Infinite are the ways you can tune a guitar. The factory setting, or standard tuning, runs up from the lowest string using the notes EADGBE, easily remembered by the mnemonic device, “Eric Always Deserves Guitars! Bashful Eric!” Almost all jazz and classical players use this tuning, as well as most who play pop and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s what you get when you grab an acoustic off the rack down at the Guitar Center and pluck out Dave Matthews Band’s “Satellite” to the unfettered joy of everyone within earshot.
What they won’t teach you at higher learning institutions is that standard tuning is harmonic hegemony, a bourgeois fret prison, one that should be subverted at any given opportunity. Standard tuning is the status quo, pale and regimented, needlessly difficult, and built for showmanship by stuffy Europeans who no doubt were without charm. Barre chords are impossible for those with small fingers, closed and stuffy chords are given deference over wide open ones, and don’t give me this Django Reinhardt only had two fingers and he did fine in standard tuning bootstrap argument. Those who continue to rely on standard tuning are destined for a khaki life of mediocrity.
In contrast, there was Sonic Youth, the high priests of arcane tunings. Their two guitarists, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, used wild, modal arrangements that created a new kind of harmonic friction after which an entire genre of noisy indie rock followed. They are two of the best guitarists to ever play—not because they fly up and down the fretboard and make cum-faces like Joe Satriani, but because they became attuned to new modes. It’s innovation by subtlety, and for those who listen deeply to Sonic Youth, it's the reason that band just might change your life. Wild timbres fly out of the speakers as they played songs like “Silver Rocket” (Moore is in ACCGG#C, Ranaldo is in AAEEAA ) and “Schizophrenia” (Moore is in F#F#GGA, Ranaldo is in DDDDAA).
There’s a reason bashful Eric never wooed a campfire with any Sonic Youth covers, or Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” (CGCFCE) or Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” (BDDDDD). There is one tuning, however, that Eric could switch to in five seconds with just a reach of his hand to the tuning peg. It’s the most unsubtle, knuckle-dragging, microwave-dinner tuning, the tuning used famously by Tool and Incubus. Drop-D is what happens when you drop your low E string down one note to a D, so you can play power chords—the building blocks of hard rock—much easier. It’s a life of riffs and anthems: basic, bad, and true. Its waypoints include “Dear Prudence” and “Harvest Moon,” but also “Everlong” and “Spoonman.” Drop-D is a near-choiceless life of commercial rock radio, being proudly unread and politically incorrect.
It’s also a tuning that pairs nicely with Miller High Life, the beer we drank in the back of the car on our trip down to see drop-D legends Muse. It was just me, my two best friends, and the Champagne of Beers riding from Northern Wisconsin down to Chicago in a black Pontiac sedan to see our favorite band for the first time.
The thrill of seeing your favorite band for the first time—that’s unforgettable. No good bands came up to the unbeaten path where we attended college at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and it was difficult to leave on a Friday to get to a show in Milwaukee (2.5 hours away) or Minneapolis (3.5 hours away). So when Muse announced they were touring with The Cure for the Curiosa Tour and they would come to Chicago’s Tinley Park during the summer of 2004, we bought lawn seats and some beers, made the four-hour drive, and settled in at the top of the hill to wait for Muse to perform a short set.
Muse are what some people would call “just an absolutely terrible band,” and those people would be correct. The aesthetics of Muse—Rage Against the Machine in zero gravity, a British space prog trio with a baroque classicism to their melodies whose screams about the fight against some nameless political tyranny have never revealed themselves to be rooted in anything other than broad, Orwellian sloganeering and passing sci-fi references—are dumb.
But they are not dumb if you learned how to play some of their songs on guitar by cranking down the first tuning peg to drop-D and chugging up and down the fretboard playing pentatonic riffs that sound like flames coming out of the exhaust of a truck. They are also not dumb if you don't read a lot of books or listen to a lot of other music. In fact, by those metrics, they are a very smart rock band that sounds like the worst impulses of Radiohead amplified and acted upon as if the universe was built around their truths.
