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Thread: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

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    Bob Remington bobrem's Avatar
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    Default Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    I was speaking with Jerry Douglas a short time back for a magazine article on the Earls of Leicester and we somehow got on the subject of tuning and pitch. It was too technical for a general audience so I never included it in the article I wrote (for the Canadian music magazine Penguin Eggs) but thought it would be of interest to my fellow nerds here on the Cafe.

    In getting “as close as we can to channeling these guys,” Douglas said the Earls pay homage to Flatt and Scruggs not just with the clothes, the instrumentation and the sound, but also the pitch. Standard tuning, as we know, is based on A = 440 Hz. But Douglas said the Earls tune to A = 448 Hz (which explains why you may be driving yourself mad attempting to play along).

    That’s just a shade off the tuning used by Flatt and Scruggs, which Douglas said was based on A = 451 Hz.

    “When I was learning to play with a Flatt and Scruggs record, I had to tune up. I thought ‘why does this sound so bad? I’m exactly in tune with this pitchfork’ or whatever,” Douglas said.

    Johnny Warren, the Earls’ fiddle player and son of Flatt and Scruggs fiddler Paul Warren, shed some light on why that is so. “Johnny says that whenever he saw the (Flatt and Scruggs) band tune up for a show, Lester Flatt would hit his D string on his guitar and everybody tuned to that. Lester tuned to a feeling. It certainly wasn't tuned to a pitch pipe or anything.”

    Douglas remains a firm believer in tuning to the vibe and frequency of a band, rather than each member being a slave to their individual electronic tuners. Not all electronic tuners are exactly the same, he says, which is why he tunes to Shawn Camp’s guitar (based on 448 Hz) in the Earls.

    “It’s hard on the instruments — they’re all old instruments — but, boy, once they get there and they’ve been there awhile, they love it.”

    This proves that the debate over 440 tuning versus 432 (the latter said to be the harmonic frequency of the Earth and therefore better for the listener) does not necessarily apply to bluegrass. If you want to go down that rabbit hole, you can find the 440 vs 432 thread here.

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    Registered User Charles E.'s Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    It is well known that classical orchestras tune any where from 440 to 445 and higher. Some feel it adds a bit of brilliance to the sound.
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    A bunch of stuff with four strings

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    Middle-Aged Old-Timer Tobin's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    I love the irony of Flatt being sharp.

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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    A lot enters into this. When I used to play to records. ( vinyl remember them) to learn songs or breaks, I tuned to a fork. Electronic tuners were still a ways off. Anyway a capo on the first fret would put me just about in tune with Flat and Scruggs. And that seemed to be consistent. That makes it hard to believe that they tuned to a note in Flatt's head. I've known people in years past that tuned to whatever they were hearing at that time and it could vary a fret or so. Another thing to consider when listening to records is how accurate is the speed of the turntable, and how reliable is the electric supply. It's so easy to try to analyze yesterdays products by today's standard and sometimes that just ain't right.

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    Gummy Bears and Scotch BrianWilliam's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    Quote Originally Posted by Tobin View Post
    I love the irony of Flatt being sharp.

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    Registered User Ivan Kelsall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    Lester,Earl & the boys tunes up by a semi-tone according to what i read ages ago. Strangely,the very first Bluegrass band i ever heard back in 1963 ,''The Barrier Brothers'', did exactly the same. I suppose they thought as did Lester & Earl,that the higher pitch had more 'drive' to it,
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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    Interesting to read of the Flatt Zen-like approach to tuning (or was it laziness?)

    Given the state/quality of audio equipment (read: record players) back in the day, it's a wonder that pickers could even approach a song's real tuning in order to play along and learn. Even I slowed records down to learn the cool mandolin solos (and I ain't that old, or is I?) My father had a record player/radio thingy housed inside a 4-legged piece of furniture in the living room. It had 33, 45, 78, 116 speeds. I would slow the LP down and do the lift the needle deal over and over. Buck White solos never sounded so bad...

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    Lurkist dhergert's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    There's a lot of discussion about this among bluegrass banjo forums too. Debate really. I don't think anyone knows for sure how it started, be it intentional or accidental, due to technology of the times, or whether for instrument playability, music quality, or for uniqueness and preservation of style. All the major players who originated this kind of tuning have passed by now, and even when they were alive there were sometimes different answers about why it was done.

    From a standard mandolin tuning standpoint, a lot of mandolins have enough trouble just keeping an unbroken E string at 440 pitch, going up a full step is just asking for trouble with them. Plus the added pressure on the top, the neck and the joint... I wouldn't be anxious to do this regularly.

