Alternate Guitar Tunings

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Moving Beyond Standard Guitar Tuning

The vast majority of guitarists in all genres of music use the standard guitar tuning, with the pitches E, A, D, G, B, and E going from low string to high string. This means that most songs you will want to learn, especially when beginning, will only require standard tuning. Once you have mastered some songs in standard tuning, you may decide that you want to expand your “musical vocabulary.” A great way to do this is to learn and practice songs with alternate tunings.

As the name implies, alternate tunings are accomplished by tuning your strings to different pitches. This can open up a wide array of new ways to play your guitar. In this article, we will review several common alternate tunings, and give examples of how they are used.

Open Tunings

The most-used alternate tunings are known as open tunings. With open tunings, the strings are tuned in a way that creates a chord when strummed openly (with no fretting). Each open tuning shown below is named for the major chords they produce. Here are some examples of open tuning. Each open tuning shown below is named for the major chords they produce Keep in mind that there is a multitude of ways to achieve these tunings; we will be using the most popular ways to keep things as simple and “non-technical” as possible.

Open A: E, A, C, E, A, E

Open B: B, F, B, F, B, D

Open C: C, G, C, G, C, E

Open D: D, A, D, F, A, D

Open E: E, B, E, G, B, E

Open F: C, F, C, F, A, F

Open G: D, G, D, G, B, D

You may notice that these tunings utilize the major triads of their chords, and nothing else.

Open D tuning is possibly the most frequently used, with such examples as Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and Bruce Cockburn’s “Sunwheel Dance.” Open C tuning was used in the recording of Bad Company’s “Can’t Get Enough.” Open G tuning has been used by Keith Richards in such Rolling Stones classics as “Start Me Up” and “Brown Sugar.” (Richards typically uses 5 strings on his guitar, tuned at DGBGD, but the same effect can be had using the six-string tuning shown above.)

Dropped Tunings

A dropped tuning starts with a standard tuning and typically lowers the pitch of one single string. On rare occasions, two strings may be “dropped.” This is almost always done on the low string of the guitar. This type of tuning is widely used in classical guitar, as well as metal and alternative rock guitar.

Modal Tunings

Modal tunings are open tunings that do not produce a tertian (that is, major or minor) chord. The strings may be tuned to present a single interval (fourths, fifths, etc.) or may be uniquely tuned in a completely non-tertian fashion. Metal and avant-garde guitarists are the ones who most commonly use this tuning.

A Final Word on Strings

Your current guitar strings may not be ideal for alternate tunings. Most strings have a gauge that is designed for standard tuning only and can break or sound wrong when tuned differently. Make sure you have the right strings. Talk to a guitar dealer or your teacher if you have any questions.

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