Songwriting may be one of the more esoteric subjects covered in Guitar Player, as so many elements are completely subjective, or difficult to put into words. That said, there’s no better tool for songwriting than an acoustic guitar, and few better sources for inviting inspiration than twisting its tuners to new locations.
An obvious songwriting tip comes in the form of suggesting a player stuck in standard try an open tuning. While it’s an awesome experience to work in, say, open G when you’re used to playing in standard, it’s also true that soon the obvious open-G moves become apparent, and, if you’re not careful, this new adventure leads to sounding exactly like Keith Richards or Jimmy Page. The same is true regarding open E and Duane Allman, or DADGAD and Laurence Juber.
But something interesting happens when you tune a few different guitars to specific open tunings, and just leave them hanging out. Pretty soon, you should start to forget which tuning was on a specific guitar. Then, when you pick up a guitar, the experience of muscle memory gone astray starts manifesting in mysterious ways. For example, playing an A barre chord will sound completely different when the guitar happens to be tuned to open E or open G. Or, you might think you’re going to play something in open G, but that acoustic was actually tuned to open E. Such moments are ideal for surprising—or tricking—yourself into unusual songwriting territories. Go with it.
The next level is to customize tunings. Let’s start with something simple. Put your guitar in standard—except tune the second string to a C, rather than a B. Now, start messing around with G and C chords in open positions. Your cowboy-style G chord just got juicy with a sus4 tonality. The C chord no longer requires a finger on the second string, and all sorts of cool fingerstyle ideas flow from moving your bass notes around on the fourth and fifth strings while trilling the top strings with your plucking hand.
Ready for more? Start from standard, and drop your third string a half step. All of a sudden, your typical minor barre chord rooted on the sixth string loses the definition of it’s minor 3rd, and becomes a wonderfully ambiguous sus2 chord. Barre chords rooted at the fifth string become lovely major 7th chords. Try playing a few scales, and notice what a huge difference that one little half-step turn has on your melodies.
And if you go to a modal tuning devoid of the limitations provided by major and minor thirds on the open strings, your note choices become really free up and down the fretboard.
MIX IT UP
Once you’ve established some new tuning territories, mess with your picking style. If you’re a fingerpicker, use a pick. If you use a pick, drop it, and go totally fingerstyle. Don’t stop there. Experiment with slapping and tapping. Make sounds as unconventionally as you can imagine. Different approaches might inspire songs you never knew you had in you.
SURRENDER TO THE STRANGE
At some point, you may feel ungrounded and wonder, “How am I supposed to play traditional scales and chords when my tuning is altered?” The whole point here is that you’re not.
When your fingers find new ways to flow, so will your songs. And once you’ve constructed songs from your new tuning platforms, you won’t worry so much about finding your way back to what was comfortable. You’ll just be stoked to play your unique new tunes.