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An Introduction to Alternate Tunings

 One of the first things a new guitarist learns is how to tune their instrument. The accepted method of tuning (EADGBE, from lowest to highest string) is known as standard tuning. It has been in use practically since the guitar was converted from a five-string to a six-string instrument in the 17th century and serves most guitarists quite well. But there's more than one way to tune a guitar. In fact, the number of tunings at your disposal is limited only by your imagination.

 Alternate tunings are deviations on the tried-and-true standard tuning. Open tunings refer to any tuning that forms a full chord when all open strings are strummed together. They are common to blues and folk music as well as for playing with a slide or bottleneck. If you've never heard of alternate or open tunings, or if you've shied away from giving them a go because you find a departure from the ordinary utterly baffling and a bit intimating, take heart. You are not alone. The thought of toying with something as constant as a guitar's tuning frightens a lot of people, especially beginning guitarists, who have enough trouble keeping their guitar in standard tuning. It's easy to get into a mindset that says standard is "normal" and anything else is not. And many players get discouraged from exploring alternate tunings due to the work involved in changing from one tuning to another and back again.

 There are definite and compelling advantages to using alternate tunings though, the most obvious of which is that they make different pitches available on the open strings. New tunings open up a world of voicings and musical textures that inspire new ways of thinking about music. They enable you to play accompaniment that is more varied and far richer than what can be had in standard tuning, which is a real boon to fingerpickers. Alternate tunings also allow you to slide between chord forms that would normally be impossible in standard tuning, unless of course you have elastic fingers. Chord progressions can be played in an open tuning using just one finger to change the bass note. In standard tuning playing the same progressions may require all four fingers and sometimes the thumb!

 Joni Mitchell is famous for her extensive use of various tunings. Almost every song she composed on the guitar used something other than standard. Her repertoire includes more than 60 different tunings. Some put that number at closer to 100 when factoring in a capo. One of the big reasons Joni stopped touring in 1983 was that it had simply become impractical to either change tunings between every song, or carry enough guitars set to various alternate tunings and hire enough techs to handle it all backstage. Joni ultimately was given a modified Stratocaster that she used with the Roland VG-8 processor to electronically create all her different tunings, which allowed her to return to live performance.

 Ani DiFranco is another artist who pushes her guitar strings above and beyond standard tuning. DiFranco has some really bizarre tunings like EEBABD and AADGAD, where the low E string is tuned down to an octave below the A string, for the song "Dilate."

 If you want to learn something in an alternate tuning, it would be to your advantage to learn a few songs in any particular tuning so at least you won't be tuning up and down for just one song or solo. And instead of jumping from one alternate tuning to another, most guitarists tend to concentrate on only one tuning at a time until they get it down. Performers who regularly use more than one tuning generally keep a number of different guitars on stage in different tunings, within arm's reach and ready to go, just to avoid all that tuning and retuning, not to mention to spare their audience such tedium.

 You will also have to relearn chord forms if you choose to delve into alternate tunings. It's hard to break the association between a chord name on paper and what you learned to do with your fingers in standard tuning with that chord when you first took up the guitar. Getting around this challenge is just a matter of breaking a habit.

 A word or two here about strings. Know going in that you will break a few. Know that strings sometimes like to take their time stretching out. After you change the tuning on your guitar, you may have to adjust it a couple times before it's right, especially if you use nylon strings. Know that strings with lower tension can buzz if your action isn't high enough, or if you use very light gauge strings. An unwritten rule is not to tune a string higher than 1½ steps or lower than 2 steps from its standard pitch. If you want to push it further, it's recommended to substitute the "extreme" strings with different gauges: thicker if they are tuned down, thinner if they are tuned up. If you often play in one specific alternate tuning, it may even be a good idea to create your own dedicated, custom string set. Many guitarists go so far as to have two guitars, one for alternate tunings and one for standard. (Hey, it's a great excuse to purchase another guitar.) And finally, a word of caution: Be aware that your guitar may not be able to take a significant amount of extra tension on the top should you keep the same medium gauge strings on when you retune to standard. Doing so could lead to neck warp that might possibly damage your instrument permanently.

 To help get you started down the road of alternate tunings, let's explore four of the most common tunings along with examples of popular songs that use them. All tunings are in parentheses, low string to high.

 Drop D (DADGBE)

Drop D is the most frequently used alternate tuning and one of the easiest ones to get started with as only one string is altered. The only difference between Drop D and standard tuning is that the low E string is tuned down a whole step to D. (Use the fourth string D as a reference tone. Pluck the strings together and adjust as needed.) Power chords can be played on the fourth, fifth, and sixth strings with only one finger, and lower bass notes can be accessed, making Drop D a popular tuning in both rock and heavy metal music. It's also used in many other styles of music including blues, country, folk, and classical.

The lowest D note in standard tuning is the open fourth string. By tuning to Drop D, the lowest bass note now becomes the D on the tuned down low E string, one octave lower than the note you could previously play on the fourth string. You now have a very strong and resonant D bass note which opens up the key of D on your guitar in a huge way. Start off by playing a D chord and listen to how the bass note on the sixth string adds a massive amount of depth to the key.

