Explore the Freedom of Modal Tunings

Check out a couple of modal tunings that are easy to access, and sure to inspire.
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Check out a couple of modal tunings that are easy to access, and sure to inspire.

Sweeping chords, shimmering harmonic chimes, and haunting raga drones are relatively simple to render on an open-tuned acoustic, yet many players never venture from standard tuning—mainly due to comfort-zone conformity. Once you detune those pegs, the fretboard becomes unfamiliar. But that’s the beauty of modal tunings where no string is tuned to the major or minor third. Suddenly, there are essentially no “wrong” notes, and you’re free to explore the fretboard like never before. I’ve chosen a couple of options that are easy to access, and sure to inspire.

Starting from standard, you can easily get to a dynamite-drone A tuning. Drop the second string a whole step from B to A, and then raise the fourth string a whole step from D to E. Finally, drop the third string a step and a half from G to E, matching the same E as the raised fourth string. From low to high, the tuning is E, A, E, E, A, E. This is actually an A5 tuning, and the fifth string is primary (much the same way the root of open G tuning is on the fifth string). Mute the sixth string, and give a Townshend-style strum to hear a monstrous A power chord. Play a barre chord at the second fret for a big B, and use this and similar moves to thicken up any rock song in the key of A. Or, drop the chordal ideal altogether, and explore myriad fingerpicking paths.

I used this approach on “White Out” from the upcoming Guitar Player Records compilation, Awesome Instrumentals: Stormy Weather, to summon a gypsy-style melody over the inherent A drone. Those unison Es in the middle of the neck deliver a killer natural chorus effect, and facilitate unique melodies. Play up and down the fretboard and across the strings, and because there’s no third on an open string, your finger placement on the fretboard has everything to do with how major or minor, happy or sad, the melody becomes. Modal bliss!

Getting to a similar tuning in the key of E is now two simple moves away. Raise the second and fifth strings up a whole step to B, and, violá, you’ve got an E5 tuning that goes (low to high) E, B, E, E, B, E. Now, the lowest string is a root note, so you can strum all six strings for a hellacious E power chord. All of the same advantages mentioned in the previous paragraph apply here, as well.

Throw a capo on the third fret, and you’re in the key of G. Then, take the capo off, drop the fifth string all the way down to match the same E as the sixth string, and you’re in “Bruce Palmer” modal tuning—named after the Buffalo Springfield bassist who taught it to Stephen Stills. Stills used it to record “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”—though he drops down a whole step to D to play it live—and his improvisation on the instrumental breakdown exemplifies the freedom to let your fingers fly anywhere on the fretboard. That’s what makes modal tunings so unique, and so fun. Enjoy!