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Techniques, Songcraft

A Chart of Chris Whitley’s Tunings


Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers commented that “[s]ome of the world’s coolest music happens when instruments fall into the hands of people who don’t know — or don’t care — what they’re supposed to do with them.”  Chris Whitley didn’t know, nor did he especially care, how he was supposed to play a steel guitar.  As Chris admitted, most of the tunings he used “I’ve just made up.  They’re probably in a book; they could be standard tunings for all I know, but I just came up with them in trying to throw myself off.  I started playing in open tunings after I’d been playing guitar for about a year.  I was sort of refusing to learn how to play — I never took any lessons — and it was a kind of rebellious or insecure thing for me.”  [Rock Troubadours]

As CW fans, we are glad that Chris developed his nothing-else-like-it sound.  That sound, combined with awesome lyrics and a mesmerizing voice, is what hooked us on his music.  But other guitarists are often frustrated when they try to cover Chris’s songs:  Whatta hell was that?!?  In an effort to help the guitar players out there, Hiroshi Suda has provided the following information about Chris’s open tunings.  You can check out Hiroshi’s YouTube channel to see and hear him covering many of Chris’s songs.  In my humble opinion, no one plays Chris’s music better than Hiroshi does!


6 5 4 3 2 1  – means “String”

D A D A D E  – means  the 6th string is tuned in D, the 5th string tuned in A, and so on

Tuning scheme – One alphabet plus 5 numbers… I’d say “cipher”  This scheme/cipher was actually written in Chris’ set list.  Not written for all the songs there, but here I did it for all.

D75752 – means… first, the 6th string is tuned in D, then the next 5th string is tuned as the 7th fret note of the 6th string, then the next 4th string is tuned as the 5th fret note of the 5th string, …and so on.  Finally, it comes D A D A D E tuning.

Many songs tune the 6th string in E or D or C#.  This E is the same as the standard tuning. So, D or C# is to be 2 frets lower or 3 frets lower.  Tuning the 6th string in B or A# or A  is even lower than these.  Regarding the bottom 6th string, only “F” for “Look What Love Has Done” is tuned higher than the standard tuning.

