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California Guitar Trio and the New Standard Tuning

Longtime Breedlove artists exclusively employ Robert Fripp’s pioneering system


It’s not exactly “Eat A Darn Good Breakfast Everyday,” is it?

Developed by King Crimson founder Robert Fripp in 1983, CGDAEG is frequently described as the New Standard Tuning, particularly by a breed of acolytes known as Crafties, the epithet nodding back to the Guitar Craft course Fripp led to teach the tuning, beginning in 1985.

NST stacks fifths, like violin family instruments, rather than the familiar fourths of classic EADGBE standard tuning. The former caps things with a minor third, whereas the latter has the notorious major third between the G and B strings, which has frustrated guitarists for generations.

One goal of Fripp’s tuning was to shake up complacent players, but, as fiddlers know, fifths tuning also provides wide voicings and a remarkable horizontal and vertical portability of chord shapes, double stops and patterns. Throw a finger across any two adjacent strings at the same fret and you have the makings of a power chord.

And the curious interval cluster of Fripp’s NST also means the open strings comprise a C major pentatonic scale. Handy!

Bert Lams, Hideyo Moriya and Paul Richards are all serious Crafties. Together, they are the trailblazing California Guitar Trio, and they have put NST to use on a wide variety of intriguing interpretations (ranging from Penguin Café Orchestra’s “Music for a Found Harmonium” to the eponymous Buck Owens/Don Rich twanger “Buckaroo”) and bracing originals (including the skittering, Frippish “Yamanashi Blues” and the Mike Oldfield-like trance of  “Portland Rain.)”

On CGT’s 2019 release, In a Landscape, it is paired with longtime colleagues the Montreal Guitar Trio, which counters the steel string NST of CGT with standard-tuned nylon strings. The effect, captured for posterity in a small church north of Montreal, is mesmerizing, especially on John Cage’s sparse title track and Moriya’s “Fortune Island,” complete with distorted e-bow lines from Richards.

The trio also has a brand new release, Elegy, recorded on the road at Airbnb houses across the U.S. and Canada.

California Guitar Trio came together in the late 80s, exactly where you might expect, with the three international members—Lams from Belgium, Moriya from Japan and Richards from the U.S.—meeting at a seminar at Fripp’s English home. They joined him on tour with The League of Crafty Guitarists before splintering off, as a unit, in 1990. They collectively landed in the Golden State the following year, taking on the name to reflect their new digs.

Longtime Breedlove artists all, Lams, Moriya and Richards love the fact that handcrafted Made in Bend instruments are stable enough to cope with the unusual demands of NST. They also offer a ‘don’t try this at home’ caveat, noting that special string gauges and professional setup by a trained guitar tech are required to employ the tuning without causing damage to the instrument.

At a performance this winter, at the famed Caffe Lena, in Saratoga Springs NY, amidst the peripatetic tracking of Elegy, the gents, on tour as a six-man, six-string team with MGT, sat down for a preshow talk about instruments, tunings and arrangements.

“For Elegy,” Richards said, “In addition to originals and a few covers, we focused mainly on music written by friends that we’ve made over 29 years of traveling. After working with Robert, we decided to keep using his tuning, because it kind of sets us apart from other guitar trios. It forces us to write music in a different way and play in a different way than we would if we were still in standard tuning.”

“We can play pretty much anything in NST, but it all becomes new. So, for example, when we play a surf guitar tune, it alters everything. We’re still playing surf style guitar, but all the chord voicings and the way we approach them are changed now.”

“As soon as we adopted this,” Lams said, “we couldn’t play typical guitar chops anymore. But, because of the fifths, NST lends itself really well to ensemble playing. It’s kind of more transparent and open.”

Particularly in the acoustic world, NST presents some interesting physical challenges to players, particularly because of intricate crosspicking patterns and the stretches required to accomplish certain phrases. Deep-bodied dreadnoughts tend to not be the first choice, as they can numb the right arm during long bouts of play.

Breedlove worked with CGT very carefully to provide comfortable, ergonomic guitars in amenable configurations like Richards’ auditorium model and a custom, futuristic looking CM instrument that Moriya still tours with—“It sounds like a piano,” the latter said.

“Making that personal connection at Breedlove,” according to Richards, “was very important.”

“They were willing to work with us,” Lams affirmed, “on some customizations that we wanted for this tuning and for the way that we play. They seemed open minded to experimentation. They got excited about it.”

“A few years ago,” Richards beamed, “we had a day off in Bend, and Angela Christensen invited us to come to the shop and to choose wood for new guitars. That was one of the most exciting things we’ve done there. We went into the tonewood library and she just began pulling out different things that she thought might work for each of us.”

“It’s the combination of the quality of the guitars and the quality of the people. That, for me, is the key to Breedlove.”

The members of CGT received their NST-capable instruments prior to Tom Bedell’s stewardship of Breedlove and his commitment to sustainability and to using no clear-cut woods in Made in Bend models. They agree that it is the right direction for guitar making.

“One of the things that we learned in the Guitar Craft courses from Robert,” Richards said, “is how what we do affects not only ourselves but those around us. So, when we’re playing together as a group, one of the aims is to become more aware and more mindful of what we’re doing, not only on the guitar, but in general—‘how does what I do affect those around me?’ I think being more cognizant of sustainability and having concern about it is a good thing. I’m glad that Breedlove is really taking an active role in that.”

Digital Download of the new album Elegy is available here.

Visit the California Guitar Trio’s Website.