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Alternate Guitar Tunings
Posted on February 7, 2022
The guitar is a versatile instrument and the familiar standard tuning gets you far. Whether it’s blues, heavy metal or acoustic folk music you like to play, there are seemingly endless selection of songs that use the standard guitar tuning. This is true for both electric and acoustic guitar. However, sometimes you might want to change things up a bit and expand the possibilities your guitar has to offer. One way to do this is with a guitar capo. Another widely used tactic to change the sound of your guitar is with alternate tunings.
Some well-known guitarists who have varied their sound with alternate tunings include Joni Mitchell, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Tom Morello and Nick Drake just to name a few.
As you learn to play and add more and more songs to your arsenal, you might run into things like drop D, drop C, open E and many others. These are alternate tunings that are required for you to play a song as it’s intended. Hungry to hear more? Keep reading and we’ll introduce you to the world of alternate guitar tunings and list a few of the most common alternate tunings for guitar.
What are alternate guitar tunings?
Alternate guitar tunings are simply a way of tuning your guitar differently than the standard E-A-D-G-B-E tuning. Alternate tunings change the way your guitar sounds and they can be used for a variety of purposes. For example, if a guitarist wants to create a darker and heavier sound, this can be achieved with a dropped tuning, or tuning the strings of a guitar lower than usual. In other words, playing the same song in a different tuning will make it sound quite different. However, some alternate tunings are so different from the standard guitar tuning that playing the song the same way using the standard tuning will no longer sound good.
Standard tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E)
Before trying your hand at using alternate tunings it’s good to be familiar with the standard guitar tuning first. When playing a song or learning how to play a new tune, it’s a safe bet that you’ll be using the standard guitar tuning. There the strings are tuned as E-A-D-G-B-E, from the lowest (and thickest) string to the highest one. A good way to remember the names of the strings is with this helpful rhyme: “Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good Bye Eddie.”
Make sure that you know how to tune your guitar by using the standard tuning. You can learn to do this by just using your ear or a tuner device. In our opinion, the easiest way to keep your guitar in tune is with a digital tuner app that you can download on your phone, such as GuitarTuna.
Dropped tuning or drop tuning is when you tune the lowest E string lower than you normally would in relation to the other strings. Drop tunings are widely used in a variety of rock genres and heavy metal, although guitar tuning such as drop D aren’t limited to only heavier music. We’re going to look at two examples here, although drop tunings aren’t limited to just these two.
Some common drop tunings include:
- drop D
- drop C
- drop B
- drop A
Drop tunings are particularly helpful when playing power chords on the two or three lowest guitar strings. When the low E string needs to be played two frets higher than normally, it allows you to play chords using only a single finger. This is called barring. For instance, you can use your index finger to press down all three strings, much like with barre chords. This makes it much faster and easier to transition between different chords on the lowest strings of the guitar.
Drop D (D-A-D-G-B-E)
One of the best and easiest ways to start with alternate tunings is with the drop D tuning. What makes this one especially good is that it’s widely used in rock music and requires you to change the tuning of only one string, the low E string. When the three lowest strings tuned to D, A and D are played open, this produces the D5 power chord. Simply tune your guitar to the standard tuning, in case you haven’t already, and tune down the low E string. Use the higher D string as a reference point in case you don’t have a special tuner for alternate guitar tunings.
Drop C (C-G-C-F-A-D)
If the drop D tuning isn’t heavy and low enough for your tastes, try the drop C tuning instead. Drop C is widely used by bands playing heavy metal and other such genres that demand heavy-sounding guitar and lower notes. Just like with the drop D tuning, you first tune down the low E string to D and in addition tune all strings down a whole step. After this, the six guitar strings should be tuned to C, G, C, F, A and D from low to high. The drop C tuning has been used by many metal and especially metalcore bands. Bands that have used drop C extensively include:
- System of a Down
- Killswitch Engage
- Bullet for My Valentine
- Children of Bodom
Another popular way of using alternate tunings is to use so-called open tunings. The namings of open guitar tunings follow the chord that is produced when all strings are played open. In other words, you can play major chords such as the D, G and E chords just by strumming all strings without pressing down any of the frets. Open minor tunings are also possible but not as commonly used as ones that let you play a major chord. Open tunings also allow you to play chords by barring all strings with a single finger. This is why open tunings are great for playing slide guitar.
