Always good to see you back, but we have to start this week’s discussion with a public service announcement:
Disclaimer: I accept no responsibility for any strings broken as a result of reading this article
Got it? Great…now we can move on…
Introduction to Alternative Tunings
So, your guitar playing is improving, those chords are sounding sweeter every time you pick the instrument up, you’ve maybe even started throwing a few riffs into the mix. Those hours of practice are paying off, and those sore fingers are becoming a thing of the past.
And now you read this …. excuse me? ….. alternative WHAT?!?
Tunings – y’ know – like how the guitar is tuned
But, but, but (take a deep breath) surely that’s one of the first things I learned? It’s tuned EADGBE, right?
Of course. And don’t worry, you’ve not been doing anything wrong! Most guitarists worldwide use what’s referred to as ‘standard tuning’, simply because it usually makes more sense than tuning a guitar in any other way. In fact, the EADGBE style of tuning has, in one form or another, been used on the various instruments that eventually evolved into the modern guitar since at least the 16th century.
Why is EADGBE the ‘standard’ tuning on a guitar?
Simply because over many centuries and after many experiments, musicians throughout the world decided it made more sense than anything else. And it really does make sense on a guitar when you compare it with how most other string instruments are tuned AND played.
Think about the violin, the viola, the cello, and even the mandolin. They’re all tuned, from one string to the next, in pitch intervals known as ‘perfect 5ths’ (which you might recognize as the ‘power chord’). And that’s just fine for playing solos – people don’t strum too many chords on a violin or a cello. Also, remember that all these instruments have a MUCH shorter and thinner neck than a guitar, so stretching your fingers a little further won’t be too painful.
So, what if a guitar was tuned this way – using 5ths across all its strings, starting at a low E? Let’s have a look at what I’ve decided to call ‘Torture Tuning’ on this occasion, and how you would then have to play a basic E chord…..
Weird huh? And not hugely comfortable. Incidentally, we do NOT recommend you try this tuning unless you want to snap either your strings or your guitar neck.
But ok, 5ths don’t make much sense. So why don’t we tune in 4ths across all strings instead? That would only actually change the top 2 strings from standard tuning, and give us EADGCF. Hmmm – I’ll call this ‘Extreme Torture Tuning’ and show another basic E chord
OMG – it’s actually getting worse. Unless you’re blessed with 6 digits on each hand of course.
History doesn’t record precisely which geniuses came up with the solution, but it was a good one;
stick with 4ths between most strings, but add one major 3rd between strings three and two.
And hey presto…
… we have a tuning system that makes it physically easier for a normal sized human hand, with a normal number of fingers, to play both scales and chords. The idea of mixing these intervals – mostly 4ths with one Major 3rd – really has proved popular over the years when tuning fretted string instruments. You’ll find variations on this theme used as standard on the Lute and the Ukulele just for starters.
So why use an alternative tuning if a standard is so great?
You might as well ask ‘why try sushi if a burger is so great?’
Burgers are great – certainly every guitarist I know eats enough of them. But from time to time it’s fun to have a little variety, to maybe try something new. Something raw. Something that perhaps takes you a little way out of your comfort zone. A journey of discovery… OK, I’ll stop there. Any more of this and we’ll be discussing meditation.
But apart from trying something new, there can also be practical reasons for using alternative tuning. For example;#1: Lowering the pitch
Simple, no-nonsense, low-frequency fun and games. And the simplest way of doing this is the ‘Drop-D’ tuning. As basic as it sounds, this just brings your low E string down a full tone to a D
It doesn’t do much to make the E chord any easier, but look at that massively extended D5 power chord! Throw a good dose of distortion on your sound and you’re in rock heaven – this technique’s been used by the Foo Fighters, Rage Against The Machine, Soundgarden, the list goes on. Not to mention how easy it is to play other power chords with just one finger – look at the F5 and G5 chord boxes. Most thrash and speed metal genres rely on this level of convenience!#2: Using just one finger or a slide
Simple in a completely different way. Do you want to play complete major chords with just one finger? Try an open tuning – in this case, the ‘Open G’ tuning. This drops your low E and A strings by one tone, your high E string by one tone, but leaves your D, G and B strings unchanged.
Immediately you have the worlds simplest G chord. And have a look at the A – you could do that with just one finger, or even using a slide. Blues and roots rock players love this tuning for just that reason, not to mention how relaxed the neck action suddenly feels now you’ve lost tension from half the strings. Someone else who loves this tuning is Keith Richards – the C and F/C chord boxes form the intro of ‘Start Me Up’ by the Rolling Stones.#3: Like, totally expanding your mind, man…
Yes, this IS a valid reason to try an altered tuning. If you change the basic way an instrument reacts to your input, it’s likely to result in completely different musical output – chords, harmonies, and ideas you’ll have never tried before. One very popular method is to try the ‘DADGAD’ tuning (sometimes called ‘Modal D’). Re-tuning is pretty self-explanatory in this case!
Straight away you have a wonderfully ethereal sound by just strumming the open strings to make a Dsus4 chord. It’s not major, it’s not minor, it’s just spookily different. Many players looking for a non-Western-music sound have used this tuning – folk and rock artists alike (Davy Graham and Led Zeppelin for example). But creating a standard D major or minor isn’t tricky as you can see. Or adopting a Mumford & Sons approach to a nice warm-sounding G(add9). Play around with this tuning and I guarantee you’ll find many, many sounds you never even imagined could come from your fingers…
Wrapping It Up
And there you have it – three completely different approaches to the guitar that don’t involve buying any new kit. Possibly except new strings.
I’m tapped out for this week, guys (and gals). You’re gonna have to catch up with me next week.
So…as usual…until then…