Guitar- What Are the Most Important Alternate Tunings?

Standard tuning on guitar is having the strings tuned to the notes EADGBE.

Some guitarists go their whole lives never deviating from standard tuning.

They are missing out on much magic and whole other worlds!

What are some alternate tunings you could explore?

There are several different categories of altered tunings, including:
  • Open Tunings
  • Dropped Tunings
  • Raised Tunings
  • Deviations from Standard Tuning

Open Tunings:

These are tunings in which the strings are tuned so that they make a major or minor chord when strummed open.

Some examples:

  • Open G ("Spanish Tuning")- DGDGBD, remembered as Dads Give Dogs Great Big Dinners
  • Open C ("English Tuning")- CGCGCE, (also CEGCEG, and CCGCEG)
  • Open D ("Vestopol Tuning")- DADF#AD, or DDDADF#
The above are the most important and most widely used of the open tunings.  However, you can produce an open tuning for any chord.  More examples:

  • Open A- EAC#EAE, or EC#EAC#E, AAEAC#E 
  • Open B- BF#BD#BF# (BD#FBD#F)
  • Open Bb - BbEbAbDbFBb (b indicates flat)
Besides the fact that these each give a different sound than a player could achieve in Standard Tuning, Open Tunings are valuable for several reasons.

While strumming them open, without fretting any notes, produces a major chord, the other major chords can be played by simply barring one finger across all strings at different frets.

Instead of a finger, a slide can be used in the same way.

This means open tunings can be a breeze to play.

Open G is recommended for beginner guitarists to get started playing quickly and easily, and is a great choice for starting kids out on guitar.  Jessica Baron has excellent, extensive DVD lessons on this, including some wonderful lessons on singing, too, here's the link to this set:   Learn to Play Acoustic Guitar (4-DVD) for beginners

Ron Wood from the Rolling Stones has used Open G extensively, as have many other guitarists.

Minor Open tunings ("Cross note tunings") are possibly even more useful than open major tunings, as it requires only one finger on usually one string to fret a major chord in these tunings.  Playing minor chords in open major tuning is not this easy.

Lower the third on any open major tuning to get the open minor tuning instead.  For example, Open D minor is DADFAD.

You can also tune the open strings to play a fifth, sixth, or seventh chords, or modal variations.  Tuning to open fifths (the "power chord") can be particularly useful on an electric guitar, as you will be able to use heavy distortion or other effects more harmoniously when the third is omitted.

Some of these tunings require special strings, as deviating far from a strings standard tuning may produce too much tension on your guitar's neck, or in the case of tunings where the string is slackened, it becomes too slack to sound properly.  Thicker gauge strings are useful in this case.

Dropped Tunings 

  • Drop D- only the sixth string, the low E, is dropped, to D. DADGBE.  This is the easiest alternate tuning to try first, as most chord shapes are the same and those that change require only a one finger change.  Try Neil Young's Harvest Moon for a fun song to play in this tuning. If something heavier is more your style, you likely have several favorite songs that use this tuning.
  • Double Drop D- the first string, the high E,is dropped to D as well. DADGBD.  A logical next step from the previous tuning, perhaps equally useful.
These are also among the gentlest alternate tunings for your guitar's neck, and getting into and out of them is an easy change not requiring a string change.
  • Drop C- CGCFAD.  You'll definitely need heavier strings to try out this tuning. 
  • Detuning- It is fairly common for guitarists to detune a half or even a whole step on all strings, lowering Standard Tuning.  This reduces tension on the neck.


Raised Tunings

Opposite from detuning, strings can be raised a half step or more above standard tuning.  Be careful with these tunings, as tightening strings increases neck tension and strings can break!  Thinner gauge strings will be helpful here.  Safer and easier is to just use a capo on a guitar in standard tuning at the first or second fret to raise the pitch a tone or semitone!

A fun raised tuning that I do recommend you try, however, is:


Nashville Tuning aka High Stringing

This is not exactly an altered tuning; most often a high strung guitar uses standard tuning of EADGBE.

Instead, Nashville Tuning has the strings span two rather than three octaves.  It is the equivalent of using the higher strings of a twelve string guitar.

You can buy Nashville tuning string sets, or you can buy a set of 12 strings and divide them into one standard set and a high strung set.

When high strung, the low strings, the E,A, D, and G are an octave higher than they would be in standard tuning.  The B and E strings are the same as in standard tuning.  This takes a little getting used to but offers new possibilities.

It is often a smart option to have one guitar high strung when two acoustic guitars are playing together.  This thickens the sound and adds the shimmering effect of a twelve string guitar, but with an even fuller sound.  Try this and you may find that these harmonically pleasing effects greatly improve your songs.

The G string becomes the highest pitch and finest in diameter string.  In fact, these are the thinnest possible guitar strings, and because they are generally meant to run in course with a thicker G string (on a twelve stringed guitar), they easily break.

For this reason, I would issue these three tips for using Nashville tuning:

1. Use a lighter pick than you normally choose, or use less force if using fingers.  Use caution when strumming forcefully!

2. Be careful with further altering this tuning.  Down tuning may work fine.  I certainly wouldn't recommend raising the pitch of the tiny g string!

3. Buy some extra G strings to avoid having to waste the rest of the set when the little G string inevitably breaks!

Other Deviations from Standard Tuning: 

There are lots of these you could try.  There are many ways to tune based on modes, for example.


Perhaps the most important, and one I strongly recommend you try is DADGAD tuning.  This produces a Dsus4 chord when strummed open.  It produces a distinctive and rich sound with the repetitive D notes.  The lowest string is fun to use a drone.

It is super easy to learn to play DADGAD tuning in the key of D, and rewarding to learn to use it for playing in other keys, too.  Learning DADGAD has been the best thing to happen to spice up my songwriting.  Try it and you will find it will open up many possibilities unavailable in standard tuning.  I love this tuning so much that I have a "DADGAD guitar" which is nearly always kept in this tuning.   I will write a post with my favorite DADGAD songs soon.

There is a fair amount of info on DADGAD online.  I used John Sherman's nice chord chart for this tuning, which includes key changes achieved with a capo.  I printed this out and put it in my songbook.  You can find it at the bottom of this page

Sometimes I change this to DADDAD instead.  This tuning is nicknamed "papa papa" and is another alternate tuning that is immensely fun to play in.  It's nice for heavier songs and also for some folk tunes.  John Butler has used this quite a bit and it is also popular with dobro players.

Tuning To The Day?

Several well known players have made alternate tunings a big part of their work.  Neil Young, David Crosby, Steven Stills, Ron Wood, Jimmy Page are a few who you probably know.  Pierre Bensusan, Bert Jansch, David Wilcox, and even Rory Gallagher are a few of my favorites who make wide use of alternate tunings, and whose work you should check out for massive inspiration.

Of course, no one has used and recorded in alternate tunings more than Joni Mitchell.  She has recorded songs in scores of alternate tunings, including many she invented.  She said, in a magazine article that I read long ago, that sometimes she tunes according"to the day," by matching a string to the call of a bird or some other sound of the day and arranging the other strings to be in harmony with that.  I haven't tried this myself but it is an interesting idea.

If you do invent your own tunings, be sure to write them down!

You will be able to figure out the chord shapes for any tuning when you understand how to build any chord.

What is your favorite alternate tuning?

*Colorful Guitar image from Color Me Happy: 100 Coloring Templates That Will Make You Smile (A Zen Coloring Book), photographed by Millie Green.

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