If you’re curious about Cowboys from Hell tuning and how Pantera tunes their guitars for this song, this is the post for you!
The short answer is:
I’ll discuss this more in the sections below.
Equal Temperament and the A440 Standard: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?
In order to understand this, I should explain what equal temperament and the A440 standard are. Don’t worry, it’s nothing complicated. And I won’t get too geeky about music theory.
In simple terms, equal temperament is a tuning system. It means that one octave is divided into equal parts. In almost all western music we hear today, it’s 12 equal parts or 12 semitones. Just take one string on your guitar and go from open to the 12th fret. It’s as simple as that.
We also have some other tuning systems. One of them is Pythagorean tuning. But it’s very impractical for today’s standards. You don’t have to bother learning about it if you don’t want to.
And then we have the A440 pitch standard. This means that the A4 note is always 440 Hz. You tune everything else according to that note within the equal temperament system.
To have a clearer picture, here are all the peak frequencies of the E standard tuning within A440:
- E2=82.41 Hz
- A2=110 Hz
- D3=146.83 Hz
- G3=196 Hz
- B3=246.94 Hz
- E4=329.63 Hz
This is how your average electronic tuner is calibrated from the bottom to the top string. When you play, let’s say, the third string (G3), the tuner aims for 196 Hz.
Cowboys from Hell Tuning: What’s the Deal?
Since you’re here, I’ll safely assume you’ve tried to play along to Pantera’s Cowboys from Hell. Maybe you even tuned your guitar perfectly beforehand. However, when you began playing, something felt off.
You check your tuning again and it’s all good. And when you start playing along to it, something sounds off again. If you play along to a random pre-recorded or MIDI backing track, it all sounds right. Your guitar is also intonated properly, but it still sounds dissonant.
I know the pain as I went through this same issue. So what’s the deal? Don’t worry, it’s a pretty simple issue we face here.
Well, the problem is that Cowboys from Hell isn’t within the A440 standard. There’s still the same equal temperament system though. This means that the intervals between the strings are exactly the same. And this means that intervals between two frets are still exactly the same.
However, the strings are just slightly lower than usual. I’m not sure to what extent. But it’s not a whole semitone lower. You may have even tried to tune your guitar to E-flat standard and it still sounded off.
While I can’t say with certainty, it could be that the tuning is ¼ of a step below the A440 standard. So what’s the frequency of the A4 note then? Well, it’s exactly between A4, which is 440 Hz, and Ab4, which is 415.3 Hz. So the value should be 427.65 Hz.
What Should I Do About It?
If you want to play along to Pantera’s original release of Cowboys from Hell, then you’ll have to recalibrate your tuner. Some tuners allow you to change the A4 note. If you can, set it to 427.65 Hz.
I tried this method. In my experience, everything sounds the way it should. I’m not sure about the exact values for all strings. However, you don’t have to worry about that.
Here’s the original song and the video below. It’s this unusual tuning that I discussed above.
And now check out this live version. Here, the tuning is closer to Eb (or D#) standard. However, it’s still slightly off.
Why Did They Tune Like This?
Now that we have this out of the way, you actually may have more questions. Why in the world would someone tune their guitar like that? Isn’t it just easier to tune it to your regular A440 standard?
No one from the band elaborated on this. But there are a few reasons why they may have used this tuning. The most obvious and most plausible theory is that they did it on purpose. They wanted the song to sound different when played on the radio. If it’s just slightly off, people might notice it. Of course, most listeners wouldn’t realize why it sounded or even that it sounded different at all. It just might stick in the listeners’ heads more easily if it’s unique.
Another theory is that vocals, bass, and guitars just sounded better this way. Maybe it was the optimal tuning for Phil Anselmo’s voice. Or maybe Dimebag Darrell just felt that his guitar sounds better this way.
Also, bands didn’t always have access to a digital and accurate tuner. They may have ended up being in tune with one another but just slightly off the standard. But I’m guessing this is not the case since electronic tuners were not uncommon in 1989 and 1990 when the album’s recording sessions took place.
Some theories also suggest that this happened during the post-production process. Everything was on tape then and somebody could have slowed down the song to achieve the effect.
This Is Not the Only Song…
Of course, Pantera isn’t the only band that did this. Many songs are slightly out of tune. For instance, some of the biggest AC/DC songs are like this. One such example is Highway to Hell. So if you notice the same issue with this one, know that it’s not you (and check out my blog post about Highway to Hell tuning to learn all about it.
What’s more, Metallica’s entire Ride the Lightning album is not within the A440 standard. But, in this case, we have songs that are slightly sharper. And it’s just slightly off, with some theories suggesting that A4 is 444 Hz. You can barely notice it. In Metallica’s case, it’s likely that the change of tuning occurred in post-production. Then again, I’m not sure whether they did it on purpose or not.
In the end, everyone’s free to tune however they want. And having things just slightly off may just help you sound unique.
Cowboys from Hell Tuning: Conclusion
I hope this article has helped you understand this unique tuning.
And if you want to read more about the unique tunings that Pantera uses, check out my guide to Pantera tunings!