One of the reasons we get into music is because it takes us farther then we thought we could go; as a performer, as a musician, and as a person. The study of music stretches us and our capabilities.
There are some things that fire our imagination and make us consider possibilities we had not seen before. Sometimes a new technique, or an alternate approach can open up new areas of the musical world—increasing the possibilities exponentially.
Whether you’re stuck in a rut, just starting out, or simply looking for something new, exploring the range of alternate tunings for guitar can create a dramatic shift in your playing.
Standard Guitar Tuning
As you probably know, the standard tuning for the six-string guitar is EADGBE. It’s probably the first tuning you ever learned, and for some guitarists, it might be the only tuning you’ve ever learned. The vast majority of songs played on the guitar use this tuning. If you strum it unfretted, it creates a Em7+11 chord. But, it’s probably seldom used that way—if ever.
You’ve probably learned hundreds of patterns and shapes that apply to standard tuning. If you’ve only played your guitar in standard, learning to effectively utilize alternate tunings for guitar may require a shift of imagination—and considerable practice.
There are dozens of alternate tunings for the six-string guitar alone (we included a helpful list at the bottom of the page). In this article, we will get into a couple of broad categories (Drop and Open tunings) and explore one very popular guitar tuning a little more closely (DADGAD).
Alternate Drop Guitar Tunings
There can be some confusion about the definition of “drop” tunings. One refers to lowering the pitch of the entire standard guitar tuning by a certain interval. Another refers to dropping primarily the 6th string of the guitar. So when talking about these tunings, you may need to clarify what you mean.
If you’re new to alternate tunings for guitar and you want to try out a couple of them without relearning chord shapes and scale patterns, drop tunings are a great place to start—especially if you like playing metal.
The simplest way to get the feel for alternate guitar tunings is to uniformly lower the standard tuning. Dropping an acoustic guitar by a step or so can give you a taste, but if you want to experience something significantly different, try Drop B with a set-up designed for heavy metal. It requires thick, sturdy guitar strings, though (We’d recommend .012 – .056 at a minimum).
You don’t have to change anything with your left hand that you’ve already learned. But you get a completely different sound out of your guitar.
- Soundgarden, “Searching With My Good Eye Closed”, “Rusty Cage”
- Audioslave, “The Worm”, “Bring Em Back Alive”
This is also a good way to get started. Drop D is very similar to standard guitar tuning, but the 6th string is lowered one full step. Again, most left-hand forms and patterns apply.
This is a classic metal tuning because of the extended low range and the power chord DAD construction of the lowest strings. Barring on these three (or just the 6th and 5th) strings is straightforward and makes creating progressions relatively easy. No third in the chord gives it raw, open power.
Drop D is also somewhat common in classical guitar music, to a much different effect.
- Foo Fighters, “Everlong”
- Rage Against the Machine, “Killing In The Name”
- Avenged Sevenfold, “Unholy Confessions”
- Velvet Revolver, “Slither”
Drop C takes all of the strings of Drop D and brings them down a whole step. It has the benefits of Drop D with even lower pitch range.
As with Drop B, you may want to alter the setup and strings of your guitar.
- Killswitch Engage, “Holy Diver”
- Pretty Reckless, “Going to Hell”
- Trivium, “Strife”
Alternate Open Guitar Tunings
All open tunings create a chord when the guitar is strummed without fretting any notes, and are named for the root of the chord they create. They can be major or minor chords, but the major tunings seem to be the most commonly seen in popular guitar music.
There are some common techniques that apply to all open tunings.
As with Drop D, barring across the neck of the guitar is an easy way to create chord progressions. Not all chord progressions are desirable, of course. A series of major chords will be more useful, generally, than an extended series of minor chords. But, if you’re in an open minor tuning, it’s far easier to create a major chord than to try to go the other way around. Using a slide is the same principal, but with the slide’s distinctive characteristics.
Arpeggios are facilitated with open tuning. Adding melody to chords and arpeggios is a signature technique for open guitar tunings. Strumming the open chord while one or more strings are fretted and then moving along the fretboard creates some nice effects and many possibilities. It’s also a good way for you to get you and your guitar’s feet wet with alternate tunings.
Most bluegrass music is in either G or D. This flavor of open tuning is especially suited for quick picking.
Here are a couple of examples for ways to get started.
Create the hand shape for an E7 chord.
With this tuning, it’s actually a suspended D chord (DBDGAD).
Take the same hand shape and move it up two frets.
– O4O3OO (DC#DAAD); a wanna-be maj7 chord.
Now, make an “E chord” shape.
This makes a “very suspended” chord (DBEGAD; a sus2,4,6)
Strike the chord. Then clear you hand when you strike again. This gives you the resolution.