Examples of Drop D tuning include the Beatles' "Dear Prudence," Led Zeppelin's "Moby Dick" and "Going to California," Nirvana's "All Apologies," the Foo Fighters' "Everlong," Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun," Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home," and The Who's "Mobile."

Open D (DADF#AD)

Open D is arguably not only one of the best sounding tunings, but also one of the easiest ones to play. The full, vibrant sound it produces comes from the voicing of the open strings. In Open D tuning, when the guitar is strummed without fretting any of the strings, a D Major chord is sounded. Any major chord in this tuning can be easily created by barring all the strings at once. For example, fretting all the strings at the second fret will produce an E Major, at the third fret, an F Major, and so on up the neck. As you might expect, Open D tuning is very popular with slide guitarists as it allows you to play complete chords using the slide.

To tune your guitar to Open D, you will lower the first, second, and sixth strings one whole step and the third string a half step. To do this, lower the sixth string to D. (Use the fourth string D as a reference tone. Pluck the together and adjust as needed.) Now lower the first string to D as well. (Use either the fourth or the sixth string D as a reference tone.) Next lower the second string to A. (Use the fifth string as a reference tone.) Then lower the third string to F#. Try strumming the open strings once you're tuned up. It should sound like a D Major chord.

Examples of Open D tuning can be heard on "She Talks to Angels" by the Black Crowes as well as much of Dylan's Blood on the Tracks. Pearl Jam's Stone Gossard uses this tuning when playing rhythm on "Even Flow" and "Oceans" from the band's Ten album. Mumford & Sons also uses the Open D tuning on their tracks "The Cave," "Awake My Soul," and "Roll Away Your Stone" from their album Sigh No More. Neil Young, Richie Havens, Joni Mitchell, Elmore James, Bruce Cockburn, Barry Gibb, and Jason Swain have also used Open D.


From the bluesmen of the Delta to the Rolling Stones, Open G tuning has seen plenty of action over the years. This tuning not only allows you to play a G Major chord with absolutely no fretting, but it also facilitates the easy, one-finger moveable barre chord.

You might have noticed that in standard guitar tuning, the open second, third, and fourth strings are the same three notes of a G chord: D, G, and B. To arrive at Open G, you simply need to tune the other three strings to notes of a G chord as well. Start by tuning your sixth string down a step to D. (Use the fourth string D as a reference tone.) Now tune your fifth string down a step to G. (Use the third string G as a reference tone.) Then tune your first string down a step to D. (Use the fourth or sixth string D as a reference tone.)

Open G tuning should be renamed the Keith Richards' tuning as it's heard on a number of Stones' songs including "Honky Tonk Women," "Brown Sugar," "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'," "All Down the Line," "Tumbling Dice," "Gimme Shelter," "Beast of Burden," and "Start Me Up," among others. Zeppelin made good use of it too with songs like "In My Time of Dying," "That's the Way," "Dancing Days," "Bron-y-aur Stomp," and "Black Country Woman." Joni Mitchell used Open G on "Little Green." Muddy Waters used it for "Can't Be Satisfied" and "Rollin' and Tumblin'." George Thorogood's "Move It On Over" and "Bad to the Bone" are in Open G tuning as is "Easy to Slip" by Little Feat, "Squeezebox" by The Who, and "Fearless" by Pink Floyd.

D Modal (DADGAD)

Pronounced Dad Gad by guitarists, D Modal is a very popular, especially lush-sounding tuning that can offer the pipe-like sounds of Scottish and Irish music as well as the drones of North African, Indian and Arabian music. British folk guitarist Davey Graham is credited for bringing DADGAD to a wider audience. Some say he discovered this exotic tuning on a trip to Tangier in Morocco in the early 1960s. It likely existed in North Africa and elsewhere for many years.

DADGAD is popular among Celtic players and turns up in the folk music of India and Morocco. It has also found its way into rock and other genres. When you strum all six strings in DADGAD, you hear a Dsus4 chord, which may initially feel like an odd place to start playing, but DADGAD offers many possibilities that can help you write new music and rejuvenate your sense of melody.

To tune your guitar to DADGAD, start by tuning your sixth string down a step to D. (Use the fourth string D as a reference tone. Pluck the strings together and adjust as needed.) Now tune your second string down a step to A. (Use the fifth string A as a reference tone.) Then tune your first string down a step to D. (Use the fourth or sixth string D as a reference tone.)

DADGAD is the secret behind Zeppelin's "Black Mountain Side" and the sweeping epic majesty of "Kashmir." Paul Simon used the tuning on his version of the traditional "Scarborough Fair," and Slipknot also used the tuning on "Circle."

GT Instructor Lisa McCormick has a tutorial on this tuning called DADGAD: Adventures in Alternate Tuning. Do check it out. 

Whatever your skill level, be it complete beginner or seasoned picker, alternate tunings are worth looking into. They'll help you to break new sonic ground on the guitar and give your ears a burst of tonal color. But don't take my word for it. Try out some of the different tunings from the list above to get you started, then consider exploring alternate tunings on your own. The possibilities are endless. Once you get over your initial fear of changing the tunings on your guitar, you'll wonder what held you back. 


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