Chris Whitley Tuning List

Tuning

Album

Cipher

Song Title

6 5 4 3 2 1

Living With The Law

D A D A D E

LAW

D75752
 Big Sky Country

D G D G B D

LAW

D57543
Kick The Stones

E A E A C# E

LAW

E57543
Make The Dirt Stick

D A D A D E

LAW

D75752
Poison Girl

E A E G# B E

LAW

E57435
Dust Radio

E G# B E G# B

LAW

E43543
Phone Call From Leavenworth

E A E A C# E

LAW

E57543
I Forget You Every Day

C# F# C# F G# C#

LAW

C#57435
Long Way Around

D G D G B D

LAW

D57543
Look What Love Has Done

F A C F A C

LAW

F43543
Bordertown

E A D G B E

LAW

E55545
Narcotic Prayer

D A E A C# E

DIN

D77543
Never

E B E G# B E

DIN

E75435
Know

D A D A D E

DIN

D75752
O God My Heart Is Ready

E A E A C# E

DIN

E57543
Can’t Get Off

D A E A C# E

DIN

D77543
God Thing

E A D G B E

DIN

E55545
Din

E A E A C# E

DIN

E57543
New Machine

E A E G# B E

DIN

E57435
Some Candy Talking

E A E A C# E

DIN

E57543
Guns & Dolls

D# A# D# A# D# F

DIN

D#75752
WPL

D A D A D E

DIN

D75752
Ultraglide

E A E A C# E

DIN

E57543
Days Of Obligation

E A E A C# E

DIN

E57543
As Flat As The Earth

E B E G# B E

TERRA

E75435
Automatic

E A E A B E

TERRA

E57525
Clear Blue Sky

E A E A C# E

TERRA

E57543
Weightless

E A E A B E

TERRA

E57525
Power Down

E A D G B E

TERRA

E55545
On Cue

D A D A D E

TERRA

D75752
Immortal Blues

C G C G C D

TERRA

C75752
Cool Wooden Crosses

D A D A D E

TERRA

D75752
Still Point

E A E G B

TERRA

Banjo
Gasket

E A E A C# E

TERRA

E57543
One Long Day

E A E A B E

TERRA

E57525
Aerial

D G D F A C

TERRA

D75343
Alien

D A D A D E

TERRA

D75752
Scrapyard Lullaby

C# G# C# G# C# D#

Dirt Floor

C#75752
Indian Summer

D A D F# A D

DF

D75435
Accordingly

D# G# D# G# A# D#

DF

D#57525
Wild Country

D A D G A D

DF

D75525
Ballpeen Hammer

A# D# F# A# D#

DF

Banjo
From One Island To Another

C# G# C# F# G# C#

DF

C#75525
Altitude

C# G# C# G# C# D#

DF

C#75752
Dirt Floor

C G C F G C

DF

C75525
Loco Girl

C# G# C# F F# C#

DF

C#75417
The Model

A# D# F# A# D#

DF

Banjo
Firefighter

C# G# C# G# C# D#

LIVE

C#75752
Serve You

C# G# C# F# G# C#

LIVE

C#75525
Home Is Where You Get Across

E B E G# B E

LIVE

E75435
Long Way Around

E A E A C# E

LIVE

E57543
Blue Sky Blues

D# G# D# G# C D#

Father & Sons

D#57543
I Can’t Stand The Rain

C# F# C# F# A# C#

Cassandra W.

C#57543
Home Is Where You Get Across

E B E G# B E

R.Wasserman

E75435
Spanish Harlem Incident

C# F# C# F# A# C#

PD

C#57543
Smokestack Lightning

A E A E A B

PD

A75752
China Gate

C# G# C# G# C# D#

PD

C#75752
Drifting

D# A# D# F A# D#

PD

D#75435
She’s Alright

A E A E A B

PD

Perfect Day

A# F A# F A# C

PD

A#75752
Wild Ox Moan

C# G# C# G# C# D#

PD

C#75752
Crystal Ship

A# F A# F A# C

PD

A#75752
Spoonful

B E B E G# B

PD

B57543
Stones In My Pathway

D# G# D# G# C D#

PD

D#57543
4th Time Around

D A D F# A D

PD

D75435
To Joy

C# G# C# G# C# D#

RH

C#75752
Radar

C G C G C E

RH

C75754
Chain

C G C F G C

RH

C75525
Rocket House

C G A# F G C

RH

C73725
Solid Iron Heart

D# G# C# G# C# D#

RH

D#55752
Serve You

C# G# C# F# G# C#

RH

C#75525
Vertical Desert

E A D G B E

RH

E55545
Little Torch

D A D A D E

RH

D75752
From A Photograph

C# G# C# G# C# D#

RH

C#75752
Shadowland

C# F# B F# G# C#

RH

C#55725
Invisible Day

C G C G C D

RH PROMO

C75752
Breakin’ Your Fall

B F# B E F# B

RH PROMO

B75525
Say Goodbye

C G C G C D

RH PROMO

C75752
Rocket House

C G A# F G C

RH PROMO

C73725
Vertical Desert

B E A D F# B

RH PROMO

B55545
Shadowland

C F A# F G C

RH PROMO

C55725
Breaking Your Fall

A E A E A B

PWF

A75752
Bridge Song

A E A E A B

PWF

A75752
Crystaline

A E A E A B

PWF

A75752
Bliss To Breakdown

D A D A D E

Anthology

D75752
A Pint Of Lotion

E A E A C# E

Anthology

E57543
New Lost World

C G C E G C

HVH

C75435
Breaking Your Fall

A E A E A B

HVH

A75752
Frontier

A D A C# E A

HVH

B57543
Hotel Vast Horizon

A D A D E A

HVH

A57525
Blues for Andre

A D A D E A

HVH

A57525
Assassin Song

B F# B D# E B

HVH

B75417
Wide Open Return

A# F A# D# F A#

HVH

A#75525
Silhouette

A# F A# D# F A# ?

