Tao Of Tunings

Alternate Tunings for Guitar, by Mark Shark

In His Own Words

Born in St. Louis Missouri some years back, to a musical heritage, my earliest memories include watching my parents practice on the beautiful black Steinway piano in our living room.

Both my mother Mary Bray, and my father William Schatzkamer, were concert pianists who met at Julliard.

After graduating they played many concerts together, then my father spent years on the road recording for RCA, touring with Paul Robeson, then onto Professor Emeritus and Conductor of both the Washington University and the Gateway Symphonies of St. Louis.

Both high achievers, my mother graduated from Smith College, received a masters degree in Ed. Psych from Washington University and her Ed.D from U Mass in Amherst. In addition to having four children she also enjoyed educating with the Head Start program, teaching music, and writing.

Mark Shark, playing guitar for John Trudell

Mark Shark, playing guitar for John Trudell

I started most of my days listening to my father practice Brahms, Scriabin,  Bach, Beethoven and ended most days singing Pete Seeger folk songs with my mother out of the Fireside Songbook as she played along.

I believe all of us, my brother Bill and sisters Laura and Nina at some point attempted to learn piano, but we were quickly intimidated by either our lack of innate ability or the fear of the bar that was set before us.

I clearly remember the first time I heard an electric guitar.  I was riding in the car with my dad when Chuck Berry came on the radio “ugh” he exclaimed “what dreck!”  and he quickly turned the radio off.

I quickly turned it back on desperate to learn more about this exciting new sound!

My father glanced suspiciously over at me, his menacingly high arched brow raised the question before he spoke “You like this noise Mark?”

“I do like it Pi, it’s great…it’s exciting!”

His large shoulders slumped heavily and I could feel the distance starting to take shape between us but neither of us said more.  He indulged my desire for the radio as we drove on.  One mans poison…

About this time my older brother Bill brought home his very own record player and broadened my musical horizons with John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee.

He invested in an electric guitar and started teaching himself to play.  I loved watching him figure it out and wanted to play too, but he was left handed and switching the guitar around was not convenient.

I would have to get my own.

I started singing in bands around the eighth grade with my friends and after a while bought a guitar and started taking lessons with Doug Niedt.  Even then Doug was freakishly good and completely disciplined and driven to  know his instrument.  Naturally, he expected me to be as committed as well, and sadly, he was quickly disappointed.

I was interested in playing songs.  I didn’t care about knowing the intricacies of the instrument.

I did not practice scales, chords, and modes as instructed, and he immediately showed me the door.  His time was valuable and he couldn’t waste it.  (Doug was then a freshman in high school.)

I was shocked and shamed into promising him I’d go through Sal Salvador’s’ Single String Studies and Mel Bays’ chord method  books if he would give me another chance and teach me songs by the Animals and the Lovin’ Spoonful!  He agreed, and I continued to play and learn throughout  high school.

Playing the Bar Mitzvah circuit and school dances was fun and a chance to put a sound together.  I spent hours practicing scales and chord patterns and I didn’t necessarily enjoy that, however I am eternally grateful to Doug for insisting that I do it.  He was absolutely right…it has made me a better musician; thanks again Doug.

At seventeen I attended Webster College in St. Louis for two years and eventually tired of that and took a job with a show band.

I was restless, and being on the road seemed exciting.  Not to mention the money was… well, seductive.

It didn’t take too long for me to realize that although fun, and certainly exciting on some levels, playing in a show band was inevitably a dead end street.

I wanted to create on my own and knew I didn’t have the depth of knowledge I needed in order to do what I wanted to on the guitar.

I noticed that Jerry Hahn (a favorite Guitar Player magazine columnist of mine) was teaching at Wichita State University.  I called him on a whim and told him that I wanted to know how chords and scales all fit together, and that I wanted to learn how to play “outside.”

Jerry chuckled and said quietly that he could help me with all that, but first I should learn how to play “inside!”

I moved to Wichita at twenty one and began taking music theory and guitar classes with Jerry.  Learning from him was a life changing experience and I still use his book “The Complete Method for Jazz Guitar” when I teach today.  My time at Wichita State was inspirational, but brief, and after completing one year the road called again.

If my choice of music was disappointing to my parents, my decision to leave school before earning a degree was the proverbial icing on the cake.  Nevertheless, I packed up and moved out to California.  We lost my brother Bill in December of 1978 and I couldn’t spend one more cold chilling winter in St. Louis.

California was the promised land then — the place where it was all happening — and I wanted to be part of that scene.

The year was 1979 and L.A. was all I had heard it would be, both good and bad.

Fascinated by the palm trees, the girls, and the music scene I took every job I could find in every hell hole imaginable.

My playing continued to broaden as it must when you’re trying to pay the rent.  One night I’d be playing Jobim at a wedding, another night would be Kool and the Gang at the Hacienda Lounge, another found me rising from the basement of Disneyland on the Tomorrowland stage wearing an electric blue tuxedo and playing disco, another would be covering George Jones at the Stetson in Garden Grove, and yet another would be doing Lightning Hopkins at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach.

