If you are a casual musician who only plays the guitar as a hobby or a complete beginner, the words “alternate guitar tuning” may seem intimidating, confusing, or even a little frightening at first. However, although the standard tuning of E A D G B E is by far the most commonly-used tuning, alternate tunings can be very useful, as well.
The tuning of an instrument refers to the pitch that is given to the strings. Many alternate, or nonstandard, guitar tunings are in an open form. Open tunings allow chords to be formed by strumming all of the strings at once, with no fretting of the strings. Open tunings are typically used when playing sliding chords or scales using a standard slide or bottleneck slide, and are popular in the jazz and blues genres. The open tunings are named for the base chord that they produce when strummed, and are usually based on major chords rather than minor. Here are some examples of open tunings:
Open A: E A E A C# E
The Open A tuning is commonly used when playing slide guitar. To make this change, you’ll need to tune the second through fourth strings up by two half-steps.
Open D: D A D Gb A D
This tuning was used by folk artist Joni Mitchell on the song Big Yellow Taxi, and by the Allman Brothers on the song Little Martha. It is sometimes referred to as Vestopol tuning.
Open E: E B E G# B E
This is another open tuning used by slide guitar players that allows chords to be formed in different frets by barring the neck of the instrument. This tuning was popular with Cat Stevens and is still used by other contemporary folk artists.
Open G: D-G-D-G-B-D
Probably known as the most common of alternate guitar tunings, Open G has been used in a variety of genres, including rock (Keith Richards of the Rollings Stones, Pink Floyd on Fearless), and blues (Charley Patton, Robert Johnson).
Most nonstandard tunings use a downtuning, or dropping, of the strings. Uptuning is rarely used, because it increases tension on the neck of the guitar and on the strings themselves, which can break if pulled too tight. One of the most widely used alternate guitar tunings is the Dropped D tuning, where the lower E string is tuned to a D. This allows the player to form “power chords” with one finger, and is the most common tuning used in heavy metal and thrash music.
Dropped D: D-A-D-G-B-E
This standard dropped tuning is typically used in folk and country music.
Dropped B: B F# B E G# C#
This tuning is commonly used in heavy metal, because of the heavy, dark sound it produces.
Double Dropped D: D-A-D-G-B-D
In the “DDD,” both E strings are dropped to D. This tuning is commonly used by Neil Young on many of his songs and albums.
Although learning to play in an alternate guitar tuning can seem like a challenge at first, many beginning players find that they are more able to switch between difficult chord transitions when using the tunings, and may even develop a unique playing style based around a particular tuning or tunings.
Alternate guitar tunings also give chords a different sound that the traditional standard tuning. Many professional musicians are able to find their signature sound by experimenting with alternate guitar tunings, and long-time players often enjoy the challenge of “relearning” how to play notes, chords and scales within nonstandard tunings. Whatever your skill level, be it complete beginner or seasoned picker, alternate guitar tunings are worth looking into. Try out some of the different tunings from the list above as a guide to get you started, then consider exploring alternate guitar tunings on your own. The possibilities are endless, and you’re sure to find a tuning that will fit your individual playing style.
Photo by thepismire