    I guess these are my personal feelings about it... From a jamming aspect, having all tuners set to 440 has literally turned around the jamming environment... I wouldn't want to change that. From a band aspect, there are lots of more important things to worry about than getting everyone tuned up a step; we usually select keys for the singers anyway. From a maintenance aspect, almost all instruments and strings are built and setup from the factory for standard 440 tuning, and most older instruments in particular survive better at that.

    But would I tune up a step in order to play with other players? Maybe. It depends on the players and on what instrument I'm playing. Ultimately, I wouldn't stay at that high tuning for long, though.
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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    Back in 1963,i used the 'Barrier Bros.' LP as 'pick along' music as i was learning. I had a capo to capo up to Ab on the main strings,i could also tune up the 5th string to Ab,but any higher & i had to tune the 5th string down - weird !!. One thing that i did do,i always played ''Foggy My.Breakdown'' in Ab,even on my Stelling with it's 5th string 'spikes' - it really does make a difference in making it sound ' like the recording ' (sort of) as long as you remember that you are playing in Ab - if you don't it gets a tad nasty !,

    Regarding 'tuning' on recordings - i have the original LP of the Dillard's ''Back Porch Bluegrass'' & if there's any one tune that's in the same key as any other,i've yet to find it. Fortunately,my record player is electronically adjustable up/down by a full tone if required. It was the only way that i could play along to any track on ''BP Bluegrass'' & what do you know,when i bought the CD of it - it's still the same !!,
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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    My piano tuner pointed out something interesting about tuning with tuning forks. Over the years of banging them on things even they can drift out of tune.

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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    For a long time I have harbored a thought that some early bluegrassers felt that instruments needed to be "brought up" a bit to sound good. Many years ago I had a short discussion with Everett Lilly about when Don Stover joined his band and he had Don bring it up. Wish I could remember the exact words, but it was something to that affect.
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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    common in the guitar world, Hendrix, Steve Ray, Albert King. Neil young claims the world is tuned to B flat

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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    I suspected that the 'Earls' were purposely tuned up to a non-standard pitch as a respectful nod to Flatt and Scruggs recorded music.

    What surprises me is that if Johnny Warren's account is accurate, Lester Flatt must have had some form of Perfect Pitch. His brain may not have been tuned to 440 (or maybe it was) but if he was able to tune his own 'd' string to the same pitch consistently, without use of a pitch-pipe or tuning fork, he definitely had an unusually gifted ear.

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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    Years ago in an interview with Earl Scruggs they asked him the same questions and he said tuning up one note made the banjo sound better, Don Stover said the same thing to me.... I don`t play banjo so I can`t say but when banjo pickers started using the "flat heads" it did make them sound more like the older raised head banjos, sort of a compromise between the two...In the early years Flatt and Scruggs didn`t have a mandolin and when Curley Seckler joined them I wonder if they still went one note high because his mandolin maybe couldn`t stand the high tuning....

    Willie

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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    Quote Originally Posted by Willie Poole View Post
    In the early years Flatt and Scruggs didn`t have a mandolin and when Curley Seckler joined them I wonder if they still went one note high because his mandolin maybe couldn`t stand the high tuning....Willie
    Curley played mandolin....?

    Just kidding; I really like that idea that the "Holy note" that Lester offered up (which has been verified by those present) was not just a random tone (one writer speculated that it was simply the hard-travelling that made Flatt's guitar go sharp) but rather one that Lester (and his voice) naturally gravitated towards. When Lester (inevitably) had to restring or re-tune his guitar, it is ridiculous to suggest he was unable to find a source for standard pitch, especially when they so consistently recorded sharp to standard. Earl's preferences would certainly have entered into the equation, and just possibly he turned Lester on to it.
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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    One more here who's read & heard that F&S consistently and deliberately tuned one half-step up, to make the band's sound brighter. (Maybe also to give their band a slightly different sound from their previous employer's band.)

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    Bob Remington bobrem's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    Quote Originally Posted by FLATROCK HILL View Post
    ...if Johnny Warren's account is accurate, Lester Flatt must have had some form of Perfect Pitch."
    "Some musicians have absolute pitch recall, usually based upon the tuning of the instrument, often a home piano, with which they grew up." - Dr. Lynn Cavanagh, music professor, University of Regina

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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    Higher and Lonesome...er
    But Amsterdam was always good for grieving
    And London never fails to leave me blue
    And Paris never was my kinda town
    So I walked around with the Ft. Worth Blues

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    Bob Remington bobrem's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    Quote Originally Posted by Willie Poole View Post
    Years ago in an interview with Earl Scruggs they asked him the same questions and he said tuning up one note made the banjo sound better, Don Stover said the same thing to me.
    Yes, Jerry Douglas also alluded to this in our interview, saying that raising the pitch made the banjo sound better. Whether Earl influenced Lester or Lester influenced Earl on this point is unclear, unless someone knows the answer.

