Technically speaking, any tuning that is not standard tuning is an alternate tuning. For simplicity’s sake, we tend to break down alternate tunings into three categories as well: lowered standard tunings, open tunings and alternate tunings. Open tunings we’ve already covered in another mini-lesson.
Lowered standard tunings are tunings where the intervals of the notes of each string remain the same even though the notes of each string are tuned differently. That’s a bit of a roundabout explanation, no? Think about this – if you were to take your guitar in standard tuning and then lower each note by a half step, your new tuning would be this (and this is called Eb standard, by the way):
Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb
Even though all the strings are now tuned differently, you can still use all the same chord shapes you already know, whether they are open position or barre chords. This is because the strings are still tuned to the same intervals as they are in standard tuning. The interval from E to A is a perfect fourth, as is the interval between Eb and Ab.
The thing is that now since your guitar is tuned a half-step lower, the chords you know will also be a half-step lower. The E chord you play in this new tuning will be Eb, not E.
Lowered standard tunings are used a lot in metal and grunge music. Nirvana’s cover of Where Did You Sleep Last Night, for instance, is played in Eb standard. Guitarists who like to do a lot of bending with their solos also use lower tunings because the looser strings lend themselves to bigger bends.
You can only go so far in lowered standard tunings before the strings get so slack that they can’t stay in tune for long. In addition to Eb standard, you’ll also find D standard:
D G C F A D
C# standard (also called “Db standard”):
C# F# B E G# C#
And C standard:
C F Bb Eb G C
Alternate tunings that fall under the category of alternate tunings (as opposed to lowered standard or open) involve changing the tuning of any strings from standard. It could be a single string or it could be all six or any combination.
Drop D is probably one of the most often used alternate tunings. To change your guitar to Drop D, you lower just the low E (sixth) string down a whole step to D:
D A D G B E
Drop D gives you some interesting options. Putting a D note as the lowest note gives you more powerful D and Dm chords. Plus you now have your three lowest strings set on a power chord configuration. This is why a lot of punk and metal bands use Drop D in order to play super-fast power chord changes.
Some bands also combine this idea of “Drop D” with lowered standard tunings they already use. For instance, if you started with D standard tuning and then dropped the low string an additional step lower, you’d have “Drop C” tuning:
C G C F A D
Most alternate tunings don’t have names like “Drop D,” rather they are simply listed by the notes of the re-tuned strings, listed right to left from low to high. Sometimes these newly arranged strings can sound like names, like DADGAD tuning:
D A D G A D
DADGAD is also referred to as “Dsus4” or “D Modal” tuning in that is certainly is a Dsus4 chord. This is why there are often lively discussions as to whether any tuning is meant to be classified as an open or an alternate tuning. While these arguments can certainly be entertaining, it’s easier just to list out the notes, re-tune and play.
Some alternate tunings can involve tuning strings to the same note. For example, the Crosby Stills and Nash song, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes uses this tuning:
E E E E B E
Here the A string is tuned down to the same note as the low E (sixth) string. The D string is tuned up a whole step to E (which is an octave higher than the low E string) while the G string is tuned down to that same E. On their song Carry On, by the way, they use this tuning but with every string tuned down an additional half-step.
C G C E G C
There are many, many, many possible ways to tune a guitar. Guitarists like Joni Mitchell and Ani DiFranco use so many different alternate tunings that you could write volumes on this subject just using their song catalogs.
For a more in-depth look at alternate tunings, first check out our “Alternate Tuning Trilogy” here at Guitar Noise. On the Tuning Awry gives you the basics and lists more than a dozen alternate tunings just to get you started. The second lesson, Cover Story, demonstrates how you can use alternate tunings to create new arrangements for songs you already know. And Alternate Writing Styles wraps things up with a step by step walk through of how to use an alternate tuning to create an original song of your own.
Plus be sure to check out the many song lessons and other Guitar Noise articles that involve alternate tunings, such as Neil Young’s Harvest Moon and our own Drop D Happy Blues (both using Drop D tuning), A Celtic Air (using both Drop D and DADGAD), Cinnamon Girl (Neil Young again, this time using “Double Drop D” or DADGBD tuning), Mark Knopfler’s Sailing to Philadelphia (EADGBD) and the wild DADGAD arrangement of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s All I Can Do Is Write About It.