Normally, a guitar is tuned E, A, D, G, B, E, from the sixth (thickest) string to the first (thinnest) string.
But this doesn’t mean that you must tune your guitar this way.
In terms of string tension, “standard tuning” may well be ideal. But in terms of playability, other tunings may offer easier access to certain chords and melodic patterns.
Alternate tunings are a lot of fun, and they are used in popular rock music more often than you might think.
So, let’s take a look at how to use alternate tunings as a guitarist.
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Why Would I Want To Use An Alternate Tuning?
Most guitarists are exposed to alternate tunings when they discover that one of their favorite songs – by the likes of Collective Soul, Billy Talent, or System Of A Down – isn’t played in standard tuning.
This is a great entry point. You need motivation to venture outside of your comfort zone when it comes to alternate tunings. If learning one of your favorite songs requires you to re-tune your guitar, you’re more likely to push through the discomfort of learning to play in a new tuning.
But there is more to alternate tunings than just sounding heavier (like with metal songs). Using different tunings can unlock your creativity and give you new ideas. They can also make it easier to play in different styles. Many known percussive style acoustic guitarists like Michael Hedges and Don Ross also use (or used) alternate tunings in their playing.
What Are Some Of The More Common Alternate Tunings?
Here’s an explanation of some of the more common types of alternate tunings and how to achieve them.
Drop D Tuning
Drop D tuning is where more guitarists start with alternate tunings.
It involves dropping your low E string to a D. So, you would slacken the string down a whole step. Once your ear is developed, you’ll be able to check your sixth string against your D string (fourth string) to tune down. But there’s a problem if it sounds the same, because the two notes should be an octave apart.
We’ve already talked about octaves on the blog, so refer to that guide if you’re not sure what this means.
The cool part about drop D tuning is that it makes power chords easier to play. What usually takes two or three fingers can be played using just one!
By “drop tuning” I mean any tuning that involves loosening all your strings by the same amount.
For instance: Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Bb, Eb. When you tune your guitar this way, it’s called “tuning down a half step.” This is because the notes you’re tuning down to are only a half-step apart from their original value. Guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen often use (or used) this tuning.
You can also tune down a whole step, which would make your notes: D, G, C, F, A, D. By the way, you can also drop your E string down to a D in any “drop tuning”, which in this case would be “drop C”.
You can go even lower if you want to, but bottom line if you’re lowering all the strings by the same amount, it’s basically a “drop tuning”.
It’s possible to tune your guitar strings to form chords.
These types of tunings are called “open tunings” because all you have to do is strum your guitar (without forming any chord shapes with your fretting hand) to get a chord.
A common open tuning is open D tuning, which would is: D, A, D, F#, A, D. Until you’re comfortable with the idea of alternate tunings, it won’t feel entirely natural to tune your guitar in this manner. But in a way, an open tuning is more beginner friendly than standard tuning, because all you have to do is “barre” up and down the fretboard to play chords.
Other common open tunings include: Open G (D, G, D, G, B, D) and Open C (C, G, C, G, C, E).
But whenever you’re tuning your guitar in this manner, you must be careful. Too much tension on your guitar (even if you have a top acoustic guitar), and it may develop unwanted cracks. The tunings introduced here reduce the tension on your guitar, but a tuning like open E would increase it.
Also, re-tuning your guitar too many times in the same sitting can lead to broken strings.
Why Do Guitarists Use Alternate Tunings?
By now you’re probably convinced that pro guitarists don’t just use different tunings to “make things easier” on themselves. But you might be wondering why they would go to all this trouble.
Firstly, tuning half step down is common, especially in live situations. Singers sometimes like to save their voice. If the recorded version of their songs use standard tuning, tuning half step down can help them “save their voices” a bit. Hey, don’t judge – you try singing 200 or more dates per year!
Second, drop D tuning became increasingly popular with the age of grunge. Not that it wasn’t used prior to that, but bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Collective Soul certainly had a hand in popularizing it.
Then, increasingly, things started getting kind of ridiculous with metal and djent players who wanted to sound even “heavier”, and decided to drop C, drop B, drop A… and that trend continues. After all, you can even buy eight- and nine-string guitars with lower bass strings these days.
I'm all for guitars that offer more options, but I would encourage new players to avoid a “wall of mush” when it comes to their band's sound. Too many instruments in the same frequency range, and you can't distinguish one part from another.
Third, instrumental acoustic guitarists and blues guitarists often use open tunings. This frees them up to play slide guitar, melodic harmonic runs, or just cool-sounding chords easily.
One last tip on alternate tunings. It’s worth having a professional set up your guitar for whatever tuning you’re planning to use with your guitar. They can set you up with the right strings and adjust the string tension and action to keep your guitar playable and in good working order.
If you don’t plan on keeping your guitars in alternate tunings, and just plan on using them occasionally, then this isn’t something you’ll have to worry about too much.