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The History of Liberty Guitar

About the discovery of Liberty Guitar Tuning...

by Harvey Reid

In case you are interested in where this idea came from...


I have been fascinated by partial capos since the mid 1970's, and have been involved with manufacturing, selling and teaching people about them since 1979 when I formed the Third Hand Capo Company in Nashville. My association with partial capos has been both rewarding and frustrating, since this almost obvious idea seems to thoroughly confuse and repel even skilled players. My vision of every guitarist on earth having several of them in their guitar case has not yet come true. I have been trying to build a web site at to help people understand what they are, who they are for, and what they can and can't do.

Over the years I have uncovered a steady stream of new ways to use them, and the number of players around the world who are using partial capos in their music has been growing steadily also. During these nearly 40 years I have explored hundreds of ways to use all kinds of partial capos in dozens of different tunings. I composed, arranged and recorded hundreds of partial capo songs and instrumentals, and wrote a number of books that explain how to find what I like to call the hidden music that partial capos generate. I was convinced that I understood the limitations of simplified guitar with partial capos, and I was completely surprised in August of 2011 when I stumbled onto what I have named Liberty Tuning.

"Hidden" is a good word, since this "hyper-tuning," that I now feel is the most powerful and useful of all the partial capo configurations, was hiding right under my nose for over 30 years of partial capo research. There were no clues to its existence, and I was not aware of anyone else who was looking for something like it. Finding it was a lucky accident, and I almost missed it when it came across my path. No one ever suspected that there was an easy way to simplify the guitar fingerboard, which has always been confusing, complicated and irregular. I have been doing something almost identical to Liberty Tuning in nearly all my concerts for a long time, but I never saw the now-obvious value in making a slight change in what I was doing.

I have been a performing musician all my life, though I have made most of my living selling recordings. Sales of recordings have been steadily declining for a number of years, the difficulty and expense of touring has gone up, and I now have 2 young boys and I am a family man who doesn't want to be on the road all the time. So I devoted a great deal of energy between 2010 and 2013 to organizing and publishing my research and knowledge about partial capos into a series of books and recordings, since I felt that the information about how to use partial capos effectively was not being properly spread around. The sudden, unexpected death of my long-term partner in partial capos, Jeff Hickey, further galvanized me to try to get the "secret knowledge" about partial capos out of my head and onto paper. My new goal was to share this knowledge with the world rather than keeping it to myself.

Guitarists in general were just not finding much of the "hidden music," and partial capos have remained underground, poorly understood, and a bit of a "black art." The result of this work is my Capo Voodoo books, that collectively detail almost 200 ways to use all kinds of partial capos in dozens of different tunings, mapping out a considerable amount of new musical terrain. They are the only in-depth and careful guides available to this fascinating and little-known "wonderland" of new music. New music is instantly available to all players, from total beginners to the world's best guitarists.

The different partial capo configurations are not at all equivalent, and each of them has distinct advantages and disadvantages, as well as its own unique set of possibilities. My goal was to sort this out, organize the knowledge base, and shine some much-needed light on where to put the capos and where to put your fingers to get the new music. It's quite confusing stuff, and few players have ever found anything really new, though thousands of people have bought partial capos for years thinking they would do some exploring.

About simplified guitar

I found out as early as 1980 that some ways you can use partial capos allow easier chord fingerings, but I have long believed that the bulk of the useful value of partial capos was for people who already played guitar. I published the Duck Soup Guitar Method book in 1982, which first showed how to use partial capos to play simplified chords. But for nearly 30 years I thought that all the techniques that used partial capos for "easy guitar" were better than standard tuning or common open tunings, but not ideal, and that they all involved difficult trade-offs. The one and two-finger simplified chords that preceded Liberty Tuning all had very big problems and limitations, which were essentially the same set of problems that other tunings had:

  • The best easy music was in the key of E, which is generally not a good key for women or children. I could only sing 7 of the songs comfortably in my own book in a good key for my voice, and my wife could only play one of 29 songs!
  • All the basic chords had added or missing notes. In the Esus environment, the E chord has no G# note, and the A chord had an add9 (B) note, so only a few songs sounded right.
  • All you could do was play 1-4-5 chord changes, and there were no easy ways to play 2 chords, 6 chords, flat 7 chords, minor chords, minor keys. The repertoire of songs available to beginners was very limited. Just a very small box around a very limited musical world, and not enough magic to pull large numbers of people into playing guitar while letting them play their favorite songs.

