XO
The Smiths – The Headmaster Ritual
Pat Metheny – Country Poem & Phase Dance

**Nashville Tuning and High Strung Tuning
People often interchange these two terms and whilst they are very similar, technically there is a slight difference between the two. ‘High Strung’ tuning describes a guitar where the thicker 3 strings are tuned up an octave, whereas Nashville Tuned guitars have the bottom 4 strings tuned up an octave.

So what gauge strings are best for Nashville Tuned guitars?

As we mentioned earlier, if you’ve used a 12-string guitar in the past, chances are you will be familiar with the gauges used for Nashville Tuning. Let’s break it down and take a look….

Below are the gauges of a typical 12-string set of acoustic strings (high E to low E);

10, 10, 14, 14, 23, 8, 30, 12, 39, 18, 47, 27.

At first glance, this group of numbers seemingly appears quite random. However, rather than looking like a bunch of lottery numbers (we wish we knew those!) there is some logic within. Let us dig a little further.

If we take the alternate strings and split our 12-string set into two separate 6-string sets we get the following;

10, 14, 23, 30, 39, 47. (Standard Set)

10, 14, 08, 12, 18, 27. (Octaves)

Above, we can see that within our 12-string set there lurks a familiar 6-string set (green numbers) and their relative octaves (blue numbers). It is this octave set that will form our Nashville Tuning set.
At first, a set made up of these gauges looks very odd indeed. After all, there are no ‘thick strings’ in there and the gauges don’t graduate in thickness like they do on a normal set of strings. Not to mention, our G-string is a plain .008 gauge! Bonkers? Perhaps! But, have faith as it is this combination of gauges that helps create the unique sound we have come to associate with ‘Nashville Tuning’.

So do I have to buy a 12-string set to test this tuning out?

No, not at all. Today, there are sets available specifically created for ‘Nashville Tuning’. Big brands such as Martin and D’Addario both make acoustic sets and D’Addario also have an electric set available too. Here’s a brief outline of some of the gauges.

Acoustic Sets
D’Addario EJ38H Set – 10, 14, 9, 12, 18, 27
Martin MSPHT10 Set – 10, 12, 8, 13, 17, 25

Martin MSPHT10 High Tuning Set

Electric Set
D’Addario EXL150H Set – 10, 14, 9, 12, 18, 26.

As you can see these sets are fairly similar to one another and they are a great starting point if you fancied dipping your toe in the Nashville Tuning water. However, you don’t have to feel constrained to using these sets. If you wanted, you can of course create your own custom gauge ‘Nashville set’ from our wide selection of single strings.
To add some extra interest to your set, you could substitute the 6th string in your set for the same gauge as your High E string making your set look more like this;

E, B, G, D, A, E

10, 14, 9, 12, 18, 10

There are several players that have been known to have done this with great results including none other than Dave Gilmour on ‘Hey You’ from Pink Floyd’s album ‘The Wall’.

'Pink Floyd - The Wall' album artwork

Will these different gauges affect the set-up of my guitar?

D’Addario are one of the few string companies that provide information on the tension of each of their sets.

If we were to look at the tension of D’Addario’s electric Nashville Tuning set (EXL150H) set, we can see the overall tension in this set amounts to 53.42kg. If we look for a comparable ‘standard’ set of strings with a similar tension, we’d find that D’Addario’s EXL115 11-49 set is most similar. This set is a little heavier than normal so you’ll probably find that unless your guitar is usually set up for an 11-49 gauge set (or similar), some adjustments may be needed to compensate for the difference in tension.

Electric Sets

EXL150H 10-26 – 53.42kg of Tension (Nashville Set)

EXL115 11-49 – 53.11kg of Tension (Standard Gauge Set)

We tested the nashville set out for ourselves on a Squier Stratocaster that is usually strung with 9 gauge strings. When the Nashville set was fitted, the extra tension caused the bridge of the Strat to be pulled up quite a bit. As a result, some adjustments were needed to accommodate for this extra tension.

Squier Silver Series Stratocaster Bridge

However, our acoustic guitar had no such issues at all. If we look at the tensions above we can see the Nashville Tuning set has less tension than a 10-47 gauge acoustic set. This is considered an ‘extra light’ gauge so your guitar shouldn’t need much adjustment if you normally use a similar gauge set.

Acoustic Sets

EJ38H 10-27 – 55.12kg of Tension (Nashville Set)

EJ15 10-47 – 60.44kg of Tension (Standard Gauge Set)

Of course this is just a small insight as to what findings you may come across, and it’s not until the set is on your guitar that you will discover if any adjustments are needed.