The lawn area at Tinley Park was sparsely populated early in the afternoon as sets from The Rapture and Interpol coasted by. By 2004, Muse was slowly gaining more fans in the U.S. following the release of their third album Absolution, and though both The Rapture and Interpol were more in vogue at the time (and whose albums we all enjoyed), we were merely biding time until Muse. We bought Muse tour shirts and put them on—we were, collectively, that guy. Pall Malls were smoked, $10 beers were drank, and it was almost time to see the band whose motto is basically: “In space, no one can hear your heart break.” The band who would surely stir the crowd into a weeping catharsis with choruses like, “This is the last time I will abandon you,” frontman Matt Bellamy’s shrill falsetto leading the charge like an arrow over the outdoor arena.
But then a voice came over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, unfortunately, Muse has canceled their performance.”
Familiar we all are with that moment when you laugh at something because you don’t quite know how to process the grief. And laugh we did, though we thought it was a joke. (Muse are cheeky in that way.) But then it became clear it wasn’t a joke and our crests fell, hard, so we slunk back to the parking lot and into the Pontiac sedan.
So fallen were our crests that we couldn’t even bear to stay for The Cure and their 35-song set. We weren’t attuned to The Cure at the time. We wanted big. We wanted a supernova of feeling because the bigger, the better. In those days we measured life in terms of its grandeur. We found out later that the bass player of Muse, Chris Wolstenholme, broke his hand playing soccer backstage. As a result, he couldn’t play the huge, acrobatic basslines that made songs like “Hysteria” have their own currency in the bass-covers market of YouTube.
The drive back north from Chicago was silent and painful. Headaches, resentment, indignation, and a palpable dearth of riffs all stewed in the sedan. Notions of going to an totally-nude, 18-and-older strip club in Appleton, Wisconsin called Beansnappers were considered and rejected with the same low hum of disaffection. We bought another case of Miller High Life and found a backyard, lit a fire, sat around, and drank until we all threw up and fell asleep in the grass.
A month before we didn’t see Muse, we all got together to successfully see The Darkness on their very first tour at Milwaukee’s beer-and-music-and-also-beer-again festival, Summerfest. We paid a stranger to ferry us pints of Miller Genuine Draft from the beer kiosk, fearing our fake IDs would be more scrutinized at a public event than they were at our usual dive bar. Two months after we didn’t see Muse, the three of us were arrested in the middle of the night with our winter coats full of stolen “Bush/Cheney 2004” signs and were each charged with election fraud. These were times not of not-terrible decisions, only large and unfortunate ones. These were times that slung low to the earth like Fieldy’s bass. We were tuned to the basic and chunky.
The idea of tuning is simply an orientation to something agreeable. Most popular Western music is tuned to a standard called “equal temperament,” but there are many other tuning standards throughout history: microtonal, Super Just, Pythagorean, and so on. Just as there are infinite ways to tune a guitar, so too are there infinite standards by which to infinitely tune a guitar. Music is as aleatory as life on earth, and its acoustics are as lush and complicated as our human biology. It’s alive with dissonance and chaos like our morning commute or the wedding of an ex. Every day we are asked to be in tune to the world, to get on the same wavelength, to work in harmony, but in truth, sometimes you are Thurston Moore and the world is Lee Ranaldo and you’re trying to find common ground through different chord positions and scales, and your note is simply not their note. We humans, like most music, crave resolution.
So it would seem that, three years later, in our senior year of college, when Muse announced a show in Columbus, Ohio—600 miles away, the closest they would come on that tour—that we should pile back into the Pontiac sedan and go. I mean, right? Finals be damned, bank accounts be damned, we weren’t going to let Muse escape us again. Now they were on tour with My Chemical Romance, riding a newfound success from their 2006 album, titled, almost perfectly, Black Holes and Revelations.