HVH

A#75525
Insurrection at Newtown

A# F A# D# F A# ?

HVH

A#75525
Power Down

D G C F A D

WEED

D55545
Living With The Law

A# F A# F A# C

WEED

A#75752
Know You

A# F A# F A# C

WEED

A#75752
Phone Call From Leavenworth

D G D G B D

WEED

D57543
Cool Wooden Crosses

A# F A# F A# C

WEED

A#75752
Big Sky Country

C F C F A C

WEED

C57543
The New Machine

D G D F# A D

WEED

D57435
Clear Blue Sky

D G D G B D

WEED

D57543
Bordertown

D G C F A D

WEED

D55545
Narcotic Prayer

D A E A C# E

WEED

D77543
Kick The Stones

D G D G B D

WEED

D57543
Weightless

A# F A# F A# C

WEED

A#75752
I Forget You Everyday

B E B D# F# B

WEED

B57435
Make The Dirt Stick

C G C G C D

WEED

C75752
Dust Radio

C# F G# C# F G#

WEED

C#43543
Can’t Get Off

A# F C F A C

WEED

A#77543
Made from Dirt

D G D G A D

WCB

D57525
Her Furious Angel

B F# B F# G# B

WCB

B75723
Ghost Dance

B E B E F# B

WCB

B57525
War Crime Blues

WCB

A#75723
Invisible Day

B F# B F# B C#

WCB

B75752
I Can’t Stand It

D# A# D# G A# D# (Open D#)

D#75435
White Rider

C F C G A# C

WCB

C57732
Dead Cowboy Song

B F# B F# B C#

WCB

B75752
The Call Up

B F# B F# B C#

WCB

B75752
City of Women

B E B D# G# B

SDS

B57453
Valley of Innocents

C# F# C# F# G# C#

SDS

C#57525

Album:

LAW – Living With The Law
DIN – Din Of Ecstasy
TERRA – Terra Incognita
DF – Dirt Floor
LIVE – Live At Martyrs
PD – Perfect Day
RH –  Rocket House
RH PROMO – Bonus CD of Rocket House French release
PWF – Pigs Will Fly (Soundtrack)
HVH – Hotel Vast Horizon
WCB – War Crime Blues
SDS – Soft Dangerous Shores
I Can’t Stand The Rain – “Blue Light ’til Dawn” Cassandra Wilson
Fathers & Sons (Soundtrack)

Discussion

9 thoughts on “A Chart of Chris Whitley’s Tunings

  1. War Crime Blues – based on the notes of open strings in this song I’m pretty sure this is the Open G tuning transposed way down to D# -ish A#D#A#D#GA# The guitar seems to be around these notes – somewhere in between A# and B….I tune to the record, and try my best to sing an approximation of one of the most powerful tunes on this album. I love the one brief slide in it too – ultimately minimal.

    Posted by Pat Bee | June 8, 2014, 10:00 pm
    • Hello!
      Thanks for your comment.
      The key could be A# or B, or in-between (wow!).
      But I’m sure the tuning pattern is 75723 (similar as “Her Furious Angel” – used to be played in a row sometimes), being confirmed by his notation on a setlist.

      Maybe the interval of 1st & 2nd string (= 3 frets’) made you think it were Open-G tuning pattern.
      Hiroshi

      Posted by rustradio | June 8, 2014, 10:42 pm
  2. Hi Hiroshi, hope you and your family had a great holiday. Ours was good. Leave it to me to notice, but tonight I went looking for the tuning to ” something shines” and can’t find it here.Do you have it ? If not, it probably falls into one of the “groups” and I”ll work on it. It does have a lot of piano.maybe that’s why….
    All the best with faith and love, Desiree

