How Nashville High-Stringing Works

“Them’s some mighty skinny strings there, son!”

Nashville high-strung tuning is one of the guitar’s great magic tricks. It has a delicious, “secrets of the Guild” quality — you feel like an insider just knowing what it is.

Not that I did know what it is until embarrassingly late in life. For the sake of my fellow late-bloomers, I’ll explain: You replace your guitar’s lowest four strings with thinner strings tuned an octave higher than normal.

You can think of it as using the higher-pitched of a each pair in a 12-string string set. (Or the top two strings of a normal set, and the top four strings from another normal set, with the first string as the third string, the second string as the fourth, etc.)

I love how this tuning can work subliminal magic, or step front and center for marquee riffs. Nashville session players conceived it as a way to add stereo shimmer to doubled acoustic guitar tracks. But rock players have used it to great effect as a foreground sound, as heard on the Stones’ “Wild Horses,” Floyd’s “Hey You,” Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind,” and Tracy Chapman’s “The Promise.”

Here’s a quick little demonstration, both solo and in a mix:

 


Not everyone can afford to keep a high-quality high-strung around. (And regular strings are going back on my old Martin as soon as I post this!) But you also get great results with inexpensive, small-bodied “travel guitars” such as the Baby Taylor and the Martin Backpacker. Those two guitars sound really nice — they just haven’t got much low-end, but hey, neither does the tuning!

22 comments to How Nashville High-Stringing Works

  • Although I’ve never tried the proper Nashville acoustic tuning, I remember reading artists talking about it in Guitar Player mag when I was a teenager.  Recently I’ve been using my kid’s jr. sized strat to achieve similar results.  In order to achieve some sort of intonation I tuned it to concert F (so an E chord sounds as an A), and found it to be a really cool addition to the home studio.  It’s great for using cowboy chords in unlikely keys and adding jangle and air to otherwise boxy arrangements.

  • Oinkus

    That is just one of those really fun things to hear and see. It gave me fits for years trying to figure out some songs too. Never actually done it myself but I might have to get a beater to setup like that ! Thanks Joe for always giving me things to explore.

  • Sam Geese

    Very nicely done.

  • joe

    This one was really fun to do. I just got that Martin the other day, and as lucky as I am to have such a nice new guitar, I can’t help wishing I had two — with one kept high-strung. :)

    When I tour with Tracy Chapman, she plays “The Promise” on a nice high-strung Martin, and it sounds exquisite. Over the years we’ve tried different arrangements, and at various points I’ve tried accompanying her on guitar, baritone guitar, bass, and keyboards. You’d think it would be easy to find a role, since there are absolutely no low frequencies coming off her guitar. But nothing I’ve ever tried sounds as good as when she plays it solo, so that’s usually what she does. (And I’m not just saying that because the song provides a nice mid-set bathroom break.)

     :satansmoking:

    • zyon

      I’m glad you love your new Martin, best guitars in the world… but then again, I get to have the privilege of building them 6 days a week here in Nazareth! 

      • joe

        No way!

        Love your work. :)

        • zyon

          Yes, I’ve got the greatest job in the world if you ask me. I’ve been in love with guitar building/repair since I was 11 years old so working for the greatest acoustic manufacturer in history is an absolute dream come true. My most frustrating day at Martin is still better than my best day at any other job I’ve had. I love your Martin but I’m an OM addict myself. 

  • Ardiril

    Owning an actual 12-string helps (obviously), and a set of strings has two lives on a high-strung instrument. First, when changing strings, put on only the new high-strung strings. The new strings cut through anything, very bright with fast attack. After a couple days, put on the other strings as normal.

    Then, as that set of strings goes dead, pull off the regular strings, again leaving it a high-strung guitar. Now however those strings are duller and warmer. They enhance rather than cut through.

    Now that I have a decent sampler, I plan to grab samples of both phases. 

  • here’s another cool one a nashville buddy showed me. String the guitar low to high with 38-26-14p-10-17w-11. 17w is hard to find,I had to use .18w. The low string is tuned to C (3rd fret A string in normal tuning). The intervals are the same as normal tuning except the 2nd string (17w) is an octave down. Try it, it’s wild.

    • David

      Sorry Mark, I’m (easily) confused. Are you saying the tuning is now C A D G B(oct down) E ?

  • Scott

    Been using this for 10 years or so. Great trick. I keep a Tele Nashville-tuned all the time. I’m in a three guitar Americana band and the high strung sounds great mixed in.

  • mark spangler

    David – it’s normal tuning starting on C. so, C-F-Bb-Eb-G-C. With the G down an octave. this is a strange tuning. some chords sound kinda weird but others are amazing…

  • Via Gravis

    After I built my US Guitar Kits Acoustic last year, I haven’t been playing my originl acoustic as much…might have to try this out on it.

  • Bill McDonald

    Awsome sound,I’am going to try it tonight. Thanks for the tips

  • JH

    Wow! That sounds pretty cool! used to play rain song live. And we were always looking for a way to make the 2 guitars sound a bit more substantial! Its hard to compete with the original with so many overdubs. Something like this would probably help!
     Gotta try it! Thanks!

  • el reclusa

    Mark- I was about to comment with that same C tuning! It’s a LOT of fun. Almost like baritone Nashville. I stumbled upon it trying to Nashville tune an old beater Harmony, but the horribly high action was painful to play at normal pitch, so I dropped it to C and found that I loved it. I’d loaned that Harmony to my younger daughter for a couple of years and just got it back…and now I think I’ll restring it ASAP.