One guitar player known for her use of open tunings is Joni Mitchell. Joni also didn’t limit herself to just a single open tuning but used a variety of different open tunings for different songs. You can read more about Joni Mitchell and her use of open tunings here.
Here we’ll be looking at only two possible open tunings: open E and open D. For slide guitar, other popular open tunings include the open G and open A tunings.
Open D (D-A-D-F#-A-D)
To tune your guitar to the open D tuning, you need to tune down both the high and low E strings down a full step. In addition, tune down the G string half a step as well as the B string down a full step. After tuning your guitar to open D you can play songs like:
- ‘Loser’ by Beck
- ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ by Joni Mitchell
- ‘Even Flow’ by Pearl Jam
- ‘Dust My Broom’ by Elmore James
Other bands that use the open D tuning in their songs include the folk rock favorites Mumford & Sons and the pioneers of shoegaze, My Bloody Valentine.
Open E (E-B-E-G#-B-E)
If the open D tuning requires you to tune the strings down, for open E you need to tune three of the strings up from the standard guitar tuning. Tune both the A and D strings up a whole step as well as the G string half a step. Again, the open E tuning is widely used by slide guitar players, such as Duane Allman. The open E tuning is also used in songs like ‘Bo Diddley’ by Bo Diddley, ‘Just Got Paid’ by the ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons and some songs by Keith Richards of the legendary British rock band The Rolling Stones, such as ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and ‘Gimme Shelter’.
Other alternate tunings
Two additional alternate guitar tunings worth mentioning here are the full step down and half-step down tunings. These all have you starting at the standard guitar tuning and tuning all six strings either a full or a half-step.
Full-step down (D standard)
The first step (pun intended) when tuning down a whole step is to tune your guitar first to drop D. After that you can tune down the rest of the strings, until they are all tuned down an entire step. With your guitar tuned down a full step, just tune the low E string down to C and you have the drop C tuning ready to go.
Half-step down (E flat)
Also known as the E flat tuning, the half-step down tuning has the strings tuned down to Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Bb, Eb (sometimes indicated as D#, G#, C#, F#, A#, D#). In other words, all strings are tuned down half a step from the standard EADGBE tuning. As a result the strings are slightly looser and the end result sounds a bit heavier. Some guitarists who have utilized the half-step down tuning include Jimi Hendrix, Slash of Guns ‘n’ Roses, Buddy Holly and Stevie Ray Vaughan, just to name a few.
Do I need special guitar strings for alternate tunings?
In addition to the type of guitar and style of playing, the tuning affects which guitar strings you should use. Overall, many dropped tunings are easier to play with when using thicker strings. The lower the tuning is, the thicker your strings should be as well. Some guitar string manufacturers such as Ernie Ball provide sets of strings designed for particular guitar tunings. For example, you can buy strings with a heavier gauge that are designed for dropped tunings such as drop C or strings for drop D where only the lowest strings are thicker than usual.
How to tune your guitar to an alternate tuning?
A good way to start when tuning to some alternate tuning is by setting your guitar up to the standard guitar tuning. Once you are ready with an accurate standard tuning, it’s easier to use that as a reference point. In addition, some tunings such as drop D and many open tunings don’t require you to change all strings from the standard EADGBE tuning.
However, the most reliable way to tune your guitar to any tuning, both standard and alternate, is with a guitar tuner. The thing is, though, that most guitar tuners are made only for the standard tuning. This makes using alternate tunings more difficult. Luckily there are some tools that can help, such as GuitarTuna. The free GuitarTuna app comes with an accurate tuner for standard guitar tuning and tunings for a number of other instruments. On top of that you can get additional alternate tuning options for drop D, drop C, E flat tuning and more.
We have covered here in detail only six essential alternative tunings. However, the list could go on with many others such as the open G tuning, the folky DADGAD tuning and a number of other lesser known tunings. And don’t get us started with all the crazy experimental alternative tunings used by bands like Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine and The Velvet Underground.
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