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    Fatally Flawed Bill Kammerzell's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    Quote Originally Posted by Tobin View Post
    I love the irony of Flatt being sharp.
    You hit a home run with that one!
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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    The problem is that in his later years Flatt was often flat. Either that or he was trying to perfect the low lonesome sound.

    Yeah, yeah, I can hear it - Now aint that just like somethin a banjerpicker would say?
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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    Quote Originally Posted by Fretbear View Post
    Curley played mandolin....?...
    I'm currently reading Foggy Mountain Troubadour: The Life and Music of Curly Seckler by Penny Parsons, and it tells me that one of Seckler's early jobs was as a mandolin playing, tenor singing "replacement" for Bill Monroe in Charlie Monroe's group, after the Monroe Brothers broke up. Seckler was called "Smilin' Bill" by Charlie Monroe, to give the impression that the "Monroe Brothers' sound" was still available from the Kentucky Partners (or Pardners).

    Seckler, obviously, is not known for playing driving Bill Monroe-style mandolin; his best-known "break" with Flatt & Scruggs is the tremolo-heavy one on Foggy Mountain Special. The only time I've seen Seckler live, with the Nashville Grass when Flatt was still alive, he'd switched to guitar (Flatt was basically holding his guitar at that stage of his life), and teenage Marty Stuart was the mandolinist.

    Secular apparently started out playing tenor banjo, but he played mostly mandolin (Gibson F-2, for many years) and guitar from WWII era on.
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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    I think that during the Folk music boom,when Lester & Earl became the best known band on the scene,they'd adopted the standard tuning. They were so well known that they needed nothing'extra' to get folk's attention. I wonder if they ever really needed it anyway ?. Earl's banjo playing was enough to get all the attention they'd ever need. Maybe,initially it did make them stand out - but who from ???.

    I used to have the LP ''Live at Carnegie Hall'' by F & S, & i could pick along with the 'Fiddle & Banjo'
    tune on it in standard pitch -so...............!
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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    Quote Originally Posted by Ivan Kelsall View Post
    ...I used to have the LP ''Live at Carnegie Hall'' by F & S, & i could pick along with the 'Fiddle & Banjo'
    tune on it in standard pitch -so...............!
    Ivan
    Good point Ivan. I don't remember many of the songs from that album but I do seem to remember White House Blues being in a solid 'G'.

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    poor excuse for anything Charlieshafer's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning to Flatt and Scruggs

    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post
    I'm currently reading Foggy Mountain Troubadour: The Life and Music of Curly Seckler by Penny Parsons, and it tells me that one of Seckler's early jobs was as a mandolin playing, tenor singing "replacement" for Bill Monroe in Charlie Monroe's group, after the Monroe Brothers broke up. Seckler was called "Smilin' Bill" by Charlie Monroe, to give the impression that the "Monroe Brothers' sound" was still available from the Kentucky Partners (or Pardners).

    Seckler, obviously, is not known for playing driving Bill Monroe-style mandolin; his best-known "break" with Flatt & Scruggs is the tremolo-heavy one on Foggy Mountain Special. The only time I've seen Seckler live, with the Nashville Grass when Flatt was still alive, he'd switched to guitar (Flatt was basically holding his guitar at that stage of his life), and teenage Marty Stuart was the mandolinist.

    Secular apparently started out playing tenor banjo, but he played mostly mandolin (Gibson F-2, for many years) and guitar from WWII era on.
    My favorite "Curly" moment is in a Stanley Brothers live recording of Rabbit In A Log. Curly takes a solo, intentionally muffs it, so one of the Stanley's say "Curly, play it again, and play it right this time.." The crowd breaks up laughing, and Curly plays it correctly.

    But, as to tuning, more than a few bands will both up and down, depending on what they're playing. When they hit a Robert Johnson classic, they'll go down to 430 or lower to get that muddy delta feel. Some old time source recordings are such a mess you don't know what the tuning was. Is it tuning-by-feel? Or an old recording that's got the speed slightly messed up? Or both? Eh, whoever came up with this 12 tone stuff is nuts anyway. Look at all those tones in between the 12. Freedom, man...

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