This article is intended as an introduction for anyone unfamiliar with alternate tunings and is the first in a series, in which we’ll cover the most common alternate tunings for acoustic guitar, how to play in each, and a couple of tools you can use so you don’t need to remember the specifics of each. While we will be mostly looking from the perspective of the acoustic guitar the chords discussed are equally applicable to the electric guitar. So, if you’ve been looking for a way to freshen up your acoustic guitar playing, dare I say it….stay tuned.
If however, you’re looking for a quick primer:
🔑 Alternate tunings are any combination of notes that do not use the standard (E-B-G-D-A-E) tuning. The most common associated with acoustic guitar are open tunings e.g. the strings are tuned to a chord e.g. open G, drop tunings including drop D which requires the 6th string to be detuned to a D, or double drop D which requires both E strings to be detuned and miscellaneous variations such as DADGAD tuning (aka Celtic tuning). Advantages to playing in non-standard tuning include the many different chord voicings available, some that might otherwise be impossible, the often simpler transition between chords, along with removing much of the framework a guitarist typically relies on, which can benefit creativity.
What are alternate guitar tunings?
When I first started learning guitar, I was a MASSIVE Led Zeppelin fan. The raw power and sense of mystery Page, Plant, Bonham and Jones dished up, served as a gateway drug to my eventual obsession with Soundgarden and the songwriting of Chris Cornell.
The funny thing was, while I did learn a handful of classic Led Zeppelin songs — Stairway, Black Dog etc. I could never really play Soundgarden.
I had trouble transposing the music (this was before the internet and free guitar tabs were a thing) and even when I had the right notes or thought I was playing the right chords something still just sounded off.
It wasn’t until a few years later (1994), reading an interview with Kim Thayill and Chris Cornell in Guitar World that I realized a lot of Soundgarden’s music wasn’t played in the standard E-B-G-D-A-E that I was accustomed to. No wonder, I had trouble transposing songs like the acoustic version of ‘Like Suicide’ that I had been playing around with for years by this stage.
Seeing Cornell unplugged in a small theater many years later (2011) confirmed things further (there must have been at least 8 different acoustic guitars on stage).
But, revisiting their catalog years later it was Page’s acoustic playing that really caught my ear.
Songs like ‘Black Mountain Side’ (DADGAD), the haunting ‘That’s the Way’ (Open G) and ‘Going to California’ (Double Drop D) sound otherworldly, and a large reason for this is Page’s creative use of alternate tunings.
Since then, I’ve always had an interest in alternate tunings and the bands and artists that best exploited them including, but far from limited to Fleetwood Mac, Nick Drake, Soundgarden and Led Zepellin, The Black Crowes, The John Butler Trio, Leo Kottke, Simon and Garfunkel and blues icons such as Son House and Robert Johnson.
The power of alternate tunings
As already discussed in the introduction. An alternate tuning is any alternative to standard e.g. at least one of the string’s pitch is changed, which then changes the relationship (intervals) between the open strings. As a result, alternate tunings have helped me break out of creative ruts often and I’ve always felt there’s just something magical about them.
For example, when your guitar is in standard tuning, the notes from lowest (heaviest string) to highest are EADGBE.
Standard tuning requires your guitar to be in ascending perfect 4ths aka P4 (the musical interval that spans 5 half steps of the guitar neck).
This means every string is equal in pitch to the 5th fret of the string below it, apart from the interval between the G and B string which is a third.
While not a perfect solution for the play ability of one or the other, E-A-D-G-B-E provides a nice compromise between chords and scales.
Confused? I’ll explain.
If the guitar is tuned using all fourths e.g. the interval between the G and B string was the same as the strings above and below it, scales and single note melodies would be a lot easier to visualize on the fretboard and as a result, more intuitive.
If playing chords however, this would quickly create problems.
Mostly because common chord shapes would require large stretches on the treble strings. Consider the C or F major chords for example, which would need to span an additional fret.
By using a third interval on the G string, stretching the hand four frets is prevented while providing the next best option for playing scales and melody.
There are additional benefits concerning the use of barre chords, with regard to the octave between the 1st and 6th strings which makes barre chords more practical. But, for the most part the reason your guitar is the way it is to provide a compromise between playing chords and scales, instead of sacrificing the play ability of one over the other.
Incidentally, most stringed instruments are tuned to 5ths. Including the violin, however the fretboard of a violin is smaller than a guitar and chords are rarely used.
The benefits of alternate tunings
Firstly, they can facilitate new and sometimes unusual voicings which can spark creativity, particularly with regard to songwriting.
They also simplify how some chords are played and the transition between chords (especially if playing in an open tuning).
They also allow the guitarist to play notes on open strings that otherwise wouldn’t be available.