    Posted by Desiree | December 26, 2013, 9:15 pm
    • Hey, Desiree – Hiroshi doesn’t live here…. But I’ve copied your comment and emailed it to him, asking him to reply to you. Hope he’s able to help – if he can’t, NO ONE can!……………..Katie

      Posted by Katie | December 26, 2013, 9:41 pm
  3. It was 1998 when I started to learn Chris’ songs seriously, with songs off of DIRT FLOOR album.
    Except a few acoustic songs recorded ever (Phone call, New Machine), it was so difficult to figure out every detail of guitar part of LWTL, DIN, Terra songs performed with bands. It was very soon to find it’s still very difficult to do about DIRT FLOOR songs, but, I said to myself it is “solo acoustic live recording with NO overdubs”, and with the help of “genuine” Tuning chart posted by Chris’ guitar tech to the New Machine website then, I just tried hard.
    Eventually, I kept learning with referring to his live recordings of Dirt Floor tour in that year (1998).
    I might have found some typical patterns about his setlists, I still don’t know what they (=patterns) were based on, though.
    But, it’s not “efficiency” about (changing of) tunings, I believe. Many of the 1998 shows, he had a guitar tech and with his 3 Nationals plus ES-125 perhaps.
    I believe Chris is a man of uncompromised, and honest and loyal to his urge, necessity of his music. The key (of the song, guitar tuning) must have been determined by his vocal needs.
    So, the same DADADE type tuning but the key is different about Immortal Blues (C), LWTL (D), Guns and Dolls (D#), Scrapyard Lullaby (C#)… just because of his vocal key I believe.
    i.e. I don’t know if there’s a show that all these 4 songs were played, and what happened if there were. At least, I believe he’d never used a capo.

    I was rather surprised Dust Radio (E) and Look What Love Has Done (F) were played in the same key (E) in LWTL band shows (LWTL era), and Scrapyard, WPL, LWTL were played in a row in C# key (a few show from 1998 Dirt Floor tour).
    Acoustic Cafe radio show (#177 in 1998), Scrapyard was played in D… it’s very rare, by the way, while LWTL was played in C# at Mountain KMTT radio show might be understandable because Chris caught a cold and not in usual condition.

    However, solo shows in later years, with just 2 (or 3) Nationals without a guitar tech, his setlists became different.
    I think it’d be – change of his vocal key (because of his physical condition?), vocal style, guitar sound (or a bit of playing style, with thicker strings’ gauge i.e. WEED / a bunch of his classics were performed in the different key ).
    Anyway, some song order were made with demand of tuning.
    New Machine, Forget you every day – in the same key
    Home is where you get across, Poison Girl, As Flat As The Earth – in the same key. Change the 5th string (2 frets’) only.
    Weightless, Accordingly – in the same key
    Vertical Desert, God Thing – in the same key
    … and a few more partial song order patterns I could tell.
    These patterns (I personally have been doing these song order and key, when I practice those songs with a National or 2 in my tiny room, or, to the studio I could bring with me) were apparently made with easiness and speed.
    I understand this as Chris’ versatility and maturity on vocal (could make this possible).

    Sorry, George, I haven’t understood what you exactly mean and I might miss the point… but this is my thoughts.

    One thing to add… I think the code system (Key + fret numbers to tune the next string, such as D75752) is not useful, not contributing to minimize the tuning works unless the KEY is same.
    I mean, if there were a D75752 song and the next were C#57525 … guitar tech just has to start with the 6th string and he could not figure out if there were any string(s) that not need to be changed.

    Posted by rustradio | August 15, 2013, 11:20 am
    • Thanks Brother Hiroshi —

      > Sorry, George, I haven’t understood what you exactly mean and I might miss the point… but this is my thoughts.

      You understood perfectly!

      “I might have found some typical patterns about his setlists, I still don’t know what they (=patterns) were based on, though. But, it’s not “efficiency” about (changing of) tunings, I believe. Many of the 1998 shows, he had a guitar tech and with his 3 Nationals plus ES-125 perhaps.”

