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Musician Magazine 7/92

Pearl Jam, Untuned
Alternate tunings climb the alternative charts
by Alan DiPerna

Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam hunkers down on the hot asphalt in the parking lot outside a California theater, waiting for soundcheck. He messes with the tuning machines on his road-worn sunburst Les Paul, and it becomes clear why it's so hard to figure out the songs from the Pearl Jam record, Ten. At first, the tunes all seemed based on straightforward rock chord progressions, but when you try to nail them down, the exact notes elude you. As Gossard works his fretboard, the reason for this is revealed, alternate tunings! But even the tunes that aren't based on them benefit from the unique sense of chord shapes that Gossard -- who is also the band's principal songwriter -- has developed.

"Yeah, it looks pretty bizarre at first," says lead guitarist Mike McCready, who sticks to conventional tunings. "When me and Stone first got together, I said, 'What the hell is he playing?'"

"We're pretty opposite as players," adds Gossard, "so we complement one another. It's a tradeoff between us. You'll hear Mike's guitar come up for the solos, but there are a lot of songs where my rhythm parts are playing the main riff."

A track from Ten called "Garden" provides a good case in point. It's in dropped-D tuning (D, A, D, G, B, E, low to high); just bring your low E string down a whole step. Gossard's delicately latticed rhythm figure is the instrumental focal point of the intro and verses. It's based on an Am6 with a flat 7th, which Stone plays up on the seventh fret, holding down an A on the D string and an F# on the B. The A, G and high E strings ring open. The melody is formed by pulling off from F# to E on the B string (seventh to fifth frets), then from B to A, resolving to a C played on the G string, at the fifth fret.

The dropped low string comes into play for the chorus. The first chord, Amin, is formed by stopping the low three strings at the seventh fret and the high three strings at the fifth fret. Stone just calls the second chord a D, although sticklers might want to call it a D sus4 9 over a G bass. Anyway, it's much easier to play than say: Just lay a finger across the fifth fret. The third chorus chord is a G, which is played by stopping the three low strings at the fifth fret and the two high strings at the third fret, letting the G string ring open. Check it out: The pattern fits the hand very comfortably and offers a cool way to bring new life to some familiar changes.

"That's how I write these days," Gossard observes. "Every new tuning seems to lead to a new song. There are probably three or four different tunings on the record. "Even Flow" and "Oceans" are in open-D, so it's just D, A, D, F#, A, D. And "Deep" is in an open slide tuning: E, A, C#, E, A, E. So it's like an A major kind of tuning."

But even Gossard's playing in standard tuning seems influenced by his work in alternate tunings: He's always looking for chord shapes that let open strings ring. Ten's big single, "Alive" illustrates this -- and the way that Stone and Mike interact on a track. Stone plays the distorted main guitar part on the verses, starting with an A chord on the second fret, then sliding up to barre the seventh fret, picking out the riff notes -- E, F#, A and B -- on the seventh and ninth frets. Mike lays a clean-guitar foundation beneath this, playing variations on a fifth-fret A barre chord.

"Alive"'s anthemic chorus chords are simple and direct: E, G, D, A. But Gossard voices them all up around the seventh through ninth frets, letting open strings ring wherever possible and picking out the notes that make up the chorus' guitar submelody. Again, McCready's playing anchor, pounding out the changes as regular open chords on the first through third frets.

Gossard is still up around the ninth fret for the B-to-F# setup to the bridge, after the second chorus -- reaching up to play the E flat passing note between the two chords on the low E string, 11th fret. But for the bridge proper (A7, D, B7, E) he moves back down to the first through fifth frets. When the solo kicks in (over the chorus chords) Stone simplifies his voicings, blocking out fifth- through tenth-fret barre chords while McCready cuts loose with a screaming, extended solo.

"I never play the solo the same way twice," the lead man confides. "On the video version of 'Alive' I copied the solo that Robby Krieger did on The Doors' 'Five to One.' But then, Ace Frehley already copped that solo in a Kiss song, 'She,' so I guess it's alright, huh?"

Stone Gossard plays Gibson Les Paul Customs with Duncan Alnico II pickups, a Gretsch Roundup and Gibson Chet Atkins semi-acoustics. He uses an Ernie Ball switcher/pan pedal to blend his Marshall JCM800 rig and his blackface Fender Twin. His stereo chorus pedal is a Boss and his strings are Ernie Ball .011s.

Mike McCready's main axe is a Fender '62 Strat reissue, but he's been seen strumming Pauls and a Jerry Jones Danelectro copy. He plays through a Marshall JCM800 and two Fender Bassman reissues. Effects include a Dunlop Rotovibe, a CryBaby wah, a t.c. electronics multieffects unit and a SansAmp (as a distortion unit. Strings are GHS .011s.