“Playing in an open tuning,” says guitarist-composer Glenn Jones, “is a little bit like starting a painting with a canvas that’s a certain color.”
Jones should know. A trained visual artist heavily influenced by the Piedmont blues he heard as a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, he hasn’t used a standard canvas for decades.
As Jones explained when we caught up to discuss his seventh Thrill Jockey release, Vade Mecum, he doesn’t see open tunings as an alternate to standard, but rather as the core to his approach to playing and composing. “I probably haven’t touched standard tuning in over 40 years,” he says. “When I first started composing, I found that by using alternate and open tunings I was able to make things that felt like mine.”
As he has for decades, the 68-year-old Jones modifies his tunings with partial capos of his own design—a practice that began with his experimental electric band Cul de Sac. But for Vade Mecum, he also calls upon a more recent addition to his toolkit: Lowden fan-fret guitars, which, he says, have helped him add to his collection of tunings that already tops triple digits.
Vade Mecum (Latin for “go with me”) is Jones’ first album since 2018’s The Giant Who Ate Himself and Other New Works for 6 & 12 String Guitar. He describes it as a personal musical diary, with a timeline straddling the Covid crisis. Originally slated for 2020, it wasn’t until May of 2021 that Jones and longtime engineer and collaborator Matthew Azevedo met at a rented house in Maine and unpacked the recording gear, guitars, banjo, and capos and set to work.
But if such a delay might tempt some to build four years of ideas into every composition, Jones gives the music room to breathe. Sometimes austere but never cold, spare but never empty, Vade Mecum is rooted in Americana but isn’t simply rootsy; it’s intelligent without trying to be clever. Jones doesn’t need to fill his canvases with splatters of Jackson Pollock color; for him, the space left empty has just as much meaning.
You’ve described Vade Mecum as a musical diary of sorts. Did you compose the title track with that in mind?
The songs kind of grew organically. The opening phrase of “Vade Mecum” just came together. And from that, it was like, “How do I answer that phrase? And what comes next? Should I slow it down? Should I speed it up?” I’ll get the germ of an idea and I’ll develop it, but I never think in terms of like, “Okay, well, now I need a bridge, or now I need a chorus.” It’s just the feeling that I need something different.
Your last album came out in 2018. Did it take four years to compose the new material?
Composing a new album usually takes me about a year and a half or two years. I was originally going to record this album in March of 2020. Then the pandemic hit and we had to put off the recording for a year.
In that process, there were a couple of songs that I had ready to record that just kind of fell by the wayside, and new ones took their place. One of them I quite liked, but I can’t remember how to play it anymore [laughs]! It’s gonna come back to me—but it hasn’t yet.
Most of my pieces take at least a few months to develop. I’d say about half the album was written during the pandemic. “Forsythia,” the second track, probably took me about a year and a half to finish.
When I’m working on a new piece, I’m enthused about it and I’ll just focus on that piece—sometimes for weeks or a month—just the one piece, playing it every day and trying to figure out what comes next and how it fits together. But also there are pieces like “Bass Harbor Head,” for banjo, which we did as a field recording with birds in the background. My wife, Nora, was going out to pick up coffee and I said, “I’m gonna have a new piece of music when you come back.” So I wrote that piece really fast.
Do you finalize your compositions before recording? Or do you edit as you go?
I find the process of listening as you’re writing and playing to be different than listening once you’re no longer playing. Oftentimes after I’ve recorded a piece, I’ll listen back and think, “Why is that section there?” I’ll have played that particular section for a year. But it’s only when hearing it back—not as a player but as a listener—that I do some additional editing in my own head. Do a take, listen back, and decide a section doesn’t really work, or maybe works in a different part of the song. While you’re playing a song, it might feel like you’re playing fine. But listening back, you kind of feel like, “You know what? I’ve played this section so many times it’s worn out its welcome.”
Do you record at home as you write?
Almost never. I probably should. I keep a notebook with my tunings so I at least write the tuning and the partial capo position down. At this point, I’ve probably invented more than 100 tunings, so I definitely need to keep track of them. Iguess it’s probably a never-ending road.
The album’s liner notes document the instrument, tuning, and capo position for each song. Let’s take a look at the title track, performed on a fan-fretted Lowden F32C, tuned C# G# C# C# G# C# with a partial capo. Can you break that down for us?
That’s the tuning with the partial capo on the fourth fret of the bottom three strings [i.e., the sixth string is tuned down to A, which sounds as C# due to the capo]. The two C#s in the middle [string 4 capoed and string 3 open] are in unison but are played in different places on the neck. The G string is tuned down to C#.
Do you choose specific guitars for specific tunings?
