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Eureka! In preparing for this year’s Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards I may have accidentally invented something: a new, simpler way to teach people to play the guitar in a very short period of time using the most iconic music of the Rolling Stones. More importantly, no matter what or how you play will sound good enough immediately and satisfy that tribal aspiration of all humans—to feel momentarily like a rock star.
This "discovery" was completely inspired by the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards’ use of "five-string open G tuning" (read on). Since I am an incurable namer-of-things, I have cleverly dubbed this phenomenon of accidental invention Keith’s Law: the law of unintended uses. Many great inventions and innovations have been discovered by accident including saccharine, penicillin, vulcanized rubber, the pacemaker, silly putty and potato chips, to name a few. In his mind-blowing book entitled Life, Keith’s philosophy is that life itself is nothing more than as series of lucky accidents. But, as Louis Pasteur said, "chance favors the prepared mind."
(Photo credit: Jane Rose)
Recently, Keith was awarded one of our Maslow’s Silver Hammer statues at our second annual Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. His award was accepted at the ceremony by his right hand, his confidante and personal hammer Jane Rose. She later shared the award with Keith, who seemed pleased with his prize (see picture). Named in honor of famed sociologist Abraham Maslow, (best known for his “hierarchy of human needs”), it was Maslow who said, “when your only tool’s a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail.” The Silver Hammer reference hopefully speaks for itself unless you are one of the three people on the planet that doesn’t like the Beatles. This award is for iconoclasts who disrupt the status quo with new ideas, inventions, business models and paradigms. Smashing the past with new, simpler ideas in a world that suffers from “creeping featuritis” or in disruptive innovation parlance, a “sustaining” innovation. Keith is the ultimate genius of the unadulterated pure when it comes to music and attitude.
Keith’s original disruptive innovation was his own ingenious adaptation of five-string open G banjo tuning for hard-driving rock and roll on his electric guitar seamlessly mixing chords and riffs. Instead of playing banjo style with its heavy reliance on fancy finger picking or using a bottleneck slide characteristic of 1920’s-style African American blues (think Robert Johnson), Keith leapfrogged the traditional six-string Standard E guitar tuning and transported the five-string banjo tuning onto his Fender Telecaster guitar affectionately named Macaw.
The resulting unmistakable sound is the extreme opposite of what a banjo sounds like. Keith actually went so far as to removed the low E sting altogether that was just getting in the way—all the notes (G-D-G-D-B-G) were still there on five strings since the low E string (tuned a whole step down to a D for open G) was simply an octave and completely unnecessary. So Keith ended up with a five-string electric guitar that utilizes only three different notes (two strings are octaves) that when strummed with no fingers, or "open," sounds like a major G chord. Strum a guitar with six strings in Standard E tuning with its five different notes (the low E string and the high E string are octaves) and it sounds terrible—totally discordant and unpleasant to the ear. But in open G, in Keith’s words, "everything sounds like a goddamn orchestra."
Now, admittedly this in not the simplest thing to explain, particularly to non-musicians. So I felt inspired to try to use some good old-fashioned showmanship to demonstrate Keith’s innovation by giving a live demo. Using a few musical props (a wire cutter, a banjo, a ukulele and my own prized 1955 Fender Telecaster), I tried to convey enough so that people at our event could get the general idea of open G tuning. This was a very heavy-hitting crowd of 400 intellectuals, innovators and deep thinkers; for the most part, non-musicians. I decided I should run the idea of my live demo by my dear friend Lisa Robinson of Vanity Fair, who has covered Keith as a music journalist for more than 40 years. I told her "show the ukelele, then the banjo, and then finally the electric guitar," from which I intended to clip off the low E string off in front of the audience to dramatize how Keith used fewer strings and ended up with a bigger sound.
Lisa quickly sent back an email cautioning me to be careful: her husband Richard, a polymath who knows everything from technology to music to magic, pointed out that it is dangerous to clip a string that has enormous tension on it—it can snap back and hit you in the eye. Having clipped quite a few strings in my life and having been smacked in the face more than a few times, Richard’s helpful reminder prompted me to practice snipping the string at home the Saturday night before the awards; I knew I would be somewhat distracted and nervous performing this ritual in front of this intimidating audience. It would be like the rabbi performing a circumcision in the back seat of a Buick (much like the old Saturday Night Live skit). No room for error.
The Moment of Invention
So here it is: a recap of the moment of invention. As I prepared to snip the low E string off my Telecaster, I protected my eyes and face with my cupped right hand over the the left hand that would cut the string, kind of like covering a lemon as you squeeze it so it doesn’t squirt someone in the eye. And as I snipped the string with the wire cutter, I instinctively turned my head away. And then it happened! Now for the actual moment of invention: I inadvertently snipped the neighboring A string as well cutting off two strings instead of the one string I intended to. My first reaction was “oh sh#t!” I had ruined a perfectly good A string and it is a pain in the ass to add a guitar string.
(Photo credit: Jane Rose)
But then in a flash it hit me. All the same notes that Keith uses for five-string open G (I have now foreshortened and named “5SOG”) were still there. But now all the necessary notes were reduced to only four strings. Like Keith, I had removed a string that was simply an octave. Sort of like a second derivative, mathematically speaking. But hot damn, all the notes were there. Not as full and symphonic since that octave adds a great deal of richness. I started to play my favorite rock and roll song of all time: “Honky Tonk Women” that took me twenty years to even figure out I was playing in the wrong tuning. Keith played this same song in 5SOG, while as a youth who didn’t know any better I was stuck trying to play it in Standard E tuning (which is impossible). But even with only four strings it was still unmistakably "Honky Tonk Women." My goal in life is to one day play this song with Keith—only once, but I have to be prepared at all times in case the opportunity should present itself. I also want to play "Here Comes the Sun" with George Harrison, which seems only a bit less likely to happen.
So by clumsily snipping off one extra string I was down to four strings yet all the notes. Hence I christened this tuning (post-circumcision) “4SOG”. And it is a helluva lot simpler and quicker to learn play only four strings than five, and certainly easier than six strings like a regularly tuned guitar. And three notes is easier than five.
This phenomenon explains why the fastest growing instrument is the ukulele that has only four strings but also has four notes. So 4SOG is even simpler to learn than the uke. 4SOG has four strings but only three notes. And once you master 4SOG you can move the next level of 5SOG by just adding back one more string. You will never really need that sixth string if you want to sound like Keith or at least understand what is going on in his mind.
As Jonathan Swift said, “ it was a brave man who first eat an oyster.” That man was an innovator, but the man who invented cocktail sauce? Now there was a pure genius. So Keith Richards was the man who invented my favorite musical cocktail sauce, 5SOG. My 4SOG tuning—which by the way, appeared nowhere on Google—isn’t quite as good, but maybe its good enough for beginners. I will have to find out if Keith already thought of this, but I am sure of one thing—he will understand the idea in a nano.
(PS: I already bought the URLs for 4SOG.com and 5SOG.com.)