The Difference de Uno Semitone



For the entire score of American Idiot I’m transposing up by one half-step on the fly as a way to problem-solve a tuning requirement in the second act. Most transposing is done in writing and I’ve thought about it getting a complete re-write but decided against it. (Some instruments like flutes, clarinets and saxophones are known as transposing instruments because of their pitch range across their family’s variants.) Instead I will become like a language translator.

ADfm American Idiot (Before The Lobotomy)
Punk Anthem!

The song “Before the Lobotomy Reprise” is written for the guitar to be tuned down one half-step (for open-chord arpeggios that can’t be played any other way) which forces me to either A) tune my guitar down one half-step before and then back up after or B) have a guitar that is already tuned down one half-step ready and waiting.

The tune-between-songs option is too complicated: dramatic changes in string tension affect intonation requiring scale-length adjustments to be made at the saddle (string by string) with a Phillips head screwdriver and a super-tuner. Before that happens though thicker gauge strings should installed to make up for the loss of action on the neck. This kind of procedure doesn’t happen in-between songs. And the non-fancy way of simply tuning them down and playing will give inconsistent results especially on the way back up.

The ready-and-waiting-guitar option is too cluttery for the space we’re in: I’ll have my acoustic for acoustic stuff and my electric guitar for electric stuff. The addition of another electric is too much going on in a small theatre pit space – especially when it’s only needed for one song.

So I’ve decided to tune the Squire down one half-step with a proper setup and sight transpose everything (except the acoustic stuff).

The easy part is the guitar setup. To maintain the string tension on the neck my Elixir Light 46-10’s will swap to Elixir Medium 49-11 ‘s according to their estimated string tensions chart. Intonation will be adjusted at the saddle string by string to make up for any scaling changes. I found a nice chart from a California repair shop that’s pretty slick:

The hard stuff is the note setup: looking at the 3rd fret as an F# instead of G or, even worse, a C instead of B. Conceptually it is straightforward but physically it is disorienting and exhausting.


Flats are easy because you can pretend to ignore the flat symbol and just play at the regular (natural) position: seeing an Ab and playing where A normally is. Luckily, many songs in American Idiot are mostly flats.  It’s harder for sharps because you need to think of a different letter: seeing an F# and playing where a G normally is. The real bitch is seeing things like B’s and playing what looks like a C.

When I was going crazy with a couple of songs I considered re-writing some E’s and B’s as Fb’s and Cb’s – and really pissing off a lot of music nerds – before coming to my senses. Thankfully I’ve found that once I get started I can coast along pretty cool. At some point your hand is moving towards the upcoming chord relative to your previous point without visual reference to the fretboard. The less I look at the fretboard the better.

Doesn’t transpose down-a-half-step very nicely

A student of mine told me it’s gonna be hard to “come back” after getting used to playing a half-step behind. But once you master something it just becomes an additional skill.

For some fun experimentation try writing a numeral which is one lower in value than the one you are thinking – ten times in a row. It’s not maddening hard but it ain’t easy breezy and definitely makes you think at all when normally you wouldn’t have to. It’s a calculation when previously there was none. And if you are especially fond of writing numbers, it’s really quite sobering.

Good thing for this beer though because as of this week I’ve mastered it.

Cheers, (Salut, Caio)



Author: aarondoerr

Owner of Fellow Musician LLC, a small music education business specializing in outreach and private study. I'm guitarist for musical theatre and production assistant at St. Louis Public Radio.

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