And lastly, they also can be useful for lowering the key of the music being played e.g. for vocalists who may be struggling to hit certain notes or to reduce the amount of tension on the strings resulting in greater playability. While technically this is simply detuning, we’ll briefly touch on this approach along with the other listed benefits in the section below, starting with chords.
How a chord is ‘voiced’ changes its structure e.g. how it’s put together, or built. This means the notes that make up the chord can be played on different strings, either open or fretted and in different order.
This changes the expression of the chord but not the fundamental pitch.
An example of this is the open F chord. When played, the A and low E strings are skipped. A lot of the low end that gives E major and G major chords in open position their expansive, full sound are lacking which is evident if playing open F as part of a chord progression.
However, when played using an E major barre shape the root note is fretted on the low E string which adds more low end and body to the sound of the chord.
If standard tuning represents a safe, familiar home base for our fingers on the fretboard. Alternate tunings take away a lot of that familiarity, opening up new avenues for expression, for those willing to test unfamiliar waters.
If you write original music and find yourself getting a little stale, taking away the familiar foundations of standard tuning can be a good way to break out of a songwriting rut and inject new life into your music.
Over the last few years I’ve been learning Nick Drake songs and there’s some pretty subtle tuning changes that create these very specific kinds of open auras musically. It’s difficult to write in those without sounding like that sprightly, sparkly pastoral Nick Drake thing. But it does help create new ideas in a sense when you’re sitting there.
Another advantage to playing in an alternate tuning is the potential to unlock different shapes on the fretboard, making many chord shapes simpler to fret and transition between. This is especially the case with open and drop tunings.
The most obvious example of this has to be drop D, which involves detuning the low E to D.
This relatively small adjustment changes the structure of the chord. As the root note on the low E string must then be played two frets higher on the fretboard, and thus making it possible for mediocre guitarists everywhere to play power chords using just one finger and transition between chords easily.
If you consider slide guitar and the limitations with regard to standard chord shapes and transitioning between chords it becomes even more obvious.
Drone notes /pedal tone notes
Another major benefit of playing in alternate tunings is the different notes available on open strings. This is especially useful if you play finger style guitar for example, where the bass notes are often played to accompany a melody line on the treble strings.
Drone and pedal tone notes are played (mostly on open strings, but not always) as an underlying note accompanying a melody. The video below provides an example of this concept below.
Using alternate tunings allows different open strings to ‘drone’ that would otherwise not be possible. DADGAD for example is particularly well suited to this type of playing.
Tuning Down for Vocalists
You might also play in a non-standard tuning as a favour to your vocalist.
I’ve personally played in bands where we tuned down a half step to preserve my vocals. While this approach really is just standard tuning at a lower pitch (e.g. detuning), the benefits can be great.
An example of detuning comes courtesy of Black Sabbath who tuned down a half step to begin with before tuning down a full step later in their career.
* Although it has to be said they also tuned to standard at various times.
While this may have also been to support Ozzy Osbourne’s vocals the most common explanation given was due to guitarist Tommy Iommi and an industrial accident that resulted in the tips of his fingers being severed.
Tuning down reduced the tension on the strings no doubt making it less uncomfortable.
Is it bad for your guitar to play in alternate tunings?
Using alternate tunings isn’t necessarily bad for your guitar but it does change the amount of tension placed on the neck due to the reduced (most common) or increased string tension alternate tunings often incorporate.
Any change to string tension may affect neck relief, indirectly affecting action and intonation. The longer you leave the guitar, the longer it may take to settle back into standard tuning.
It can also depend on the amount of string tension being applied. For example open E and open A require a number of strings to be tuned higher than normal, placing additional stress on the neck.
If you plan on playing in an alternate tuning regularly, consider dedicating one of your guitars to that particular tuning and try the following:
- Use thick gauge strings (if detuning)
- If you plan on playing exclusively in a specific alternate tuning such as Nashville, you may need to make slight adjustments to your nut grooves, or replace the nut completely to cater for the lighter gauge strings. *Note. This is a specialized job and requires the skills of a professional e.g. a luthier.
- Store the guitar in a hard case, as changes in string tension, combined with humidity may result in physical changes to the guitar.
One of the main advantages to using a dedicated guitar is the fact that you won’t constantly be adjusting the amount of tension the strings place on the neck, not to mention the sheer inconvenience of re-tuning the guitar regularly.
Consider Joni Mitchell, who is thought to have used over 50 different tunings throughout her career. At one stage she stopped touring as a result, no doubt due to either needing too many guitars on stage or the extended breaks between songs required.
Where are alternate tunings heard?
Alternate tunings have been incorporated into many different styles of music. This includes, but is not limited to:
- Early classical music
- Celtic music
- Blues (particularly delta blues and slide guitar)
- Modern metal
Acoustic songs in alternate tunings
There’s a bunch of great, well-known acoustic songs in non-standard tuning including many you may not have suspected.
