Thursday, September 4, 2008

Chicago, Chicago

Sometimes folks make quite a fuss about the number of instruments Eberle & I play, particularly in our Bijou Orchestrette silent film score incarnation. But while Eberle does play some very diverse stuff, I have a secret weapon of sorts—it’s called (among other things) the “Chicago tuning.”

Back in our days with the Alice in Wonder Band, Eberle & I had a phase where
we were obsessed with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five & Hot Seven—we particularly loved their crack-up version of “Who' Sit,” in which Louis takes a break on slide whistle; & an integral part of that combo’s sound was Johnny St. Cyr’s rhythm banjo playing. So we decided then & there that the Alice in WonderBand needed a rhythm banjo player, & that this was going to be me. I’d already dabbled with the 5-string banjo, & had in fact come up against the problem I suspect the early jazz guys had with the instrument—what do you do with the fifth drone string when you’re playing songs with more than a handful of chords? Of course, the answer is you drop the fifth string drone & develop an instrument that only has four strings.

That was the birth of the plectrum banjo & the tenor banjo, & those were the instruments I was looking into. Ironically, I didn’t know at the time that St. Cyr actually played a 6-string banjo tuned exactly like a guitar (also as I understand played at times by both Django Rheinhardt & Reverend Gary Davis!)

At the time I mostly played guitar & uke, but had played around some with the 5-string banjo. We had a show coming up & we were thinkin
g of doing both “Who ‘Sit” & “The Jazz Me Blues,” both of which have some chords, & I was kinda thinking there was no way I was going to learn all those chord shapes in a new tuning in time. For those of you who don’t know, the 5-string banjo (these days at least) is most commonly tuned to an open G chord (gDGBD), while the tenor banjo is tuned in fifths (CGDA) & the plectrum banjo is most commonly tuned (CGBD), which at one time was a standard 5-string tuning as well (adding, of course, the drone g string for the latter instrument).

Then I read how plectrum banjos were sometimes tuned to “Chicago tuning,” which is DGBE—in other words, the same as the
four highest pitched strings of a guitar (or the exact same as a baritone uke). For those reasons it’s also called, reasonably enough, “guitar tuning” & “baritone uke tuning.” Now I was in business, because I could get through these songs in a familiar tuning. So I bought the Stromberg-Voisinette plectrum banjo you see me playing in the pic above from the wonderful Bernunzio vintage shop in Rochester, NY (also got my banjo uke & my Harmony guitar from these folks).

Some years down the line, the Alice in Won
der Band had gone the way of all bands, & Eberle & I were performing as a duo—Five & Dime Jazz. I was switching between electric hollowbody guitar & baritone uke, while Eberle played flute & melodica. While this “sound” was generally well-received, I felt I needed something “in-between” the electric guitar & the baritone uke, especially for swing numbers. So I started looking into the tenor guitar.

I’ll write more about the development of the tenor guitar at a later time—it’s a fascinating history that has to do with the switch from “banjo sound” to “guitar sound” in early jazz—but the point for now is that once again I was in a “work
ing” band & needed an instrument I could play asap. So once again, the idea of learning all the chords you’d need for swing tunes in the CGDA (fifths tuning, just like a tenor banjo—start to see a connection?) was initimidating. & then—of course—I learned that the tenor guitar also is often tuned in the “Chicago tuning,” & I was off to the races. I ordered an archtop tenor, which we used both for Five & Dime Jazz & also in our Bijou Orchestrette score for Nell Shipman’s The Grub Stake. That tenor guitar is also my favorite instrument for chord melodies.

If you read enough online bulletin boards, you’ll certainly run across people who disdain the Chicago tuning, especially for the tenor guitar. They like the more “open” fifths tuning (“open” because there’s so much space between
the notes). In the interim, I also acquired a tenor banjo & a mandocello (also from Mike Soares’ Y), & I play both of those in standard fifths tuning. I can see its attraction, but with the plectrum banjo & the tenor guitar, I’ll stick with what I really know.

One note for those who are interested & might like to try this sometime—you do need to re-string the instrument to get th
is tuning, especially on the tenor guitar. The standard tuning on the two highest tenor guitar strings (D & A) is way off the Chicago tuning (B & E). There are lots of sources of info about this on the internet. The Soares’ Y site has information, as does the Tenor Guitar Registry. With the plectrum banjo, it’s important not to have too heavy a gauge for the low D string (which would be C in standard tuning).

Oh, by the way—I’ve never been able to find out exactly why it’s called “Chicago tuning”!

The paragraph about tenor guitars was edited on 1/10/09

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