Conclusion

As we mentioned earlier, there are plenty of great players that have adopted this tuning and used it to great effect. Whilst Nashville tuning may not be something that you would use exclusively for your everyday guitar playing (well you may start to!), it is certainly something we would recommend exploring, you’d certainly be in good company and may just stumble upon something that has been a huge source of inspiration for many.

If you are feeling a little uninspired yourself or just fancy trying something new, for the small investment in a new set of strings, Nashville Tuning may well be the new ‘effect’ you’ve been searching for.

If you’ve had any experience of using Nashville Tuning before, we’d love to hear what you thought and how you used it. Just pop a comment in the box below, we always like reading your comments.

As always, thanks for reading, we’ll see you next time.

 

14 Comments

  • Matthew de Kent

    Fascinating! As ever with the guitar… just when you think you know your onions… Can’t wait to try this out.

    • stringsdirect

      Thanks Matthew, look forward to hearing how you get on. 🙂

  • I’ve had a “High strung” acoustic for years. I only use it for recording. A friend put me onto it years ago and said the Eagles Hotel California was done this way in the studio in the 70’s The only problem I had was using a very cheap acoustic to work with so the sound wasn’t particularly great. I will fix this one day hopefully.

    • stringsdirect

      Hi John, when we were testing out the Nashville sets for the blog we put them on the guitars we don’t use that much, purely because it’s not something you’re sure you may stick with further down the line.

  • Michael Bentley

    In response to this, I always buy my Nashville string sets from you. I keep a very clean and well set up 1980’s Hondo Strat copy in with the EXL 150H Nashville set and an old Hohner acoustic with the acoustic D’addario set.

    Both are used frequently exactly in the way you describe. Eagles numbers benefit along with some Alison Krauss and Jackson Browne tunes we play.

    The Hondo almost sounds like a Harpsichord at times giving a really nice jangly ring…

    Regards

    Michael B. East Sussex

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Michael, thanks for the comment, glad you are already making good use of Nashville tuning with positive results. Hopefully, stories from other players like yourself will inspire other players to give it a go too.

  • Ian edwards

    Well you learn something new everyday about guitarsome. I have never heard of this type of stringing has my head been in the sand. I have many single strings so I will try your guide on string sizes and placements. Great idea will let you know

    • stringsdirect

      Haha, don’t worry Ian, you’ve not been living under a rock! Not many people have come across this tuning before either. We look forward to hearing how you get on with it as and when you give it a try.

  • Geoff Walker

    Very interesting indeed – but I already have a 12 string, thanks.

    • stringsdirect

      No worries, Geoff! Would be interested to hear how you think a Nashville set compares to your 12-string if you A/B’d them cone after the other. Thanks again

  • Pete Stamp

    Ref Nashville /High strung tuning.
    Thanks for a very informative and interesting article.
    I noticed that there was no mention of nylon stringed guitars, so can you buy or make up string sets for we occaisional ‘gut pluckers’?
    Regards,
    Pete

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Pete, that is a very good question. As you probably know, Nylon strings typically aren’t classified by gauge but instead, they are categorised by tension. That being said, D’addario offers Nylon strings by gauge. It wouldn’t be as cut and dry as steel strung instruments but we can look into this for you if it was something you wished to pursue further. If it is of interest, send us an e-mail to guitartech@stringsdirect.co.uk.
      Thanks

  • Lindisfarne have been occasionally using Nashville tuning for years. It was introduced to us by Rab Noakes, who picked it up in Nashville from guitarist Johnny Christopher, the co-writer of ‘Always On My Mind’ (Elvis, Willie Nelson, Pet Shop Boys et al). The tuning was originally used to strum along and add breadth to rhythm guitar tracks, but is capable of a whole lot more – e.g. the late, lamented Si Cowe’s scintillating contribution to ‘Run For Home’.
    A couple of comments re your excellent article above. (1) In the days before custom gauge strings, Si would buy 9 gauge banjo strings for the high G, but they often broke – this could still be a problem – you have to be careful, particularly when restringing & tuning. You could pitch the whole tuning lower (& capo up if necessary) but this might sacrifice some tension & brightness. (2) Your electric test was done on a trem-equipped Strat – no wonder “some adjustments were needed”! Even a minor string gauge variation would require the trem to be adjusted to compensate. Shouldn’t be any problem on an acoustic or any hardtail guitar.
    I enjoy reading these info pieces and the comments… been doing this 55 years and learning all the time.

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Rod, thanks for your informative comment. Very insightful and good to learn a bit about the bands and players who have utilised Nashville tuning. That’s a good suggestion regarding tuning the set down to avoid breakage, will be interesting to try that and see how it sounds in comparison.
      Much appreciated

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