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5 Popular Alternate Guitar Tuning Techniques

First of all, thank you so much. It is because of your constant feedback that we are encouraged to explore more venues and help fellow guitarists understand all about music and guitars better. With that said, one such query that was in popular demand was that of alternate tuning.

“OK, I know alternate picking. What on earth is alternate tuning?”

Let me put it this way. Have you ever come across a song where you try your best, and despite cracking the chords, it just doesn’t sound the same? If so, you are possibly trying to play a song on your standard EADBGE tuning whereas the original song might not have been played using that.

A lot of guitarists, especially the new ones, believe that EADGBE is a “one-size-fits-all” kind of a deal. Yes, over 90 percent of the songs can be played using standard tuning, but the rest requires you to change things a bit. Changing the tuning not only changes the sounds that you are left with, but it may significantly change the way you play chords or notes as well. Therefore, learning more about alternate tuning might be the “new” thing you need to further polish your skills as a guitarist.

 

Turning the pegs right

You have been using the standard tuning so far, and things are going just fine, but if you are someone like me who is constantly looking to improve things and create compositions that are exquisite and challenging, alternate tuning might just help you do that.

There are numerous benefits of using alternate tunings. The most obvious one is the fact that a lot of power chords become extremely easy to play. If you listen to Metallica, Goo Goo Dolls, or Nickelback, they use alternate tuning quite a lot. Take Nickelback’s If Everyone Cared as an example. The melodic intro can be played easily if you are using a dropped-D tuning (DADGBE). In the case of Iris by Goo Goo Dolls, they use a completely different tuning to play those riffs and rhythms. They use BDDDDD, and that tuning can often leave you with a snapped string or two.

By changing the tuning, you get more creative ideas that you can then incorporate into your playing, making all kinds of complex and interesting sounds. However, there are disadvantages as well, and one massive one at that.

The biggest problem you will face is the fact that the chord patterns would change. In case of a dropped-D tuning, you may find power chords in a straight line (A5 would be on the seventh fret for sixth, fifth and fourth strings), and we all agree that is easier. However, if you were to play an open chord, such as G major, everything changes. Now, your top G note lies on the fifth fret, and that is a painful stretch, to say the least.

The second problem you will face is the constant detuning of your guitar. Now and then, you will need to tune your guitar back and forth, and that can damage your bridge, bend the neck, and even upset the intonations. At worst, you may lose a string completely.

Finally, depending on the type of alternate tuning you choose, your scale position and pattern would also change, making it a bit trickier to pull off solos without striking a note that wasn’t supposed to be there.

With all that said and done, I personally find having two guitars is a better alternative. One for my rhythms, which is set to some alternate tuning, and the other tuned as standard for solos and riffs. I certainly do encourage using these as they can provide you with a lot of learning and newer venues to explore.

 

Top five alternate tunings

I knew you were looking forward to this one. The wait is over, and it is now time to see what you can choose and work with as your next tuning.

Drop D - DADGBE

Of all the alternate tunings, this one is my personal favorite. You simply detune your sixth E string by two semitones (one whole note). You can use a tuner to help you out with that.

This tuning is quite popular, and a large number of guitarists around the world use this tuning for their compositions. These guitarists include:

  • Foo Fighters - Everlong
  • Nickelback - How you Remind Me, If Everyone Cared, Saving Me, Someday
  • Switchfoot - Meant to Live
  • Led Zeppelin - Moby Dick
  • Velvet Revolver - Slither

DADGAD tuning

This one is another variation of the drop D tuning. However, instead of dropping the sixth string to D, the first string is also dropped to D. Now, you will end up with three strings producing the D note. It is handier than you might think, but it will certainly shift the scale positions a bit.

Famous songs played using this tuning include:

  • Led Zeppelin - Kashmir
  • Justin King - Knock on Wood
  • Ed Sheeran - Photograph Live
  • Slipknot - Circle
  • Johnny Cash - Ain’t No Grave

Perfect fourth

The perfect fourth tuning is a little different from the ones we have encountered so far. The concept is to tune every string to the fifth fret of the string before it.

“Wait a minute! Isn’t that what we normally do?”

Almost yes, but no! You see, when we are tuning the B string, we use the fourth fret on the G string, and that is not the perfect fourth note. To get your guitar tuned to perfect fifths, you will need to either use the fifth fret on the G string and change B to C, or you will need to go down a step, in which case every other string is also affected.

“Umm, plain English, please?”

The two variants are:

  • EADGCF
  • Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, B, E

The main reason why guitarists use this is the fact that all scale positions can now be easily copied throughout the fretboard. Since we are no longer stuck with the usual shift from the G string to B, now the pattern will be more uniform, making it a lot easier to pull off scales, sweep picks, licks, and more.

Some famous songs which use the perfect fourth tuning are:

  • Stanley Jordan - Touch of Blue
  • Coldplay - The Scientist

Open E

Open E tuning is yet another intuitive tuning style that allows you to have more creativity. It requires you to tune your guitar’s fifth and fourth strings up by one step, and the third string by half a step. The result would give you the following:

E, B, E, G#, B, E

Some noticeable songs you can find which incorporate the use of this tuning include:

  • The Rolling Stones - Gimme Shelter
  • Glen Hansard (Frames) - Say It to Me Now
  • Allman Brothers - Melissa

Nashville tuning

If you are a fan of a 12-string guitar and how it sounds, but you are stuck with your regular six-string guitar, you can certainly tune your guitar using the Nashville tuning that will certainly help brighten your experience, musically speaking.

The tuning itself is pretty standard, but it is the strings we use that change the outcome. Instead of using your regular strings set, you only use the first and second strings. The rest are tuned an octave above their original pitches, which means you will need to buy the octave strings of the 12-string guitar.

Economically speaking, to save up money, you can buy strings separately. That is cheaper and saves you the hassle of buying two separate sets and using only six strings while throwing away the rest.

All strings, except for low E, are unwound. Their description would be:

Medium gauge

(from high E to low E) - .012, .016, .010, .014, .020, .030

Light gauge

.010, .014, .009, .012, .018, .027

Songs which use the Nashville tuning include:

  • Rolling Stones - Wild Horses, Jumpin Jack Flash
  • Kansas - Dust in the Wind
  • Rush - Closer to the Heart
  • Elliot Smith - Tomorrow Tomorrow

All of the above tuning methods are worth a shot, and they certainly do brighten your playing while providing more creative ways to explore your music and compose songs. As a guitarist, it is good practice to familiarize yourself with these tunings or at least some of these. I assure you it is jolly good fun!

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8 comments

  • Pat Neil

    Thanks, this is good. Open tuning are also really popular if you play any slide guitar. Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way is a great example. Those slide parts just don’t work in std tuning. Retuning is a pain, especially if you’re gigging. I’ve found the Tronical auto tuning system to be really handy. It works well and I can change tunings in just a few seconds between songs. The SG that I have it on isn’t my main guitar but it always comes along because it’s so handy!

  • Justin Cooke
    Good information for sure but it kinda leaves open to a new guitarist that they can reach all these tunings with one guitar even though it is mentioned, briefly, about having two guitars. From what I understand one would want their guitar tuned in such a manner that they can go up or down a whole note since going any more than that leads to over loose/tight strings. Regardless I’m enjoying the hell out of your books. Keep up the good work.
  • John Hunsinger
    Thanks for sharing. A couple of these are new to me. I may have to try some out.
  • Crash
    what a great read!
  • Steve

    Great Information.

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