Introduction to Alternate Tunings: Getting Started
If you’re a beginner, this is a great way to explore different sounds while your fingers get used to the strings and your hands get used to the neck. For more experienced players, this allows you to explore beyond the chord shapes and scales that you’re used to.
In the 16th century, the vihuela was the first six-course guitar-shaped instrument to closely resemble—in shape, sound, and string courses—our modern day guitar. Since then, standard tuning has evolved into the most commonly used guitar tuning in the world, in which string pitches are defined as E-A-D-G-B-E.
Why IS standard tuning so commonly used? To make a long story short, thousands of years ago someone with a lot of patience experimented through trial and error to find that the E-A-D-G-B-E tuning—comprised of a series of perfect fourths with a single major third (Example: If you start on E then, counting up the alphabet, A is the fourth and then from G, B would be the third)—single-handedly allowed for more diversity when considering ability to play chords and scales with physical ease and comfort (there is much more theory surrounding this but we won’t get into that right now). All you need to know is that the “standard” chord shapes and scales revolve around this tuning, which is why tuning your guitar this way is usually one of the first things you’re taught.
What we don’t immediately learn—and might not even consider—is that there are endless ways to tune a guitar. These tunings are called “Alternate Tunings”, referring to a different arrangement of notes in your open strings.
How can these tunings be helpful and useful? Venturing into the open tuning world is like re-learning guitar, which can be incredibly palpable to creative experimentation. Depending on your tuning, you can play full chords with just one finger that slides up and down the neck. If you’re a beginner, this is a great way to explore different sounds while your fingers get used to the strings and your hands get used to the neck. For more experienced players, this allows you to explore beyond the chord shapes and scales that you’re used to. If you’re stuck in a rut, just start experimenting with your tuning knobs until you create something that sounds good to your ears! Let’s check out a few alternate tunings commonly used by other musicians:
Drop D: D-A-D-G-B-D
Ani Difranco- “Letting The Telephone Ring”
The only difference between Drop D tuning and Standard tuning is that the low E string (sixth string) is tuned one whole-step lower than E, making it an incredibly popular and easy to learn alternate tuning. Because you can play a power chord with one finger on the fourth, fifth, and sixth strings while maintaining that low D bass sound, this tuning is popular among heavy metal music; however, Ani Difranco was also known to experiment with this tuning, among many others. Check out Difranco’s “Letting The Telephone Ring” and listen to how the low D string adds some depth to her fingerpicking guitar melodies.
Open G: D-G-D-G-B-D
Open tunings form a full chord when all six strings are strummed. Because of this, open tunings are common among lap steel players and fingerpicking tunes. You can easily play barre chords with one finger and play a mean slide solo as well. Joni Mitchell is another player who is known for her extensive use of alternate tunings—over 60 to be exact. “The Circle Game” is a great example of simple playing that sounds more technical than it is.
For the aspiring lap steel players, try out the C6th open tuning (E-C-A-G-E-C), commonly used among Hawaiian lap steel players—where the lap steel originated!
Modal Tuning / BYOT (Build Your Own Tuning)
Low C: C-G-D-G-A-D
Modal tunings are weird ones. They are defined as tunings that do not produce major or minor chords, or any chords that are variations of them, but personally I think they are assigned to made-up tunings that aren’t used very often. When asked about alternate tunings, Kaki King has mentioned using the low C tuning at least once on every record she’s made. Like Ani Difranco and Joni Mitchell, Kaki King heavily relies on countless tunings, making it nearly impossible to make out which ones are used for what songs. Another band who’s famous for tuning experimentation is Sonic Youth—usually making up their own tunings and ways of playing.
The downside of alternate tuning is getting your guitar used to extreme shifting of tones. At the beginning you might expect to break a few strings if you’re tuning too low or too high for what the string gauge can handle. A good rule of thumb is to not tune 1 ½ steps higher or two steps lower than the standard tuning pitch.