Adventures in Spanish

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Sometimes referred to as open G or open A tuning, Spanish tuning is perhaps better viewed in terms of the relationship of the strings to the root pitch on the 5th string:

6th string=5th
5th string=Root
4th string=5th
3rd string=Root
2nd string=3rd
1st string=5th

The root, 3rd and 5th are the notes of the major scale that make up a major chord for whatever key you are playing in: in A, they would be A, C# and E. So if you are tuned to Spanish at A, playing the top 5 open strings will sound an A major chord. The pitches you are tuned to - EAEAC#E - are actually the same as a regular A chord in standard tuning. If you tune to G, the strings are tuned DGDGBD. Whatever pitch you tune to, the relationship between the strings will always stay the same: 5R5R3R.

As with its sibling, Vestapol tuning, what makes Spanish convenient as a name is the lack of confusion between the actual key the song might sound in and the relationship of the intervals between strings in the tuning. Open Ab sounds like a complicated tuning, but not if its just Spanish tuning pitched at Ab.

A note on tuning: Many guitarists prefer not to tune up to A in Spanish, since it exerts more tension on the neck, and therefore tune to G and use a capo as needed. We wouldn't recommend leaving your guitar tuned up to A, but most guitars should be able to handle the stress of tuning up to that pitch temporarily. You may notice some string breakage on occasion. While we are not dealing with slide tunes here, those songs in particular can benefit from the higher tension of tuning up to A.

While Spanish tuning may be commonly encountered in the Country Blues, it would be an exaggeration to say that it's use was ubiquitous in the areas where Country Blues were recorded in the period from the mid-1920s through the 1990s. Based on the recorded evidence, there were areas where playing in Spanish tuning was seldom encountered and other areas where virtually every player employed it for at least a tune or two. For example, in the Eastern Seaboard states of Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia, performances played in Spanish tuning are pretty rare, with the exception of players from the Atlanta scene of the late '20s and early '30s, where Spanish was commonly used by Peg Leg Howell, Blind Willie McTell, Barbecue Bob, Charley Lincoln, George Carter, Willie Baker and Fred McMullen. Spanish tuning is all but absent from the playing of such East Coast musicians as Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller, Josh White, Baby Tate, and Rich and Welly Trice, though. There is a strong cadre of players from the Mississippi Delta in the late '20s into the '30s who used Spanish tuning a lot--Charlie Patton, Willie Brown, Son House, Robert Johnson, but an equally long list of musicians who used it little or not at all--Tommy McClennan, Robert Petway, Honeyboy Edwards, Booker White. There is a node of players in St. Louis who employed Spanish tuning, most prominently Clifford Gibson, but also J.D. Short, Milton Sparks, Henry Townsend and Teddy Darby. Playing in Spanish is quite rarely found in guitarists from Texas.
Spanish tuning does attract specialists, though. The following artists, all of whom recorded more than one or two titles, recorded virtually their entire repertoires in Spanish tuning: Big Joe Williams, Buddy Boy Hawkins, Roosevelt Graves, Smoky Babe (Robert Brown), Blind Joe Taggart, Charley Lincoln, and William Smith. Other musicians, while not playing in Spanish exclusively, can be fairly said to be major stylists in Spanish tuning. Clifford Gibson, Peg Leg Howell, Furry Lewis, Jack Kelly and Memphis Minnie would all qualify for that status. For a great number of Country Blues musicians, Spanish was a specialty tuning, in which they recorded only one tantalizing number, like Ishmon Bracey's "Suitcase Full Of Blues" or Teddy Darby's "Built Down On The Ground".
Spanish tuning survived strongly into the Post-War period in the playing of such musicians as John Lee Hooker, Doctor Ross, R. L. Burnside and Robert Belfour. The strong open-sounding interior voicing of the fifth, fourth and third strings, root, fifth, root, proved to work exceptionally well on electric guitar.
Spanish tuning also operates in customized variants that are encountered from time to time. The Louisiana bluesman Herman E. Johnson sometimes employed a version of Spanish tuning in which the sixth string was tuned an octave below the fifth string: A-A-E-A-C#-E. Similarly, the Kentucky mountain musician Roscoe Holcomb used a version of Spanish in which the sixth and fifth strings were tuned to a unison: G-G-D-G-B-D, and John Jackson used a version of Spanish in which the guitar was tune to two triads, G-B-D-G-B-D, the same tuning employed by most Bluegrass dobro players.

