Intro to Alternate Tunings
By PGS Fitz
Okay, standard tuning isn’t boring, it’s probably the language that we all speak in every day on our guitars—but it is exactly what its name implies: standard. We’ve talked in the Corner before about different ways to open up your playing and songwriting, so today we’re taking a high-level look at open and alternate tunings that you can try out on your instrument, no matter what style of music you play.
Using alternate/open tunings has the obvious benefit of breaking you out of your comfort zone and can force you to rethink how you play your guitar, but there’s also a tonal benefit to playing certain songs in certain non-standard tunings. You can play “Start Me Up” in standard tuning, but it won’t have the same sweet resonance as if you were playing it in open G. A good trick/exercise is to retune your guitar to an alternate tuning and try to transcribe one of your existing standard-tuning guitar parts to the new tuning—it really challenges your brain (and fingers!). The name of the game is to stay fresh, experiment, and maximize creativity. Let’s hit it.
Drop D is arguably the gateway drug for alternate tunings. For drop D, you simply drop the low E down one whole step to D: DADGBE. This allows you to hit a D5 chord by simply strumming the lowest three strings openly and allows you to use one finger up and down the neck to change chords. The list of bands/guitarists who use this tuning from time to time (or even exclusively) is prohibitively long—contrary to popular belief/assertion, it is not just a tuning for metal/hard rock! Jeff Buckley used drop D on the song “Grace;” Radiohead used it for “2+2=5;” the Beatles used it for “Dear Prudence;” and Neil Young often takes drop D into “double drop D” territory (DADGBD), as used on “Cinnamon Girl.” Of course, to be fair-- your favorite hard rock/metal band probably uses it all over the place—but drop D can be used in any style of music.
DADGAD is a Celtic/folk tuning that has been employed in some legendary songs—I’m talking about you, “Kashmir.” Jimmy Page is known for employing several alternate tunings to add an eastern drony tone to several of Zeppelin’s classic tunes. Rory Gallagher was also known to play a couple tunes in DADGAD, notably his cover of Leadbelly’s “Out on the Western Plain.”
While not an “alternate” tuning, per se, Nashville tuning is a great way to reinvent your songs/parts. Nashville tuning is essentially stringing a 6-string guitar with the high set of strings from a 12-string set—replacing the wound strings (E,A,D, and sometimes G) with lighter gauge strings but keeping standard tuning. Though it is often heard in country tunes, Nashville tuning has made its way into many modern rock tunes, including Alice In Chains’ “I Stay Away” and Stone Temple Pilots’ “Sour Girl,” not to mention it being an essential part of the Stones’ “Wild Horses.” It’s a great way to add texture to a recording or give you a fresh perspective on an existing tune.
OPEN G TUNING: DGDGBD
Open G tuning is one of the eminent blues tunings, used by everyone from Robert Johnson to Keith Richards to the Black Crowes. If you listen to any sort of blues based music, this tuning has been in your face (and ears) your whole entire life—it’s almost too ubiquitous to even point out key examples—but it doesn’t just have to be used for blues. Many songs written in standard tuning easily translate over to open G—it’s another great tuning to use as a sounding board for transposing standard tuning parts into to explore them and open them up.
Here’s one of my favorite acoustic tunes by Clapton which is in a variation of open G tuning:
THE TOTALLY CRAZY AND RANDOM
I couldn’t NOT mention Sonic Youth.
Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo are two of the highest profile guitarists who use what I can only call CRAZY A** tunings—proof that you don’t need to come from a blues, folk, or traditional background to put alternate tunings to work for your music. A cursory sampling of their tunings from the album Dirty (the first album of theirs that I ever bought) reveals at least ten different tunings being used by Moore and Ranaldo—and often their tunings are totally different from one anothers. For “Theresa’s Sound World,” Moore is playing ACCGG#C and Ranaldo is playing AAEEAA – tunings which seem completely random, but allow the two guitarists to create a wash of droning notes as the song builds before exploding into classic Sonic Youth mayhem.
The lesson here? There are no rules. Try a traditional tuning and make it non-traditional; create a freakishly weird tuning and use it to craft a catchy song. Just because you’ve grown up “speaking the language” of standard tuning doesn’t mean you can’t pick up some conversational phrases in other tunings.
Anyone have any favorite tunings that you use on a regular basis or any favorite players for us to check out who use alternate tunings?! Let us know!