Alternate Tunings

A Guide to Alternate Tunings For Acoustic Guitar

Alternate Tunings for Acoustic Guitar

What are Alternate Tunings?

An alternate tuning is any tuning that does not utilize standard tuning. (E-A-D-G -B-E). This means, that at least one of the strings is tuned higher or lower, which changes the relationship (intervals) between the open strings, changing the layout of the guitar’s fretboard.

Why Use Them?

There are numerous benefits to alternate tunings. Many of these are specific to the actual tuning, or category of tuning itself, but often include:

  • The simplification of specific chord voicings, and chord transitions.
  • Richer harmonies and unique overtones.
  • May help spark creativity by breaking from standard tuning.
  • Facilitate open chords and drone notes.
  • Easier to play slide guitar
  • Match specific musical styles for a more authentic sound.

Getting Started

Drop D Tuning

Drop D Tuning

The simplest alternate tuning to get started in is Drop D tuning. To play in drop D you simply need to detune the 6th string of your guitar from E to D.

While a simple tuning, Drop D is extremely popular as it extends the notes available on the fretboard while remaining close enough to standard tuning that it should still feel familiar.

One of the advantages of playing in Drop D is the ability to play power chords with just one finger. For example, by fretting the 6th, 5th, and 4th strings at the 5th fret (while muting the remaining strings) you can easily play a G5 chord, and then easily slide your fingers up or down the neck to play additional power chords.

You can read all about Drop D Tuning here, including some tips for getting started.

Double Drop D Tuning

Double Drop D Tuning

The next tuning you might be interested in learning is Double Drop D tuning. To tune to Double Drop D, we simply detune the 6th (high E string) down to D along with the high E string.

Below are some tips for getting started:

Fuller Sounding D Chords: With both E strings tuned down to D, you can easily play a full D major chord by strumming all the open strings. For a D minor chord, simply place your finger on the first fret of the second string (B string).

Explore Octave Shapes: Since the 6th and 1st strings are tuned to D, playing the same fret number on these strings gives you a perfect octave, adding a rich harmonic layer to your playing.

Take advantage of Open Strings: The open tuning allows for the open D strings to act as a drone while you play melodies on the higher strings. This can add a resonant quality to your playing.

Open Tunings

Perhaps the most commonly used alternate tunings are open tunings, which refer to tuning the strings of a guitar so that when strummed (without fretting any notes), they produce a specific chord.

As you can imagine, this type of tuning simplifies the formation of chord shapes, as you can play chords using a barred finger, which therefore lends itself to the use of a slide.

Open tunings are popular in genres like blues, folk, and slide guitar offering a distinct resonance.

The simplest open tuning to get started in is open D tuning.

Open D

Open D Tuning

To get to Open D (D A D F♯ A D) from standard tuning, simply lower the 6th, 2nd, and 1st strings down a whole step.

Open D provides a rich, full sound that’s great for exploring new chord voicings and fingerpicking patterns.

This tuning is versatile, used across various genres including blues, folk, and acoustic rock, making it ideal for learners wanting to experiment with open tunings and expand their musical vocabulary.

Adapting to Other Open Tunings

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with Open D tuning, transitioning to learn additional open tunings becomes much easier.

Open E Tuning

The concepts you grasp while learning your first open tuning, such as adapting chord shapes, and getting a feel for the relationship between strings are easily transferable to other open tunings.

For example, if you start with Open D (D A D F♯ A D) and move to Open G (D G D G B D), you’ll notice similarities in how chords and scales are constructed and played across the fretboard, despite the different root notes.

This foundational understanding streamlines the learning process for each new open tuning you explore, as you begin to recognize patterns that are applicable across various tunings.

Below are links to additional articles on some of the more common open tunings:

Open Minor Chord Tunings

Open Dm Tuning

While open Major chord tunings are more common, one of the most beautiful alternate things I’ve played in has to be open D Minor tuning.

Like double drop D Tuning, open D minor tuning provides us with 3 D strings. It also includes 2 A strings.

The interplay between these open strings facilitates a haunting, warm and highly resonant tuning due to the low tension requirement of the strings. (more on string tension shortly).

You can read all about Open Dm tuning here, including how to tune to Open Dm and some tips for getting started.