Here's a growing list of songs that are played in Spanish tuning. These are all songs played without slide. We have left out slide and Delta players (mostly), as the list would grow exponentially.

Arthur Weston
Roll Me Over Slow
Uncle Sam Called Me
Throw Your Arms Around Me
Indeed I Do
Long Tall Woman

Blind Joe Taggart
Been Listening All The Day
C & O Blues
Goin' To Rest Where Jesus Is
I've Crossed the Separation Line (with Josh White in Vestapol)
The Storm Is Passing Over
There's a Hand Writing on the Wall (with Josh White in Vestapol)

Blind Roosevelt Graves
Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Standing On Jesus
I Shall Not Be Moved
I'll Be Rested When The Roll Is Called

Buddy Boy Hawkins
A Rag
Awful Fix
Jailhouse Fire Blues
Raggin' the Blues
Snatch It Back
Voice Throwin' Blues

Clifford Gibson
Bad Luck Dice
Beat You Doing It
Brooklyn Blues
Hard Headed Blues
Levee Camp Moan
Society Blues
Stop Your Rambling
Tired of Being Mistreated parts 1 & 2

Dr. Ross
Good Things Blues
My Be-bop Gal
Shake A My Hand
Polly Put the Kettle On

Ed Bell
Snigglin' Blues (Barefoot Bill)
Barefoot Bill's Hard Luck Blues (Barefoot Bill)
Big Rock Jail (Barefoot Bill)
One More Time (Barefoot Bill)
Bad Boy (Barefoot Bill)

Elizabeth Cotten
Jesus Is Tenderly Calling
The Wreck Of The Old 97
Til We Meet Again
When I Get Home

Emry Arthur
She Lied to Me

Etta Baker
Lost John

Furry Lewis
Black Gipsy Blues
Furry's Blues
Good Looking Girl Blues
I Will Turn Your Money Green
Kassie Jones Parts 1 & 2
Rock Island Blues

Henry Townsend
Don't Love That Woman

Herman E. Johnson
You Don't Know My Mind

Ishmon Bracey
Suitcase Full of Blues

Jack Kelly and Will Batts
61 Highway Blues
Country Woman

J. D. Short
Barefoot Blues
Snake Doctor Blues

Jesse Lee Vortis
Miss Maybelle
When My Baby Got on Board

Jesse Wadley
Alabama Prison Blues

Jim Bunkley
Jack of Diamonds

Joe Callicott
France Chance
Roll And Tumble

John Dudley
You've Got A Mean Disposition

Junior Kimbrough
Meet Me In The City

J.W. Warren
Careless Love
A Long Old Lane

Poor Howard

Little Buddy Doyle
Hard Scufflin' Blues
Grief Will Kill You

Lonzie Thomas
My Three Women

Mance Lipscomb
Willy, Poor Boy

Marshall Owens
Try Me One More Time
Texas Blues

Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe McCoy
Joilet Bound
What's the Matter with the Mill

Milton Sparks w/Henry Townsend, guitar
Erie Train Blues
Grinder Man Blues

Mississippi John Hurt
Boys, You're Welcome
Spanish Fandango

Peg Leg Howell
Ball and Chain Blues
Broke and Hungry Blues
Coal Man Blues
Rolling Mill Blues
Tishimingo Blues

Pete Harris
Square Dance Calls

R. L. Burnside
Long Haired Doney
Skinny Woman
Black Mattie

Robert Curtis Smith
Get A Real Young Woman
Katy Mae

Robert Davis
Poor Joe Breakdown

Robert Pete Williams
Mississippi Heavy Water Blues
Dyin' Soul
I Got The Blues So Bad
Sinner Don't You Know
I Want To Die Easy
Lord I Done You Wrong
All Out And Down

Roger "Burn Down" Garnett
Lighthouse Blues

Skip James
Special Rider Blues

Smokey Babe
Boogie Woogie Rag
Hottest Brand Goin'

Sylvester Cotton
I Tried

Teddy Darby
Built Down on the Ground

Tom Turner
Drop Down Mama #1

William and Versey Smith
Everybody Help the Boys Come Home
I Believe I'll Go Back Home
When That Great Ship Went Down
Sinner You'll Need King Jesus

William "Do Boy" Diamond
Just Want to Talk With You

Willie Doss
Coal Black Mare
Hobo Blues

Have a song to add to the list? Go to original forum thread