As I have dug deeper into partial capos and learned their secrets, I have found increasing numbers of really deep and powerful "guitar environments" that I call "hybrid tunings" and "hyper-tunings." A hybrid tuning combines a partial capo with an altered tuning, and some of the very best ones only involve retuning 1 or 2 strings, which makes them easier to get to, and more invisible, since most players either use standard tuning or a "full" open tuning. The hyper-tunings are the ones that have profound music power and implications. My Capo Voodoo: Book 4, for example, shows 27 ways to use partial capos in DADGAD tuning. There are enough players around the world who are using this tuning that I thought it was worthwhile to chart out some clever ways to expand the guitar to yet another dimension by adding partial capos to a tuning where three of the six strings are retuned from standard.

The most common misconception about partial capos is that they are just a substitute for "open" or "non-standard" tunings. Through centuries of guitar and lute, players have endlessly experimented with different tunings, and there are literally hundreds of them that have been explored to varying degrees. They all offer a different unique set of musical "possibilites." It may even be that part of the reason why partial capos have not caught on more is that people expect them to be the same as a tuning, when the truth is that tunings and partial capos are fundamentally different ideas, even though we use them for the same reasons, and they give us the same kinds of results.

In each tuning or partial capo configuration, we find fresh new chords, new voicings and "mappings" of the notes in the scales and chords, and we also get new open-string resonances. When you put the two ideas together, things sometimes "explode." After several years of research, I reached the conclusion that of my "Top 10" list of favorite partial capo configurations, the so-called "hyper-tunings," only one used a single partial capo in standard tuning. The other 9 used either multiple partial capos, retuned strings, or a combination of the two.

One of those Top 10 ideas that I discovered involved 2 partial capos plus a retuned string, and I was exploring it one day in the summer of 2011, and got distracted. (It's in my Secrets of the 3-String Partial Capo book, published in 2010.) I needed a partial capo for something else, and stole one of those 2 capos off that guitar, and left it leaning against my desk. When I picked it up the next day, unknown to me, it was in Liberty Tuning. Without realizing what was going on, I picked up the guitar and started to play. The tuning is subtle; it doesn't cry out. The open strings don't sound a very interesting chord, but the more things I tried, the more intrigued I got, and luckily I was in the mood to explore a little. I have been trying to reconstruct that foggy moment in my memory, because it changed my life. The tuning has maintained my interest all this time, and I still find new surprises in it almost every time I pick up the guitar. It is truly remarkable and mysterious, as well as simple and confusing.

Over the next 2 years, I continued my explorations, and gradually came to understand the enormity of what this tuning offered. I could get to it almost instantly with any guitar. (As little as 5 seconds.) There were two slightly different versions of it that had different vital properties. I found that I could play good versions of almost every song that mattered with just the two middle fingers of my left hand. I could play all sorts of interesting chords and chord progressions. I could play in major, minor and modal keys. I could play in several keys. I could play melodies and guitar instrumentals incredibly easily. I could play blues progressions in 2 keys, and even fingerpick fiddle and banjo tunes. I could teach guitar to my 4 year-old son, and he could strum chords in the right key for him to sing, using my guitar. My library of interesting, useful and easy 2-finger chords just kept growing.

I spent months trying to think of a good name for this tuning. At home, I called it Magic Tuning, Mystery Tuning, Houdini Tuning, Einstein Tuning, Pyramid Tuning, Genesis Tuning, Holy Grail Tuning, and even Buddha Tuning. Gradually I decided that although it has near-mystical properties, I did not want to use religious, mystical or intellectual connotations, and I opted for the easy, strong and comfortable word Liberty. It has felt good to me, and I hope you like the name and use it.

I didn't want people to get confused or frustrated, so before I told anyone about the tuning, I decided to map out in the Liberty Guitar series of books how it all worked. If you just hand a Liberty-tuned guitar to someone, they can easily fail to find the magic. I set out to create and record a body of music to illustrate the power of the tuning. I decided that none of the existing partial capos would both work properly and look good, so I designed a new partial capo.

The first 2 CD's are done, the first 9 books are done, and my new capo is being manufactured, so I am pulling off the curtain and inviting the world to enjoy this remarkable thing that I have been keeping to myself for too long. Any of you who have never been able to handle regular guitar chords now have a much easier time making good music, and any of you who already play the guitar will be scratching your heads for a very long time trying to understand how it works. There is an astounding amount of new music there, and let's all play some of it.

You can thank me by making some of your music in Liberty Tuning, sharing it with people you know to help me spread the word, and by buying some of my music and books to feed my children. Thanks.

Enough history, let's explore the mystery...


© 2016 by Harvey Reid