F5 Tuning

You can also tune your guitar to a power chord, that’s right. While power chords only contain two notes, repeating these notes in different string gauges can provide an unusual and haunting sound.

F5 tuning, for example, is a hauntingly beautiful tuning and one I thoroughly recommend trying if you are new to alternate tunings.

You can hear F5 tuning in Chris Cornell’s solo acoustic song ‘Seasons’. The video above is a walkthrough of how to play Seasons by Rick Beato.

Additional Alternate Tunings

Below is a table showing the order of notes for the most common alternate tunings.

CategoryTuning NameString OrderNotes
StandardStandard EE A D G B EThe foundation of guitar music.
Drop TuningsDrop DD A D G B EFacilitates power chords with a single finger.
Double Drop DD A D G B DOffers a symmetrical feel, great for folk and blues.
Drop C♯C♯ G♯ C♯ F♯ A♯ D♯Slightly darker tone than Drop D, used in heavy rock.
Drop CC G C F A DHeavier, more resonant sound for metal and hard rock.
Drop BB F♯ B E G♯ C♯Deep, growling tone for metalcore and djent.
Drop A♯A♯ F A♯ D♯ G CBrings a thick, dense sound for aggressive music styles.
Drop AA E A D F♯ BExtremely low tuning for a rumbling bass presence.
Drop G♯G♯ E♭ G♯ C♯ F A♯Rarely used, offers unique, deep vibrations.
Drop GG D G C E AFavoured in sludge metal for its dark, muddy tones.
Drop F♯F♯ C♯ F♯ B D♯ G♯Even lower, challenging playability for distinct soundscapes.
Drop FF C F A♯ D GAlmost reaching bass guitar territory, for experimental genres.
Drop EE B E A C♯ F♯Matches the standard tuning one octave lower.
Drop D♯D♯ A♯ D♯ G♯ C FA transitional tuning bridging Drop E and Drop D.
Open TuningsOpen AE A E A C♯ EBright, vibrant tone, perfect for slide guitar.
Open BB F♯ B F♯ B D♯Rich, full-bodied sound, suitable for fingerstyle.
Open CC G C G C EOffers a wide, expansive harmonic range for ambient music.
Open DD A D F♯ A DSweet, melancholic sound, beloved in folk.
Open EE B E G♯ B EStrikingly clear and ringing tone for blues.
Open FF A C F C FWarm and melodic, ideal for singer-songwriters.
Open GD G D G B DFolk and country staple, resonant and harmonious.
Open C MinorC G C G C E♭Dark, emotional depth for moody compositions.
Open E MinorE B E G B ESombre and haunting, suitable for folk ballads.
Open G MinorD G D G A♯ DBrooding and complex, good for experimental folk.
Open D MinorD A D F A DMournful and expressive, used in traditional and Celtic music.
Modal TuningsD Modal (DADGAD)D A D G A DEthereal and open, enables a mix of major and minor tonalities.
D LydianD A D F♯ A DCreates a bright, uplifting sound palette.
D AeolianD A D G B♭ EProvides a naturally minor tonality for melancholic vibes.
D DorianD A D G A DOffers a warm, mellow sound, great for jazz and folk.
E MixolydianE A D E A DEncourages a bluesy, relaxed feel with open chords.
E AeolianE A D G B EDelivers a dark, rich sound, perfect for moody pieces.
E Dorian TuningE A D G B EVersatile for both bright and dark musical expressions.
C MixolydianC G D G B DFosters a cheerful, upbeat sound ideal for folk rock.
C LydianC G D F G CProduces a dreamy, serene soundscape for ambient music.
C Sus2C G D G C DEncourages a sweet, consonant sound for pop and indie.
G MixolydianD G D G B DPerfect for creating catchy, memorable hooks in songwriting.
D MixolydianD A D F♯ A DInvites a groovy, rhythmic feel for funk and soul.
Special TuningsG Major SeventhG B D F♯ B DLush and jazzy, ideal for sophisticated chord progressions.
C9 TuningC G C E G DConveys a relaxed, smooth sound for jazz and R&B.
E Minor NinthE B D F♯ G BEthereal and spacious, for intricate fingerpicking.
C♯ Minor EleventhC♯ G♯ C♯ E G♯ BDeeply introspective and complex, for experimental compositions.
A Major SeventhA E A C♯ E ARadiates warmth and optimism, great for uplifting songs.
F♯ Minor EleventhF♯ C♯ F♯ A B EMysterious and evocative, for ambient and cinematic music.
B7 TuningB F♯ B D♯ F♯ ABluesy and gritty, offers a raw, emotional edge.
Open E Minor 7 TuningE B E G B DSoulful and resonant, for deep, reflective pieces.
E7 TuningE B D E G♯ BClassic blues tuning, raw and ready for slide guitar.

