Emmett Explains the Origin of the 10-String Classic™ Stick Tuning

Interview by Greg Howard, May 2006

Even though Emmett and I have spent what might be considered a ridiculous amount of time discussing tunings, there's one question I always manage to forget to ask. How did he come up with his original patented Stick tuning? I have never seen an account of how he actually came up with what was called the standard tuning, and is now known as the 10-string Classic tuning.

I understood the logic of the 4ths and inverted 5ths, with their parallel geometric relationships and expanded left-hand chord possibilities, but I never know why he chose those particular notes. I always thought that the melody strings were simply tuned as high as they could reasonably go given the scale length, and the the bass was as low as it could go, to give the maximum overall range to the instrument. In a sense, the answers I got weren't far from my original assumptions, but I had no idea of the process that led to what is on its face a rather unusual way to tune a stringed instrument. Fortunately it's also a way that makes perfect sense considering the playing method.

Emmett with the first Stick prototype, 1970,
modified from his homemade 9-string 34"-scale guitar

Greg: How were your early guitars tuned compared to standard guitar tuning?

Emmett: From '61 to '63 I kept extending the guitar scale length and experimented with 7 strings. Up until '65 I kept adding high 4ths at the first string position to extend my chords in what I thought was modern harmony.

In the process, I had to drop the aggregate tuning each time so as not to snap the newly acquired high 4th. I was always interested in the intervallic relationships rather than the lettered tuning or actual key of my song arrangements.

By '65 I had "conceptually" added three 4th intervals at the high end of my home built 8-string guitar tuning, and each time the guitar major 3rd would shuffle down lower in the sequence, that is, from strings 2 and 3 finally to strings 5 and 6.

Greg: When did you finally settle on the scale length?

Emmett: In '64 I built my first 34" long scale 8-string guitar in the Air Force wood shop at SAC HQ in Omaha and its tuning was: 1-high D, 2-A, 3-E, 4-B, 5-F#, 6-D, 7-A and 8-low E.

Thus I retained the guitar's double octave between 1st and 6th strings, with the high D tensioned quite a bit higher than high E on the guitar's 25" scale length, and with a low E at the very low end as on the customary 4-string bass guitar. The guitar's major 3rd was now relegated to a lower register between 5th and 6th strings. Voila! "modern" chordal extensions in 4ths simply by adding a barre at the high end of a chord.

Greg: So were you looking for new ways to harmonize chords or to pick bass lines? What led you to invert strings 6-8?

Emmett: I wanted to make chordal accompanyment as easy as possible, given the complex jazz progressions I was playing together with jazz melody lines, and with so many strings on my guitar, I found the bass element easier to negotiate if those strings were somewhere in the middle of the sequence. It also opened up two sets of chordal strings, one in 4ths and one in 5ths. Around '67 I created the bass 5ths tuning on that Air Force guitar simply by dropping the D at the 6th position down an octave, extending my overall range by a whole step, and raising the E at the 8th position up an octave. The A was left as is, thus all lettered notes remained the same. Soon after, I added a 9th string (B, a 5th above the 8th E).

Greg: So the inverted 5ths were already there whan you made your tapping discoveries...

Emmett: Yes, I discovered two-handed tapping on nine strings on the evening of August 26th, 1969, although there were actually 10 strings on my long scale, spoon bodied guitar, the 10th being the "wild string" (you make my heart sing), a lever operated companion to the highest 1st string.

After this sudden and complete transition to tapping, I dropped all gadgets, including the "wild string", and soon added a 5th lower G at the 7th position and another 5th lower C at the 6th position, raising the remaining D, A and E strings up one octave. (I know, it's complicated.) This gave the following tuning sequence:

Melody 4ths: 1-high D, 2-A, 3-E, 4-B and 5-F#.
Bass 5ths: 6-low C, 7-G, 8-D, 9-A and 10-E.

Greg: So was the tuning in any way influential in the method discovery? Or is it just a happy accident that this expanded harmonic capability for the left hand arose? Were you dividing the instrument into 5ths for the left and 4ths for the right at the moment of discovery?

Emmett: I feel there was some relationship between my 4ths/reversed 5ths tuning and the tapping discovery. I had been picking chords on both the 4th and 5ths with a bass element on the 5ths, plus picking as free a melody line as I could on the 4ths (given the amount of fingers left over on my one fingering hand). Chords were voiced on whatever strings were available, often on both sides at once, 4ths with 5ths. When I started tapping independently with both hands, I initially kept the same approach - LH bass on the 5ths, LH chords on both 4ths and 5ths, and RH melody (and more chords) on the 4ths at higher frets.

Greg: So you had your tuning, but early on in production you made lowered tuning for some of the earlier models, didn't you? What made you shift it around?

Emmett: I lowered all ten strings by a whole step around the time I started Stick production in '74. It was a ruthless attempt to:

  • Have slinkier strings for pitch bending like Hendrix and Shankar, but not lose more volume with yet thinner, "roll your own" melody strings.

  • Bring the bass down to very low Bb. I was ambitious about extending my range, but I thought the instrument sounded better at my original 10-string tuning, so I raised them back up a whole step in '76

That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.

Greg: Thanks for telling us about it. Though I'll miss the mystery, I'm happy to have the answer.

You can find out more abut the various Stick tunings on our models and tunings page.

Emmett's original Stick tuning was granted a patent that expired after its full term in 1992.

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