Alternate Tuning Tips | Seven Variax Tips

By Spiritguitar

With the development of Variax Workbench software, you can now tune your Variax electric to any alternate tuning you like. The Variax Acoustic 700 has this feature built into the guitar itself. With the Variax tuned to standard pitch, however, the Variax DSP must create the alternate tunings in real time, note by note as you play. This is no easy task, and as with any developing technology, there are limitations. To get the best musical experience from your alt-tuned Variax, please check out the following 7 Alternate Tuning Tips. They address the most frequently asked questions of Variax owners, along with some guitar playing tips. Let’s start with #1…

1.Guitar Volume Balance: If you hear the standard tuning of your physical Variax along with the alt-tuning, your ears may be fooled into thinking the alt-tuning is out of tune. This is especially true for Acoustic 700 owners, but the solution is easy. In a studio situation, turn up your headphones; in a live situation, turn up the volume of your alt-tuned guitar amp or stage monitor so that it drowns out the physical guitar sound. When you adjust your guitar volume balance so that all you hear is the alt-tuned guitar, your alt-tuning will sound the way you expect it to.

2.Odd-Sounding Notes: If you use pull-offs, especially on an open G string that's tuned down a full step or more, or if you use Capo mode and tune several frets up or down and play harmonics, you may sometimes hear odd-sounding notes. The general cure for this is to adjust your playing technique so that you play very cleanly when doing pull-offs, play with a lighter touch on extremely alt-tuned notes and harmonics, fret your notes accurately, and avoid any problem zones that may produce odd sounds. It’s not difficult to get clean-sounding alt-tuning tracks. It just takes a little time to adapt to the particular alt-tuning you're using, then avoid any obvious problem spots you may encounter by adjusting your playing technique and choice of notes.

3.Ringing Overtones: When you play certain notes and you don’t mute your other strings, occasionally a note you're playing may cause a harmonic to resonate from a non-muted string. This can be a good thing, but sometimes it may result in an odd sound as in #2 above. The solution is to mute the strings you aren't using, especially when playing single notes. This way the DSP won't be 'confused' by unwanted notes resonating against the intended note.

4.Ringing Strings: A guitar playing tip…alternate tunings create unusual voicings when you play simple open chords, so try using as few fretted notes as possible to take advantage of the ringing strings. This gives you richer chords that are difficult to play in standard tuning. With the exception of the problematic overtones mentioned in #3 above, let your open strings ring out for more interesting chords.

5.Learn Your Scales: When in alt-tuning mode, most of the standard chord patterns won't work. This is obviously because the notes aren't in their standard locations on the fretboard. With each alt-tuning you use, take time to learn where the harmonic notes are for the key you're playing in, and memorize the patterns they form on the fretboard. With practice you'll move around as freely as you normally do with standard tuning.

6.Old + New: Once you know where the good notes are, as mentioned in #5 above, try some of your traditional chord patterns and lead guitar riffs. Often the new notes will sound great with a riff or chord you usually play. There may be one or two notes that don't fit, but if you adapt accordingly you can apply your usual riffs to the new notes. The results can be inspiring.

7.Amp Sounds: For Variax Acoustic Models, use an Amp Bypass setting or go direct whenever possible. Acoustics, Resos, Sitar, etc. don't like preamp gain, so cleaner is better in order to bring out the full range of these Models. If you use a Vetta II or PODxt Live, it’s a good idea to set up an Amp Preset for each of your favorite alt-tuned Variax Models, and save the Variax Model with your Amp Preset. That way, if you like to use acoustic and electric versions of DADGAD, for example, you'll have both available including your pre-programmed effects for instant recall.

Speaking of Acoustic Models, back in June, I wrote about one of my favorite 12-string tunings, but didn't include an MP3 clip. Here’s a Workbench screenshot of the 12-string tuning I call Acoustic 5ths, using a Jumbo Body, Tone saved at 50%. In Clip #1, I recorded some basic riffing in Em going into E major. I wanted to demonstrate how rich the Variax can sound when playing standard chords and riffs with a 5th added to each string. As I mentioned previously, this tuning is also nice because it avoids the guitar volume balance problem noted in Tip #1 above, due to the fact that the 5ths are in perfect tune with the physical Variax.

As an example of how you can get good results when playing harmonics, Clip #2 is a harmonic improvisation I recorded using a Variax Model I call Rain Electric. As shown in the second Workbench graphic, the virtual fretboard is tuned to DGCGCD, a popular tuning used by the legendary Mr. Page in that song we all know. At times, alt-tuned harmonics can cause problems, as described in Tip #2, but in this example, by playing with a clean technique and light touch, there's not a single off-pitch note in the clip. As shown in the fretboard graphic (Harmonics), I'm alternating between the 7th and 12th frets, adding a low open D note here and there. The high gain amp setting I used actually helps out with harmonics. For all the electric MP3 clips this month, I played a Variax 600 into a Vetta II, running Ableton Live 5 on a Mac. See the Line 6 Edit graphic for my Vetta II settings. (FYI, each red dot on the four graphic fretboards represents a single note, to be played one or two at a time as desired).

As I was jamming in the Rain Electric tuning, I found a few good locations on the guitar for playing simple riffs. As shown in the fretboard graphic (Riff 1, Riff 2), Clip #3 is played between the 2nd fret and open position, while Clip #4 is played between the 5th and 7th frets. Check out the MP3s and give these positions a try. By moving between the Riff 1 and Riff 2 locations, you can come up with some simple but funky lead guitar riffs.

In Clip #5, I played a very basic walkup and back down using the open A string (tuned down to G) with a single-note melody on the G string, as shown in the fretboard graphic (Walkup A). In Clip #6, I played a similar walkup (Walkup B), this time in low D, finger picking the 3 open high strings in-between. The point here is that you can come up with a variety of simple musical ideas that may be worth expanding on when using alternate tunings.

Of course there's a lot more music to be found in the DGCGCD tuning, so do some exploring on your own and see what you come up with. In closing, I hope the 7 tips and the MP3 examples provide you with a little inspiration. For me, that's the most important ingredient whether I'm recording, writing a song or just jamming on guitar.

Spiritguitar is singer/songwriter Russell DaShiell, best known for his lead guitar work on the million-selling hit "Spirit In The Sky". Check out his original music at

[original music by Russell DaShiell / copyright 2005 Aerial View Music / BMI]