Some were enjoyed more than others, but all of them prepared me for life as a musician.

In the summer of 1982 fate smiled kindly when my friend Gary Ray brought guitarist Jesse Ed Davis to the Lighthouse.

Jesse was larger than life.  He had enjoyed a spectacular career playing with Conway Twitty, then through fellow OKC musician Leon Russell he moved to L.A. and never looked back.  Jesse had played with the incomparable Taj Mahal, John Lennon, Gene Clark, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, you name it — he did it. I was thrilled (to say the least), and the first song we played together was Willin’ by Lowell George.

The moment Jesse hit the first note of that beautiful song I was done.

Jesse Ed Davis

Jesse Ed Davis

Nothing I had ever played could compare to the soulful longing he expressed, seemingly effortlessly, on his guitar.  It was pure magic.

My guitar playing ability exists in pre-Jesse and post- Jesse realism.  Everything I had done up until that point was centered on the technical and musical concepts I was attempting to master.  Jesse showed me how to channel emotion into the guitar not necessarily by playing lots of notes, or even complex chordal tonalities, but rather through the simple yet profound concept of  sustained beauty through the music.

More often than not, less was more, what he edited out of his playing was genius.  He had plenty of country, blues, and jazz chops for sure, but he also had something more.

Every note he played had meaning, and an emotional depth and soul that few musicians ever achieve.  He never played a note just to play it…he chose very wisely and because of that was able to channel the emotion of a song in an unbelievably meaningful and beautiful way.

As luck would have it I had begun to play slide guitar in G tuning by then and was hoping to meet someone who could shine a light.

Jesse was that light.

What I learned just from watching him play in E tuning those first few months at the Lighthouse was life changing.

I continued playing with Jesse till we lost him in June of 1988, and while I wish we had had more time, I am and will always remain, grateful for everything he was…and everything he inspired me to be.

…Which leads us to the wonderful world
of alternate tunings.

It’s hard to say how long it would have taken me to master some of these tunings without Jesse’s help, but suffice it to say he shortened my road quite a bit.

In those days there were few books or videos on the subject.  It wasn’t taught as part of a music program in schools, and finding a journeyman to show you the way was a long shot.

People like us just sort of “felt” our way through.

You learned what to play (or what NOT to play) by falling on your face and doing it differently next time you got the chance.  Jesse not only showed me HIS way but introduced me to many other like minded people who shared the same passions I do.

It eased my path as a guitarist who is always hoping to find the right balance between the neck, the bar, the note, the string, and the finger.

This book is my version of the light Jesse, and so many others, generously shared with me.

The Tao of Tunings focuses on an in depth analysis of seventeen of the most widely used and unusual tunings.

Tuning maps to help guide your way, along with tablature and standard music notation, cd examples, and a comprehensive view of perceiving and navigating your way around these strange new lands.

You are not alone.

Among the artists I have admired and studied most are:

  • Jesse Ed Davis
  • John Lee Hooker
  • Bonnie Raitt
  • Lowell George
  • Jackson Browne
  • David Lindley
  • Ry Cooder
  • Muddy Waters
  • Leo Kottke
  • Taj Mahal
  • Joni Mitchell
  • Michael Hedges
  • David Crosby
  • Stephen Stills
  • Neil Young
  • Martin Simpson
  • Debashish Bhattacharya
  • Robert Johnson
  • Leonard Kwan
  • Keola Beamer
  • Duane Allman
  • George Harrison
  • Eric Clapton
  • Keith Richards
  • Sonny Landreth
  • Daniel Lanois
  • Ali Akbar Khan
  • Pierre Bensusan
  • Alex de Grassi
  • Jimmy Page
  • Elizabeth Cotton
  • John Fahey
  • Robbie Basho
  • Robbie Robertson
  • Lightnin’ Hopkins
  • Bach
  • Mississippi John Hurt
  • Julian Bream
  • Roscoe Holcomb
  • Ali Farka Toure
  • James Burton
  • Elmore James

I could go on but…

This book and the information in it is the culmination of the last forty years of my life spent in every dive from here to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonopah.

There have been quite a few nice surprises along the way, most of which I’ll never forget.

I‘ve had the pleasure to have played and recorded with many of my own personal heroes:

  • Jesse Ed Davis
  • Jackson Browne
  • Bonnie Raitt
  • Terry Evans
  • Crosby, Stills, and Nash
  • John Trudell
  • Taj Mahal
  • George Harrison
  • Bob Dylan
  • John Fogerty
  • Jennifer Warnes
  • Bob Weir

I am eternally grateful for each and every experience, and I hope you enjoy the journey as much as I have.

Peace and Gratitude,

Mark Shark
Los Angeles, California
November 2008