What is Nashville Tuning?
By Strings Direct – 29 August, 2023
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’.
WHAT IS NASHVILLE TUNING?
In a nutshell, 'Nashville' Tuning (aka 'High Strung' 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.
*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.
WHAT DOES NASHVILLE TUNING SOUND LIKE?
Because of the octave strings they use, Nashville tuning brings a very airy, 12-string-like quality to a regular 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!!
WHO USES NASHVILLE TUNING?
Nashville 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, The Eagles, 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
WHAT STRINGS ARE USED FOR NASHVILLE TUNING?
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, 23w-8, 30w-12, 39w-18, 47w-27w.
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, 23w, 30w, 39w, 47w
10, 14, 8, 12, 18, 27w
Above, we can see that within our 12-string set there lurks a familiar 6-string set and their relative octaves or doubling strings (this can be referred to as the 2nd course). 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'.
DO I NEED A 12-STRING SET TO TEST THIS OUT?
No, not at all. Today, there are sets available specifically created for ‘Nashville Tuning’. Big brands such as D’Addario both make acoustic sets and electric sets too. Here’s a brief outline of the gauges.
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’.
WILL NASHVILLE TUNING AFFECT THE SETUP 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.
Nashville Set EXL150H 10-26 - Tension: 53.42 kg
Regular Set EXL115 11-49 - Tension: 53.11 kg
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.
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.
Nashville Set EJ38H 10-27 - Tension: 55.12 kg
Standard Set EJ15 10-47 - Tension: 60.44 kg
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.
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.