Alternate Tunings, pt.1

What if someone handed you a guitar tuned to a different tuning? Could you play it? For those who've claimed to have mastered the guitar, if they can not play it in a random altered tuning, they might reconsider what it is they've "mastered."

What are some common tunings? How can we learn to think about tunings in a substantial way so that we can become more and more expressive through the instrument, and not be confined in our way of thinking about the instrument.

Let's start by re-examining "standard" tuning.
We write all tunings from the lowest to th ehighest strings (thickest to thinnest). facing the fretboard this is from left to right on a right-handed setup.

We recall, standard tuning is EADGBE.
The low E is an octave and a half below middle C (but the guitar is a transposed instrument, so its only notated 1/ an octave below middle C.) From there, the next three strings are a perfect 4th above the previous string (A,D,G), then the B is a Major 3rd above the G, and the E is a perfect 4th above the B. So, the intervals from string-to-string are p4-p4-p4-M3-p4. (we'll come back to this later).

Why would someone use an alternate tuning?
1.) they might come from a different culture.
2.) they might use it for a specific type of music.
3.) it can make some things easier (or even possible) to do.
4.) they might want to try something new or be different.

Let's start with the 3rd premise - it might make some things easier (or possible) to do.

Standard tuning makes certain chords (such as m7/11, and 6/9, etc.) easy, and the particular arrangement facilitates G/Em rather well. And the distances between adjacent strings (p4, M3) makes playing intervals of 3rds and scales made of W and 1/2 steps relatively easy.

But what if we're playing in D? Well, going down from the 4th string we could play an entire D major scale except for the lower root note. If only the E-string was a D-string. Easy Fix. Tune down a whole-step on the 6th string to DADGBE. We call this "dropped-D" tuning. We just need to readjust our patterns where the 6th string is concerned, and we gain the low D that we wanted. We also now can play a power chord by barring strings 6-4.

(6) = D


note: that when an alternate tuning is used, one will often either see the name written out (such as DADGBE) or the number of the string will be circled, and then explained so as to inform about the altered tuning.

So a "dropped tuning" is one where the tuning is dropped by a string or two to facilitate easier playing of something.

Continuing to drop strings will show other common tunings and lead us to other concepts and types of tunings. from dropped-d, drop the first string to D as well.
DADGBD (double-dropped D).

From here we could drop the 5th string a wholestep to get
DGDGBD (open-G tuning).
This is an "open tuning", that is the tuning is an open major chord (G=G,B,D). This tuning is also a "slack key tuning", and is ofetn heard in slide guitar and Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar (where it is called "Taro Patch").

Back to double-dropped-D, this time lower the second string to A, we get
this is often heard in "celtic" music. A lot of Folk and Blues players use this tuning. This tuning also falls under the category of "modal tunings" in that it is an open suspended chord (Dsus4 = D,G,A).

Continuing, drop the 3rd string (from DADGAD) we get (one half-step at a time):
DADF#AD, DADFAD, DADEAD, and one more whole step, DADDAD.

DADF#AD is an open tuning (open-D)
DADFAD is a "crossnote tuning" (open minor chord: Dm = D,F,A)
DADEAD is an open sus2 chord, and
DADDAD is an open power chord.

A couple of other tunings before preceding:

Open tunings:
Open-E = EBEG#BE (tune 5th, 4th, and 3rd strings up)
Open-C = CGCGCE (6th, 5th, 4th strings tuned down, and 2nd string tuned up)
Open-A = EAEAC#E (4th, 3rd, and 2nd strings are tuned up)

Open Em = EBEGBE (tune 5th and 4th up whole step)

* open G, Open E, Open C are often used for slide playing.

Slack key tunings:
F whaine = CFCGCE
C wahine = CGDGBE
* it is common to see hawaiian tunings with a perfect 5th between the top two strings.

Well you can play with those tunings for the fun of it, and that's this lessons exercise. I don't want to deeply analyze any tunings to start. Instead I want to put forth the idea of "happy accidents." Take common shapes and patterns from standard tuning and play the exact same thing in an altered tuning.

Play the following first in standard tuning, and then in DADGAD.


Have fun just playing around. Note what you like and what you don't. Play what you enjoy, and find new wonder in the happy accidents as different than expected sounds come out of tired old patterns.

Next lesson is Fretless boards.

Christopher Roberts

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Last updated May 22, 2003
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