Acoustic Week: Alternate Tunings
Published on 21 August 2019
Are you getting a little fed up with your playing?
Could you do with something new to shake things up a little?
Now, we would never be ones to shy you away from buying a new guitar, amp or pedal in order to freshen up your playing time, but there’s something you can do right now for absolutely no cost, and it will remove you from all of your guitar playing comfort zones and familiarity.
Try a new tuning on your guitar!
Surprise yourself by landing on unexpected new notes with fingers that are used to certain patterns and formations. Use this newfound unfamiliarity to compose some fresh music! It’ll likely sound nothing like anything you’ve written so far. None of the impulsive (read: overplayed) patterns and riffs your hand normally reaches for with be available to you anymore! For focussed playing, this is excellent.
Have you experimented with altered tunings before?
If you have, you’ll understand how exciting and freeing it can be. If you haven’t, then fear not! We are here, as we always are, to offer a little friendly guidance and provide you with info and context to take this concept and run with it!
We’ve picked out a few tunings for you today. Some of these require small adjustments away from standard tuning, whilst others are wildly different. Try them out, check our accompanying examples, and have some fun re-learning guitar!
Open D Tuning
Open D is a famous and useful tuning that effectively turns your open strings into a big D barre chord! The tuning, low to high, is thus: D-A-D-F#-A-D.
From Neil Young to Laura Marling, Mumford & Sons to Pearl Jam, Open D is a tuning with legs! It’s a D major chord, so playing major scale bottleneck slide is a cinch with this tuning. If you’d like the minor variant, just tune that F# note (what was once the open G) down another fret’s worth to F to get your minor third.
Open D, like all ‘Open’ tunings, sounds great when you play natural harmonics at the 5th, 7th and 12th frets. It also works amazingly with 12 string guitars, turning a single instrument into a bit of an orchestra! Check out this performance of Make God Jealous by Alain Johannes to see for yourself what we mean...
DADGAD tuning, to give it it’s accurate-yet-unofficial name (that would actually be Open Dsus4 tuning, which sounds rubbish), is an easy to use and very popular open tuning. Basically, it’s Kashmir (and Black Mountain Side) by Led Zep! It’s also Photograph by Ed Sheeran.
DADGAD tuning requires only the top two strings plus the low E to be de-tuned by a tone each, so it’s easy to get there. You don’t have a barre chord situation like with ‘true’ open tunings, but you can quickly make relative sense of where you are and what you’re doing! Johnny Cash used this tuning on Aint No Grave and even Slipknot went DADGAD on Circle, so it’s a tuning full of versatility.
Open G tuning
Open G is probably most associated with Keith Richards. Any time you see him playing on a guitar with a missing low E string, you can bet it’s an Open G tune! Tumbling Dice, Brown Sugar, Honky Tonk Woman and Start Me Up are just a few of the Stones’ rather well-known catalogue that utilise this tuning. Keith removes the low E string (which is tuned to D for this tuning) since the D isn;t the root note of the tuning and it gets in his way: the open G of the retuned 5th string gives him the root note he needs.
To get there, you need to drop the top E and the low A and E strings by a tone each. You’re aiming for this: D-G-D-G-B-D. It’s also great for slide guitar, and you can play lots of great Soundgarden riffs on the bottom strings! Win!
Not only that, it’s the same tuning you’d need to play Dire Straits’ Romeo & Juliet. We suggest keeping the low string on, by the way. Keith can, and will, do what he likes.
Nick Drake Tuning
Nick’s life story was a brief, sad one for sure, but he did at least leave behind some music that’s loved by millions of people. Nick’s delicate, accomplished playing took in a variety of altered tunings, mostly ones he’d come up with himself. The one we want to look at today is from Pink Moon, title song of what is perhaps his best known record.
Pink Moon’s tuning is, low to high as usual: C-G-C-F-C-E. This tuning allows you access to chord combinations referred to as clusters. Chord clusters, on the guitar anyway, are chords that include three or more adjacent tones in a given scale. Due to the nature of standard guitar tuning, this is not usually possible. Tuning as Nick did on Pink Moon allows you to play some particularly piano-like chords and arpeggios, with clear voices that are interesting and rewarding to the ear.
Double Drop D
We expect you’re already familiar with the Grunge-tastic tuning that is Drop-D. So many Rock and Metal tunes use Drop-D that it’s hardly even considered an ‘altered tuning’ these days. However, have you tried DOUBLE Drop-D?
Yes, this means dropping the High E down a tone (two frets) as well as the usual dropping of the Low E. This gives you access to some very interesting and satisfying drones, since now half of your instrument is tuned to D notes! All of your low-end riffing will remain, with the added bonus of extra texture from the high D.
Neil Young used this tuning for Cinnamon Girl, as did Led Zep (again) for Going to California.
You can also go full-on psychedelia with quasi-Eastern mystery. Robbie Krieger did just this on the Doors’ classic The End. It’s menacing, it’s iconic, it’s easy!
Guitarguitar will not be held responsible for any subsequent Apocalypse Now-style behaviour...
New Standard Tuning
Now, before we go any further with this, we do realise that this tuning has not become any kind of ‘standard’ tuning, and that yes, the person who came up with that somewhat self-aggrandising title is also the person who came up with the tuning. But, when that someone is King Crimson’s head architect of noise, Robert Fripp, we do tend to both expect and excuse this type of thing. It’s Fripp!
New Standard Tuning’s note intervals are (almost) a series of perfect fifths, like a cello, for example. The tuning is C-G-D-A-E-G. The high G is the only note that is not a fifth up from the previous one.
A deeply creative and somewhat eccentric man, Fripp uses this tuning to cover more sonic range than usual (it is both lower and higher than Standard), plus it puts notes within his grasp that, like Nick Drake’s Pink Moon tuning, would overwise prove inaccessible to the hand.
Unlike the other tunings in this blog, we do recommend looking into using particular string gauges with New Standard Tuning. The top string is particularly tricky to deal with, so an eleven-gauge string is recommended. Overall, there is significantly more tension across the whole guitar, so additional set-up work may be required too.
New Standard tuning makes it pretty difficult to knock out a blues jam on, but isn’t that the whole point of the exercise? Standard playing goes right out the window. Instead, you'll play combinations of notes that maybe haven't even occured to you before!
In the video below, Adrian Belew (red Strat) is using standard tuning, whilst Fripp (sitting down) employs New Standard Tuning. Whilst this example is obviously not acoustic, the tuning itself will of course translate across!
These alternate tunings are the more popular ones out there. In reality, you can have infinite varieties: experimentation really pays off! For example, artists like Chris Cornell and Michael Hedges invented many of their own original tunings, often song-specific and only used once! If it gets you chord voices or riffs you wouldn’t otherwise have tried, it has to be worth it!
(This beautiful song by Michael Hedges uses the following tuning: B-F#-C#-F#-F#-B)
Experimenting with altered tunings is fun, easy to do and presents interesting new challenges for the guitarist. It can also help give your playing context and freshen up your standard-tuning playing, especially if you go back to standard only eventually. Keeping your guitar in an alternate tuning can be an initial obstacle, but if you are searching for new music, it could be just the ticket.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time.