Just when you thought the guitar couldn’t get any more versatile! With a quick twist of your tuning pegs you can open up a world of new possibilities.
In this article we’ll give you the full rundown on:
- What alternate tunings are
- How to set them up on your guitar
- Why you should try them out for yourself
⚠️Quick GPSA (Guitar player safety announcement) – Always be cautious when tuning strings up. This adds tension which can break strings or in extreme cases, damage the guitar.
What is an alternate tuning?
An important question. Luckily, it’s a simple answer.
- Standard guitar tuning from low to high is E-A-D-G-B-e.
- An alternate tuning is any tuning that deviates from this standard.
That’s the only rule for making an alternate tuning, so the possibilities are endless. But before you start experimenting, let’s look at some popular examples for inspiration.
Most popular types of alternate tunings
If you’ve ever delved into the world of metal guitar, drop tuning should be a familiar term. It refers to tuning the 6th string down by a whole step.
This tuning allows you to play a power chord with one finger, making super-fast chord changes much easier.
Drop D: The same as standard tuning but you lower the 6th string down from E to D - D-A-D-G-B-E
Drop C: If you want an even heavier sound, tune all the strings down a whole step and then drop the 6th string down to C - C-G-C-F-A-D
Drop B and beyond: As you take the tuning lower, the string tension will decrease. It’s necessary to use heavier gauge strings when tuning this low.
If you’re not sure which strings you need, you’ll find answers in our ultimate string guide.
An open tuning is when all the strings form a chord without needing to fret any notes.
- The most commonly used open tunings are made up of the root note, 3rd, and 5th – AKA a major chord.
- Slide guitar players often use open tunings.
Open E: You only need to retune three strings to try out this open tuning – E-B-E-G#-B-E
Open G: For any Rolling Stones fans, here’s Keith Richards' favorite tuning. He’s also known to remove the 6th string entirely – (D)-G-D-G-B-D
DADGAD tuning: This is a very popular tuning in folk music. It’s still considered an open tuning but forms a Dsus4 chord instead of a major chord.
Half step down tuning
For a quick change in the tone and feel of your guitar, try tuning everything a half step down – Eb-Ab-Db-Gb-Bb-Eb.
- Sometimes referred to as ‘E flat tuning’.
- The lower string tension makes it easier to play big bends and wild vibrato.
- This tuning instantly gives your guitar a beefier tone.
You’ll be in good company – some of the world's most iconic guitarists played a half step down:
- Jimi Hendrix
- Stevie Ray Vaughan
- B.B. King
- Kurt Cobain
Speaking of legends, our own Karl Kerfoot has put together an awesome Hendrix CAGED course – check it out with our 14-day free trial.
Why you should try alternate tunings
Now we’ve covered what they are and how they're formed, it’s time to answer why you should try them out.
#1 - Creative expression
Exploring different guitar tunings opens up a vast array of new sounds and textures, allowing you to express yourself in unique and innovative ways.
- Challenges muscle memory, pushing you to find new finger placements and patterns.
- Forces you to experiment with unconventional chord progressions and melodies.
- Boosts creative problem-solving as you adapt to the limitations and opportunities of different tunings.
It can inspire fresh musical ideas and compositions that might not have been possible in standard tuning.
#2 - Explore new genres
Each tuning has its own distinct characteristics and associations with different genres.
- Exploring these tunings provides insight into the techniques and musical elements of those genres.
- Drop tunings are closely associated with metal – they almost encourage you to create riffs in that style.
- Open G tuning is synonymous with slide and blues guitar and again, you will feel pulled in that direction when playing with this tuning.
By experimenting in this way, you can immerse yourself in a wide range of musical styles and cultures, broadening your musical horizons.
#3 - Break out of ruts
Stuck in a creative rut or feel like you're playing the same things repeatedly? Changing the tuning can provide a refreshing perspective, especially if:
- The chord shapes you know don’t inspire you.
- Your fingers always lead you in a certain direction.
- You want to break out of your comfort zone.
That unfamiliar feeling will encourage experimentation and force your mind to engage with what you’re playing.
#4 - Discover new chords and voicings
Alternative tunings often lead to discovering novel chord shapes and voicings that could be impossible in standard tuning.
- Alternate tunings displace all the familiar intervals on the fretboard.
- This inspires a unique approach to chord construction.
- The unfamiliar territory can help you build a palette of unusual voicings.
These chord voicings can be a great way for you to develop an original sound as a guitarist.
#5 - Enhance your ear and theory knowledge
As you navigate through different tunings, you'll develop a skill for finding intervals and building harmony using your ear.
- Many guitarists rely heavily on fret numbers, chord shapes, and scale patterns.
- When you change the tuning, all of that goes out the window.
- You’re forced to use your ears and brain to figure out what’s going on.
Paying closer attention to the relationships between notes will deepen your understanding of theory and sharpen your musical intuition.
#6 - Study certain songs
Tons of famous songs were written in alternate tunings and often there’s no way to play them without retuning your guitar.
- Some guitarists are masters of certain alternate tunings.
- By studying their songs you can pick up ideas and techniques for that specific tuning.
Playing these songs authentically will give you a deeper insight into the style, and possibilities of writing in alternate tunings.
#7 - Songwriting inspiration
Different guitar tunings can serve as a launch pad for songwriting.
- Fresh songwriting ideas normally jump out from nowhere when you least suspect it.
- Those ‘happy accidents’ occur more frequently in alternate tunings.
- Use these tunings to put yourself in an entirely new musical space, where you can’t fall back on your go-to progressions.
I little bit of discomfort during the writing process can be a good thing – it’ll motivate you toward a more creative approach.
There it is! All that’s left now is for you to try some alternate tunings yourself.
Once you get started, it’s guaranteed that you’ll stumble upon an idea that would never have happened in standard tuning.
So to round up – the biggest benefits of experimenting with different tunings are:
- The guitar will sound and feel different.
- It will challenge your brain and your fingers.
- You may develop an entirely new style.
Just remember to be gentle with those tuning pegs! Only increase string tension in small increments – your guitar will thank you for it.
Have fun exploring!
Author: Richard Spooner
Decode Hendrix's iconic rhythm moves through the lens of CAGED.Learn more
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