Below is a list of some of the more popular.
*Some tunings listed may be different depending on the version of the song e.g. live or studio etc.
|Daughter||Pearl Jam||Open G|
|The Boxer||Simon and Garfunkel||E-A-D-G-B-E|
|Neon (Acoustic Version)||John Mayer||Drop C|
|Never Going Back||Fleetwood Mac||Drop D|
|Big Yellow Taxi||Joni Mitchell||Open D|
|Tangled Up in Blue||Bob Dylan||Open E|
|Iris||Goo Goo Dolls||D-D-D-D-D-B|
|Touch, Peel and Stand||Days of the new||D-A-D-G-B-E|
|Over Now||Alice in Chains||Drop D|
|I will wait||Mumford and Sons||C-A-C-G-C-E|
|Soggy Bottom Boys||Man of Constant Sorrow||D-A-D-G-A-D|
|She talks to angels (Acoustic)||The Black Crowes||Open E|
|Blackbird||The Beatles||Open G|
The most common alternate tunings for acoustic guitar
It’s impossible to list all alternate tunings in existence. But, the alternate tunings listed below are arguably the most common played on acoustic guitar and the best for anyone wanting to try out a new tuning.
- Drop tunings are a derivative of standard tuning and typically require the 6th (low E) string to be tuned to a lower note e.g. D (drop D tuning)
- Double drop tunings involve detuning the 1st (high E) string also
Typically, used in hard rock and metal, although also utilized on acoustic guitar by bands such as Days of the New.
The low E string is ‘dropped’ (detuned) to D.
- Open G6
Both the low and high E strings are ‘dropped’ or detuned to D.
- Nick Drake tuning (one of many)
While Drop C is technically standard tuning with the 6th (low E) detuned to a C (as used by John Mayer in ‘Neon’) it is most often associated with heavier forms of music used as a variation of drop D tuning (detuned a whole step).
The low E is tuned down 1 1/2 steps.
Remaining strings 1 ½.
*Essentially a detuned drop D. Less common on acoustic, mostly seen in hard rock and metal.
- Metal tuning
Open tunings are tunings that form chords when the open strings (the unfretted strings) are played. They are triads and utilise the root note, major third and perfect fifth.
Open tunings are ideal for slide guitar as barring the entire fretboard at any fret will result in a chord being played. This also makes transitioning between chords much easier.
Open tunings are mostly used in blues and folk music.
The low E string is ‘dropped’ (detuned) to D.
The guitar is tuned to a B major chord.
The guitar is tuned to C major chord
- Double banjo
The guitar is tuned to C5 chord
The guitar is tuned to D major chord.
- Nick Drake
The guitar is tuned to Dm chord.
- Cross note
The guitar is tuned to D5 chord.
The guitar is tuned to an E major chord.
The guitar is tuned to an F major chord.
The guitar is tuned to an G major chord.
- Slack key
- Spanish Tuning
- Hawaiian Tuning
The tunings listed below are well known tunings used by iconic guitarists e.g. DADGAD (Jimmy Page – Kashmir)
The guitar is tuned to a Dsus4 chord.
CGCFCE – (Open C Alternative)
The guitar is tuned to a Cadd4 chord.
- Open C alternative
- Nick Drake
DGCGCD – (Rain Song Tuning)
The tuning used by Jimmy Page on Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Rain Song’.
- Rain Song
EADGBE – (Nashville Tuning)
Nashville tuning is not standard tuning, as it may first appear. The bass strings are replaced with treble strings and tuned relative to the E,B and G. This produces a significantly higher sounding tuning.
(*Don’t tune your guitar in this way unless you understand the concept)
EADGCF – (All Fourths Tuning)
The guitar is tuned to perfect 4ths unlike standard tuning which consists of perfect 4ths with the exception of the interval between the G and B strings.
- All fourths
- Stanley Jordan Tuning
How to Remember Alternate Tunings
By now you might be wondering how to remember the note each string should be tuned to, for each tuning you might be interested in playing aroubnd with?
It’s a fair point and arguably one of the most common reasons alternate tunings are avoided.
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.
- 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 simply use a tuning app on your smart-phone.
There’s 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:
VITALtuner (over 130 tunings for over 40 instruments)
I truly hope the information above serves as a useful introduction or gives you a new appreciation of alternate tunings.
In the coming weeks we’ll get more into individual alternate tunings including drop tunings and open tunings and others, and discuss some of the nuances and styles each are suitable for.
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 exploring DAGDAD (a beautiful alternate tuning) and then venturing into open tunings which are a lot of fun, especially if you have an interest in slide guitar.
Also, keep in mind, while in the past it was trickier, things are much easier now thanks to tunings apps such as GuitarTuna, so there really are no obstacles for anyone wanting to get started.
Had experience playing in alternate tunings? Why not share your experiences below and join the conversation.