      Agree. What i meant was — when he was playing solo — having to do wildly divergent tunings would disrupt a set and potentially bring the guitar into a new tuning that didn’t want to stay “in tune” (you can hear CW very often complaining to his guitar and the audience between songs about his tunings … at one show he called it “his safety blanket” LOL!).

      “I believe Chris is a man of uncompromised, and honest and loyal to his urge, necessity of his music. The key (of the song, guitar tuning) must have been determined by his vocal needs.”

      Yes, so i think we are talking about two different things: (1) the key in which he is playing, as a function of his vocal range at any given point in time and (2) the tuning of the guitar itself.

      “So, the same DADADE type tuning but the key is different about Immortal Blues (C), LWTL (D), Guns and Dolls (D#), Scrapyard Lullaby (C#)… just because of his vocal key I believe.”

      Yes. Someone else made a similar point (Jeff L?) on the FB group about this, that as his career went on, C went to heavier gauge strings to get to lower keys to support his lowering vocal range.

      “i.e. I don’t know if there’s a show that all these 4 songs were played, and what happened if there were. At least, I believe he’d never used a capo.”

      Never saw a capo in the three live shows i caught, or any videos, etc.

      “understandable because Chris caught a cold and not in usual condition.”

      Yes, those of us who perform know exactly how this goes! 🙂

      “However, solo shows in later years, with just 2 (or 3) Nationals without a guitar tech, his setlists became different.
      I think it’d be – change of his vocal key (because of his physical condition?), vocal style, guitar sound (or a bit of playing style, with thicker strings’ gauge”

      Yes, exactly.

      “Anyway, some song order were made with demand of tuning.”

      Yes, that was my original point — that there is something like an “economy of tuning” that influences the set list.

      “One thing to add… I think the code system (Key + fret numbers to tune the next string, such as D75752) is not useful, not contributing to minimize the tuning works unless the KEY is same.”

      Yes, that is definitely the case.

      Konna komakai koto ha muzukashii desu na! 😉

      Posted by George | August 22, 2013, 6:36 pm
  4. > it’s easy to make a lot of bad noise on an amplified guitar with all of that on your hand.

    LOL — word, Keith!

    Hiroshi, looking at at the cipher system, it occurs to me that it provides a quick numeric way to determine “tuning effort” to get to a specific tuning in an incremental way. When you ‘diff’ any given cipher against another, you can see total number of strings and key(s) that need to change. As you guys know, one of the infuriating things about covering CW tunes (esp. on our vintage Nationals) is the frequent changes, esp. where the “absolute value” of the string tension change causes the guitar to want to get back out of tune during the song. So you can, to some extent, minimize this by creating a set list based on smaller increments.

    That’s not to say that this was driving set list decisions, just that it might have been a factor (esp. when not traveling with a bunch of guitars and having a guitar tech in the wings managing tuning for you).

    Hmmm … sounds like something for us to write about …. 🙂 -g

    Posted by George | August 2, 2013, 10:08 am
  5. Thanks for your comment, Keith. If you don’t already know rustradio’s (Hiroshi Suda) YouTube channel, you should check it out. Hiroshi (the guy who created this tuning chart) posts lots of videos of covers of CW tunes; he’s also a great guy who will talk CW guitar techniques until forever!

    Posted by Katie | July 20, 2013, 1:38 pm
  6. This is a great list. I actually saw a couple songs listed that I wasn’t aware of.

    While the tunings are clearly a large part of the puzzle in trying to play Chris’s music, the right hand technique is what blows me out of the water. It’s remarkable how much control he had over with the flatpick and two metal fingerpicks; it’s easy to make a lot of bad noise on an amplified guitar with all of that on your hand. I’m always struck by how little his right hand seems to be moving when he’s playing; I think one of the secrets to his control was keeping the motion reeled in.

    I’ve been working on Big Sky Country from Weed and there’s so much I can’t pin down. There’s a lot of beautiful subtlety at work there. A wonderful challenge, nonetheless.

    Posted by Keith | July 20, 2013, 6:27 am

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