I got into the Lowdens after reading an article about how the fanned frets worked and [hoping] it could allow me to come up with a few more tunings that would allow me to tune the low strings down even lower. On the new album, I used them on most of the tracks. There’s also an Alvarez Yairi DYM with a cedar top that I use on “John Jackson of Fairfax, Virginia.” I love the sound of cedar-top guitars and have a few of them. So I just used the Alvarez because it worked nicely on that song, which is very bluesy.
What other instruments are you using these days?
I have a fair number of Guilds. I didn’t really know the brand before I discovered one of their 12-strings. It was the best sounding 12-string I had ever heard. Guilds are very punchy and have very quick decay. And if you’re playing a fast fingerpicking style, a long-decaying guitar can get a little muddy sounding. I only discovered from playing Guilds that what I liked was the quick decay—there was a sharp attack, but not a lot of rumbling around inside the guitar after the attack.
Some players find that alternate tunings open up so many possibilities, they want to use them all at once. But you leave a lot of space.
If you have too many ideas in a piece, it’s very hard to edit. And, for me, it goes back to keeping things simple. As I get older, I find that I want to pare back the number of ideas in a song, and to keep them simple. Not simplistic—just direct—so the ideas are stated coherently and in a straightforward fashion. I feel like my intuition in that regard has gotten sharper over the years.
How did you develop your approach to using alternate tunings?
I started out in standard tuning, like most people. I started playing when I was about 14 or so. And at that time, there weren’t very many instruction books for the kind of music I gravitated towards. I started out playing songs by Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis in standard tuning.
I was also discovering the music of John Fahey and Robbie Basho around the same time—but I didn’t really understand anything about open tunings. When it came to starting to write material, I had a hard time working in standard tuning because I felt like it was not mine. And so for me, writing original material was also a process of trying to come up with my own tunings and finding a way of navigating through them.
I have nothing against standard tuning. It’s so versatile—I mean, there’s a reason why so many people employ it and why it works for so many different kinds of music. But I needed to get away from it. It wasn’t necessarily even a process that I articulated in my own mind.
Did you did you start with more common open tunings and then start creating your own?
The first one I learned was open G. I think I got it from Elizabeth Cotten’s first album (Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, 1958). The liner notes had the tuning and that was the first time I actually tried playing something in an alternate tuning.
I got into making up my own open tunings when I was working with Cul de Sac, which started in the late 1980s. I was playing variations on open C and some others. But the band would get impatient with me with retuning on stage when we played out.
It very quickly became a writing tool. Using the partial capo together with open tunings, I needed to navigate my way through pretty much totally unfamiliar terrain. And that became my writing method. When I started, I don’t believe that anyone was making a partial capo. The capo that I use most just covers the lower three strings. I had the idea to just take a regular capo and cut it in half with a hacksaw. It worked to some degree. But with most capos, if you cut off that much of it, it’ll pop off the neck or bow up to the point that the low E string is buzzing and you can’t get a clean note.
I probably went through 60 or 70 different brands before I found one that I can reliably use. It was one that I got from China. It works because it clamps down over the top of the strings rather than from behind the neck. They’re cheap, terrible capos, but I order them in bulk and modify them, and I replace the cheap parts with good parts.
Are these all for your own use?
I’ve been taking commissions on them for about 25 years and have probably made 100 capos for people around the world. So, not exactly a cottage industry [laughs]. But some people find them useful.
Do you use custom string gauges or modify the guitar to accommodate the lower pitches?
Not really. I use regular D’Addario EJ17s. Most of the time, I can still accommodate a low [sixth] string down to A. Sometimes, I go up to B if it feels a little too floppy. But mostly I can get away with going all the way down to A.
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With the strings that slack, isn’t difficult to get a solid attack without buzzing?
No, not really. I like a fairly clean sound and a certain amount of resistance from the string. After at a certain point, you’re not thinking so much about how the strings sound, but how they feel. And if they’re too slack, I’ll tune up a half step or a step. One change I did notice when I started playing a fan-fret guitar: You’re tuning the string tighter because the lower strings are longer on a fan fret.
You compared your use of tunings to starting a painting with a canvas of a certain color. Can you elaborate?
The tuning suggests something about the mood and feel of the piece. The [underpainting] color of the canvas will often determine the next color you use. Instead of a white or blank canvas, you’re starting with one that’s green or orange or something like that. Now you can maybe tell that I was a painting and printmaking major in college in the ’70s! [laughs]
How do the tunings influence the way you connect with the instrument as you play?
There are a number of things—the process of playing is not just an aural experience. It’s very tactile, the way the guitar resonates against the body, the way the guitar feels in my hands. It’s a holistic thing. I’m always looking for an emotional component. I mean, a lot of technical stuff is involved in getting to the point of being able to make something, but once I’m there, I don’t want people to hear the tunings necessarily or partial capo position—all I want them to hear is the music.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.