The drive to Columbus in the spring of 2007 was more muted than the first to Chicago. We were older now, our hearts hardened by that kind of time that passes in your early twenties, what feels like heavy and important time. The mood in the sedan existed stoically between the truths of of “lightning never strikes twice in the same place” and “once bitten, twice shy.” Driving eight hours to see Muse was a pilgrimage not just for us as music fans but as a button to our college years. This was a resolution to see this band we still loved if only because we had to. We felt beholden to love them because our love had been left hanging in the balance: Would this band whose songs we’ve worshipped for four years, singing “Plug-In Baby” when we had all drank enough High Life to barely keep the rhythm of our air drumming, fulfill our wishes of being the best, grandest rock band we could imagine?
Our basic understanding of life in our early twenties was that this band was true arena rock ‘n’ roll, real musicians who interpolated Chopin and Queen into their songs, who were at the peak of their craft, and who knew how to break it down and build it up to a goddamn climax. We were sci-fi nerds and theater geeks who played Lord of the Rings Risk every Thursday night. Muse could slay, we thought, we all saw their old TV performance where they played their old song “Showbiz” and threw their instruments off a boat and into the water. Bellamy plays with a Kaoss Pad on his guitar, a MIDI processor that lights up like a small galaxy on the body of his guitar which allows him to do so much more than slide around in drop-D and play power chords. “No one’s going to take me alive,” he sings on his then-recent single “Knights of Cydonia,” “The time has come to make things right. You and I must fight for our lives. You and I must fight to survive.” We were all different people, sure, but upon the massive planet of Muse we could find common ground.
We arrived to the parking lot of the arena in Columbus a few hours early, the excitement hitting us again. There were only a few cars parked there, so we got a good spot. We piled out of the sedan and skipped quickly to the doors of the arena. On each door was a piece of paper.
“Due to unforeseen complications, the Muse and My Chemical Romance show scheduled for tonight has been postponed until tomorrow.”
Guffaws this time, all around, the kind of laugh that belied what we actually knew about how absurd the universe was. We were two states away from our home on a Saturday afternoon, and all of us had can’t-miss exams or classes on Monday. A flurry of discussion and a chorus of what-to-dos found us resolved to stay the night and see the show Sunday and drive back through the night. So we pooled our change and rented a cheap hotel room for the night, bought another case of High Life, and drank all of it to pass the time until the next day, when we would wake up and finally see Muse, our absolute favorite band.
You probably know where this is going.
“Due to unforeseen complications, the Muse and My Chemical Romance show scheduled for tonight has been cancelled. Refunds are available at...”
There was no laughter. Our bodies felt heavy. The earth spun faster and pulled us closer to its center. What the fuck, what the fuck is happening, are you fucking serious. How is it that we’ve missed the broadest most unsubtle band in the world twice. We can’t even hunt down three hulking idiots who sing about space-fucking, which surely makes us the three larger hulking idiots. We were numb and speechless.
In a misguided decision, we got in the sedan and followed a tour bus as it left the parking lot. A peek at the band, that’s all we wanted, just to see their bodies as proof of life, both theirs and ours. The bus drove to an apartment complex somewhere in the suburbs of Columbus, probably to where the band was being housed because there is not exactly a Four Seasons in Columbus. We didn’t see any of them, of course, it was just the crew loitering around outside, smoking cigarettes. One of the roadies told us that he heard that the show was cancelled because of widespread food poisoning across both bands. Sure, whatever, that’s fine, I remember thinking, if Matt Bellamy is somewhere in Columbus doubled over a toilet that is, I suppose, some recompense for our hurt.
We began the eight-hour drive home with no adrenaline. We got a story out of it, three eager and dumb fans driving thousands of miles to never see a band that brought them all together. But whatever life we were tuned to had to change. We played every note we could, drank every last drop of cheap beer, and were still languishing in this mode, riffing about playing the same song over and over. Reaching for the tuning pegs, we sped through the Midwest in our sedan with no music on to better hear what we should tune our lives to next.
Illustration by Remo Remoquillo