What are Alternate Tunings, and should I use them?

Hello, everyone out there in the guitar stratosphere! Hope you’re all keeping safe and well. Today is the day I talk about one of my favourite guitar subjects: alternate tunings! I absolutely love alternate tunings, and my self-appointed task is to try and convince you how great and inspiring they can be. 

If you’ve been playing the guitar for a while then chances are you’re pretty comfortable with Standard Tuning (the ol’ EADGBE). If you’re feeling a little bit uninspired and want to breathe some new life into your guitar playing, then alternate tunings may help you break out of that tedium! As well as being creatively inspiring, I think playing in an alternate tuning will improve your technique and knowledge. So what are you waiting for?!

I feel alternate tunings can be somewhat intimidating but don’t fear, I’ll hopefully shed some light on a few common misconceptions and anxieties that surround alternate tunings. Let’s get into it.

What are alternate guitar tunings?

An alternate tuning is basically anything that deviates from the standard E,A,D,G,B,E tuning that most guitars hanging on the wall of a guitar shop will be tuned to. Standard tuning is the most conventional way to tune a guitar as notes in scales and chord shapes are easily accessible when in Standard, due to the layout on the fingerboard.

Before jumping into alternate tunings, I’d recommend getting a chromatic tuner. A chromatic tuner is a tuner that will allow you to tune to every note in the musical alphabet. It isn’t just confined to specific tunings. I myself use the Boss TU-3, but headstock tuners like the Snark SN-5X will also do the job!

Now, with that out of the way, let us jump into a few of my favourite alternate tunings and their different characteristics… 

Drop D

Tuning – D A D G B E

Drop D tuning is perhaps the easiest alternate tuning to start off with. All but the low E string is tuned the same as Standard, which is tuned down to a D instead of an E. Even though it’s a little change, tuning to drop D will add a nice bit of variation compared to Standard. 

Since 5 out of 6 strings are tuned the same way as in Standard, on 5 strings all of your standard notes and chord shapes can be played as you usually would, this is why I think Drop D is a brilliant alternate tuning to start out with! It’s a little less intimidating than completely detuning your guitar and you have plenty of reference points. 

Another cool thing about Drop D tuning is that the bottom 3 bass strings, when played open, make a D power chord! It’s almost like having a rhythm guitar player playing alongside you if you want to get into some lead parts. Finger picking in Drop D on an acoustic is very fun and I’d recommend giving it a go!  

A few famous songs written in Drop D tuning are Harvest Moon by Neil Young, Everlong by the Foo Fighters and Sugar, We’re Going Down by Fall Out Boy. So there are plenty of songs out there to learn if you want to get a bit more familiar with the tuning! 

Open Tunings 

Open G Tuning – D G D G B D Open A Tuning – E A E A C♯ E

Open D Tuning – D A D F♯ A D Open E Tuning – E B E G♯ B E

So you’ve played around with Drop D and you want to branch out a ‘lil. Open Tunings is where I’m going to direct you. An Open tuning is when strummed open, all the strings will play a chord. The most popular open tunings are Open G, Open D, Open E and Open A. 

I think open tunings are super inspiring, since the strings are tuned to an open chord there is already a distinct mood and tone set before you start to play. It’s a great songwriting tool and I’ve had some success penning a few songs just by going to an open tuning and feeling its particular vibe. Joni Mitchell is a brilliant example of a creative songwriter who used open tunings, her music is distinctive and interesting and a lot of that was inspired by her use of tunings!

Open tunings are synonymous with Slide guitar. This is because barring all of the strings at once with a slide will play a different chord. Slide guitar and open tunings are meant to be together! Open G was the tuning of choice for “Delta Blues” slide guitarists like Robert Johnson. More modern guitarists like Lindsey Jordan from Snail Mail are also using open tunings in their music – I’d recommend checking them out.

If you’ve ever seen Wolf of Wall Street when Di Caprio’s character comes screaming into the scene driving a white Ferrari, the song accompanying him is Elmore James’ ‘Dust my Broom’ and – you guessed it – James is playing in Open D. You could be that cool too! There’s a brilliant old cover of ‘Dust my Broom’ on Youtube that you should all check out, it really shows Open D tuning in all its glory.

Getting Inventive 

The great thing about alternate tunings is that there aren’t really any rules to what you can and cannot tune your guitar to. Experiment with some whacky tunings and use your ear until you find something that you like! 

Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine is a particularly famous example of getting creative with tunings. My Bloody Valentine’s super influential album ‘loveless’ has 11 songs of which Shields uses 8 different tunings to great effect. Tunings like F#C#F#BbC#F# and DADDAD helped give My Bloody Valentine a super thick and moody sound. 

Adrianne Lenker who is the singer and songwriter in ‘Big Thief’ is also very inventive with alternate tunings. There is a great YouTube video where they sit down and talk about different tunings Big Thief have used in the past and how it helps inspire them in the creative process. In the video, Lenker explains how alternate tunings can really do a lot of the heavy lifting whilst you’re playing, showing that you don’t have to play much to write an interesting piece! 

Sometimes Standard Tuning can lull us into autopilot where everything is comfortable and nothing is really inspiring, so be brave and start using those tuning pegs to breathe something a little different into your sound! 

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