Those are just a couple of straightforward things to get your creative juices flowing.
There are many, many examples of Open D. Here are just a few:
- Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”
- Bruce Cockburn, “Sunwheel Dance”
- Allman Brothers, instrumental from “Little Martha”
This tuning is used frequently in blues, folk, and slide guitar.
The Rolling Stones used it so much that Keith Richards would remove the 6th string on many of his guitars, so that he would have the root as the lowest note. The Black Crowes are also well-known practitioners.
- Rolling Stones, “Start Me Up”, “Jumping Jack Flash”
- Black Crowes, “Twice As Hard”
Joni Mitchell used another popular Open G tuning (GGDGBD) in “Electricity” and “For The Roses”.
Typical tuning: CGCGCE
This tuning is commonly used on a 12 string guitar, but is frequently used on the six string guitar as well. The repetition of C and G on the bottom 5 strings makes this tuning incredibly intuitive and very suitable to heavy riffing, a-la drop tunings.
This is also one of the most flexible open tunings, since only the E on the 1st string renders it a major tuning, and that note can be easily avoided.
- William Ackerman – “Townsend Shuffle”
- Stephen Stills – “Love The One You’re With”
- Jeff Martin – “Angel Dust”
This very popular tuning got it’s name from the pronunciation of string assignments: DADGAD. It’s similar to open tunings in that it makes a chord: a suspended four. Therefore, many of the guitar techniques used for open tunings can be applied with this one.
This tuning is used a lot for Celtic music. But it is also used in folk, metal, rock and many other genres. Jimmy Page used it in “Kashmir”, “Black Mountain Side”, and “White Summer.” Pierre Bensusan’s acoustic guitar work makes considerable use of DADGAD as well (He’s even written books on the subject).
DADGAD sounds best in the keys of DM/Bm, so it’s recommended that you limit your repertoire to those keys. Because of the “suspended” nature of this tuning, unfretted strings can create sympathetic vibrations and lush resonance on the guitar. DADGAD also lends itself to typical Celtic/Irish/Scottish music featuring melodies over open drones from the lower strings.
If you want to create even more suspension, second-fret the 4th string to add a “sus2” to the Dmaj chord. And because DADGAD doesn’t contain the 3rd of the chord, it can in theory be used in both major or minor keys.
Here are some of the basic chords:
Dmaj – OO542OO
Gmaj – 55O4OO
Asus – OO22OO
B7 – X2122X
Emin7 – 22OOXX
F#min7 – 4422XX
Cmaj – X34O3O
Jeff Martin created a variation of this tuning: DADEAD (“because the g-string wasn’t working for me”). He used it for his song “The Badger” from Edges of Twilight.
So, that’s our introduction to the world of alternate tunings for guitar. I know it was quick and we covered a number of topics very briefly, but the internet holds a dazzling amount of information, including many, many how-to videos that will help you to dig much deeper into this subject.
As a final word, I strongly recommend that you watch Jim Martin’s 4-part video series on alternate guitar tunings. He is a considerable master of the subject and uses many of the tunings we talked about already, plus many more. Especially amazing is his ability to quickly change from one tuning to another (apparently it helps to have perfect pitch). You can start watching here. Links to the rest of the series are provided below the first video.
Good luck and have fun exploring alternate tunings on your own guitar!
A larger list of common Alternate Tunings
(via HowToTuneAGuitar.com — corrected to proper octave numbers)
|Half Step Down||d#2||g#2||c#3||f#3||a#3||d#4|
|Full Step Down||d2||g2||c3||f3||a3||d4|
|1 and 1/3 Steps Down||c#2||f#2||b2||e3||g#3||c#4|
|Double Drop D||d2||a2||d3||g3||b3||d4|
|Open D Minor||d2||a2||d3||f3||a3||d4|
|Open G Minor||d2||g2||d3||g3||a#3||d4|
|Open C Minor||c2||g2||c3||g3||c4||d#4|
|Open E Minor7||e2||b2||d3||g3||b3||e4|
|Open G Major7||d2||g2||d3||f#3||b3||d4|
|Open A Minor||e2||a2||e3||a3||c4||e4|
|Open A Minor7||e2||a2||e3||g3||c4||e4|
|A to A (Baritone)||a1||d2||g2||c3||e3||a3|
|D A D D D D||d2||a2||d3||d3||d4||d4|
|C G D G B D||c2||g2||d3||g3||b3||d4|
|C G D G B E||c2||g2||d3||g3||b3||e4|
|D A D E A D||d2||a2||d3||e3||a3||d4|
|D G D G A D||d2||g2||d3||g3||a3||d4|
|Four and Twenty||d2||a2||d3||d3||a3||d4|