Protecting Your Guitar

An often overlooked aspect of playing in alternate tunings is the tension placed on the guitar’s neck. While we have already discussed low-tension tuning in the form of Open Dm tuning above, some tunings place additional tension on the guitar’s neck which can cause problems.

Open E, for example, involves tuning three strings higher than standard tuning, which increases the tension placed on the guitar’s neck. This added tension can lead to real problems, including bowing of the neck, raised action, and a greater risk of breaking strings.

Below are some tips to avoid running into problems with higher-tension tunings.

  • Capo: A capo can be an effective tool to achieve the sound of a high-tension tuning without actually tuning up. For example, when tuning to Open E an alternative can be to place a capo on the second fret and tune your guitar to Open D (D A D F♯ A D). When you put a capo on the second fret, it simulates Open E tuning while keeping the strings at a lower tension.
  • String Gauges: Consider using lighter gauge strings for tunings that require higher pitches and heavier strings for lower-tension tunings. Lighter strings reduce the tension required to achieve higher notes, minimizing stress on the guitar.
  • Frequent Inspections: Regularly check your guitar for signs of stress, such as changes in neck curvature, action height, or intonation issues when playing in different tunings. Early detection may help prevent long-term damage.
  • Professional Setup: If you use alternate tunings regularly, it’s worth owning and getting the guitar professionally set up for those specific tunings. A luthier can make adjustments to the truss rod, nut, and saddle to optimize your guitar’s playability and sound for the chosen tuning.
  • Truss Rod Adjustments: Learning how to safely adjust your guitar’s truss rod can help you manage the neck tension changes caused by alternate tunings. If you’re unsure, seek guidance from a professional to avoid damaging your instrument.

By being mindful of the tension changes and potential risks associated with alternate tunings like Open E, you can enjoy the creative possibilities these tunings offer while keeping your guitar in top condition.

How to Remember Alternate Tunings

By now you might be wondering how to remember how to tune to different alternate tunings.

It’s a fair point and arguably one of the most common reasons many guitarists avoid alternate tunings.

One example is Joni Mitchell, who as we know uses alternate tunings extensively and developed a naming or pattern system that made it simpler to remember the individual strings for the tunings she used.

For example, if playing in standard tuning. The Joni Mitchell system would name this tuning E 55545

The E represents the 6th or low E string and the note the string is tuned to (the root note). The numbers that follow correspond to the note the low E is tuned to.

For example:

  • In standard tuning (EADGBE) the root note corresponds to the 5th fret of the 2nd string (the A string).
  • The third string (the D string) is the same note as the 5th fret of the string below and so on.

While this worked for Joni Mitchell another option is to use a tuning app on your smartphone.

Alternate Tunings App

There are a number of these available. I personally use and recommend the GuitarTuna app from Yousician, but other tuners will do a similar job and include:

Guitar Tuna app (100+ tunings)
IOS | Android

Fender Guitar Tuner (22 different tunings)
IOS | Android

Boss Tuner (supports multiple tunings)
IOS | Android

Roadie Tuner (supports custom tunings)
IOS | Android

VITALtuner (over 130 tunings for over 40 instruments)

Final Thoughts

I hope the information above serves as a useful introduction to alternate tunings.

For now, if you are yet to try playing in non-standard tuning I’d recommend dipping your toes in the water by experimenting with a drop tuning e.g. drop D or Double Drop D tuning before venturing into the world of open tunings which are a lot of fun, especially if you have an interest in slide guitar.

Also, remember that while it was trickier in the past, things are much easier now thanks to tuning apps such as GuitarTuna, so there are no obstacles for anyone wanting to get started.

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