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An Acoustic Guitar Player’s Practical Guide to Using Alternate Tunings

Photo of Neil YOUNG; shot in a Warner Brothers rented house in Chelsea, West London
(Image credit: Dick Barnatt/Redferns)

If you’re an acoustic cat who uses multiple tunings for a solo or singer-songwriter set, it’s essential that you maneuver from one to the next efficiently to keep momentum. Even if you have great ears, it’s smart to have a digital tuner (and a backup battery) handy at all times. A surefire way to lose an audience’s attention is by making copious fine-tuning adjustments by ear and accounting for your instrument’s every little idiosyncrasy.

If your acoustic guitar has cheap tuners, consider upgrading them. It’s relatively easy and affordable. For that matter, if you have multiple acoustics, designate one for each of your main tunings, and use the following logic to flow from there.

Group Tunes by Tunings

If you have a significant collection of songs in different tunings, consider creating a master set list that groups them by tuning rather than title or artist. You’ll want to mine a particular tuning for a few songs before moving on, but probably not more than three in a row. Your opener should not be your most exotic tuning. Save that like a pitcher would a change-up or a curve. Throw a few fastballs down the middle first.

Consider Overall String Tension

Using standard tuning as a barometer, alternate tunings will either increase or decrease overall tension as you tune up or down. For example, open E is an upward move, since the fifth, fourth and third strings go up in pitch a whole step, a whole step and a half step, respectively. Open G, on the other hand, is a downward dive, as the sixth, fifth and first strings each drop a whole step. Some tunings include moves in both directions, leaving overall string tension relatively unchanged.

If your set involves songs in multiple alternate tunings, group them according to the direction of their tuning.

If your set involves songs in multiple alternate tunings, group them according to the direction of their tuning. Pretend you’re operating an elevator with stops on multiple floors. If you tuned down for your first move and you have another tuning that’s even lower, it makes sense to deal with both in the same section of a set. Consider them the lobby and the basement.

The same applies to raised-tension tunings. Those are the top floors. Let’s consider tension-neutral maneuvers to be stops at various doors on the same floor. The logic is to economize motion by moving from door to door, rather than from one end of the hallway to the other.

EARLS COURT Photo of Jimmy PAGE and LED ZEPPELIN, Jimmy Page performing live onstage, playing acoustic guitar

Jimmy Page (Image credit: Ian Dickson/Redferns)

Know Your Neighbors

From standard tuning, drop the sixth string a whole step to land in drop-D tuning, which is commonly used to add a tad of grungy bottom end. Drop the first string down a step as well to achieve double drop-D tuning, and you’re ready to play authentic versions of Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s “Cinnamon Girl” and the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water.”

Now drop the fifth string from A to G, and you’re in open G, where you’ll find most of the Stones’ biggest hits. Undo the previous maneuver and lower the second string a whole step, to A, and you’re in DADGAD, which had a modal quality illustrated by Jimmy Page on Led Zeppelin’s “Black Mountain Side” and “Kashmir.”

DADGAD has a modal quality illustrated by Jimmy Page on Led Zeppelin’s “Black Mountain Side” and “Kashmir.”

Lower the third string a half step, to F#, and you’re in open D, ready to play authentic Delta blues. From there, it’s easy to make a cool move that puts you back in standard, but a whole step deeper. Lower the fifth string a whole step, to G, lower the fourth string a whole step, to C, and drop the third string a half step, to F. Now all your standard tunes have more bottom end, and it’s easier to hit the high notes in the vocal melody, so save the songs on which you could use a little help for this “lower standard.”

Play the above in reverse, and you’ll wind up back in true standard.

Plan Your Banter

Talking while tuning is an art. You don’t want to slow your tuning process down too much, but having a story ready that you can easily tell about the previous or upcoming song will make the time pass more quickly for the audience.

Some masters of banter include Trace Bundy and Andy McKee, who actually explain tuning maneuvers as they perform them, using creative techniques that hold the general public’s interest and thrill guitar zealots hungry for geeky information.

Talk is cheap, but solid information is invaluable