Love Mumford and Sons? Joni Mitchell? Led Zeppelin? Patti Griffin? Have you tried to play their songs but just couldn’t make them sound quite right? Welcome to the world of alternate tunings.
Not all songs are written for, or played in, the standard E-A-D-G-B-E tuning. Alternate tunings open up a whole new world for guitarists willing to look beyond the standard tuning, offering the possibility of creating combinations of notes not previously available, or only available to those with enormous hands. There are tunings in which only one string’s tuning is changed, but others that retune three, four or all of the strings to different pitches.
A favorite “one-string” altered tuning is the “Drop D,” in which the low E string is tuned down one step to D. Since D is usually a 4-string chord, this drop-D tuning has the advantage of giving the D chord use of all of the string, and a resonant low bass note. BUT, any other chord in the song using the lowest string must then be played a whole step, or two frets higher.
Some people like drop D because when you barre the bottom three strings you get a “power chord” that sounds good anywhere on the fret board. The easiest way to get to drop D tuning is to pluck the low E and the D string together and tune down the low E until it matches the D string’s pitch.
Another very popular tuning is the open G. Once tuned, the strings will produce a G chord without placing any fingers on the strings. For this tuning, you will leave the A-D and G strings unchanged, but tune the low E down to a D, the A up to a G, and the high E down to a D. This tuning makes it very easy to play any major chord progression just by barring the whole fret. The Rolling Stones favored this tuning. Listen to the opening riff of “Start Me Up, ” or “Honky Tonk Women.”
And, one of the most popular tunings I’ve come across is the Dsus4, more commonly known as “DADGAD,” for the order of the tuning of the strings: low E down to D, A stays the same, D stays the same, G stays the same, the B is tuned down one step to A, and the high E is tuned down one step to D.
Playing in this tuning can be a bit intimidating at first, but with just a little work, you can play some of the most beautiful major and haunting minor chord voicings. Since the notes of the open strings played together form a Dsus4 chord, the best place to start is the key of D, because you can play any of the open strings at pretty much anytime, which makes for some really nice "drone chord" voicings. While this tuning lends itself to, and may have originated in Celtic music, it has become a favorite of folk musicians.
Joni Mitchell is famous for changing the tuning of her strings to a variety of tunings. She claims that she has played in over 50 tunings, and I believe her! She has developed a special notation system to make tuning, and comparisons of alternate tuning patterns easier to recognize. A full explication, while intricate, is available on her website, which you can get to here.
New York musician Dan Cross has put together a really thorough and user-friendly resource for alternate tunings, including links to songs that use them. You can find it here.
It can be challenging enough to learn to play guitar in its standard tuning. Learning to play in an alternate tuning can be a REAL challenge. Guitarists will have to completely re-learn how to play chords for each new tuning they undertake. For this reason, many guitarists tend to explore one alternate tuning for an extended period, before they turn their attention to another.
If you decide you’re one of them, good luck!! The extra time and attention you give will be returned to you many times over in surprising, complex chords and progressions may never have considered before.
Singer-songwriter Laura Zucker wins audiences over with a hard-won perspective and a positive spin. The powerful imagery of her songs and stories ring so true you might think she’s read your diary – and you’ll find yourself humming her infectious melodies for days to come. She’s a two-time finalist in the prestigious Kerrville Folk Festival New Folk competition in Texas, 2013 West Coast Songwriters Association Best Song of the Year, and has received numerous accolades and awards from the organizations around the world. She has released four CDs of original songs. More at LauraZucker.com