On The Tuning Awry

Pink Floyd A Momentary Lapse of Reason

A long long time ago in a galaxy far far away, we discussed open tunings. At the time I thought we’d cover that particular subject and then move on to altered tunings. Well, here we are a dozen or so columns later and I think it’s time we got around to it.

Here’s an incredibly well written piece from Open Tunings Part 1, which should give us a convenient starting place:

What we guitarists consider “standard tuning” has been around pretty much since the fifth and sixth strings were added to the instrument in the late 1700’s. And, artists being artists, “non-standard” or alternate tunings have existed for just about as long. For the sake of our discussions, we will divide guitar tunings into three categories … standard, open, and alternate.

Standard tuning is what we were taught from day one (low to high or 6th string to 1st):


Open tuning is when we tune the guitar in such a fashion that results in our getting a major (or minor) chord when we strum the open strings.

Alternate tuning is when the guitar is tuned in a way that results in neither standard nor open tuning. And, yes, that’s going to cover a lotof things.

Today we’re going to cover the basics of alternate tunings … the whys and hows. We’ll also look at a couple of specific examples. Next time out we’ll branch out in another direction, which is how to use an alternate tuning to “reinvent” a song. This will include a brief introduction of the subject of the arrangement of songs (which we’ll dig deeply into later this spring). Finally, to complete (for the moment, anyway) our “alternate tuning arc,” I want to show you how to use it as a songwriting tool. And, yes, this will include writing a song. I’ll show you, step by step, what went into something I wrote last fall.

And, in case you’re wondering, I’m telling you all this now so that I (hopefully) won’t be tempted to deviate from the game plan on one of my now infamous digressions!

Like this one (also from my first open tunings column):


Open and alternate tunings should not be attempted on electric guitars with “floating” bridges. This is disastrous to the guitar’s intonation (the guitar will sound in tune when you play it open, but it will stop being in tune with itself). Many of today’s newer guitars, especially those with locks on the nut and “fine tuning” pegs on the bridge tend to suffer from this. If your electric guitar does not have a whammy bar, like a Les Paul or SG style guitar, or has a whammy bar that bends the tone only in one direction, you should be fine.

Otherwise you are setting yourself up for hours of endless frustration. Like most guitar techniques, it’s always preferable to become proficient on an acoustic before you start wailing away on an electric. It’s best for your guitar to pick one tuning and stay with it for a while. Don’t switch after every song. If you plan on working with a particular open tuning, then set your guitar and explore it thoroughly, and don’t forget to take notes.

Déjà vu

I cannot tell you which was the first alternately tuned song I ever heard; I have learned that quite a few songs I knew when I was young (er) actually used various alternate tunings. I can, however, tell you exactly when I knew that there had to be something funny going on. It was two-and-a-half minutes after I opened a songbook containing music from the first Crosby, Stills and Nash album as well as the first Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album. I had been having a real hard time figuring out Guinnevere, which was a song I really liked. This was long before TAB was in vogue, so the majority of music books were piano transcriptions with guitar chord block diagrams placed over them. Try as I might, I could not reconcile the piano part (the actual notes being played) with the guitar chords (figured, of course, for standard tuning). I figured that my hands were simply not able to do the playing expected of them and satisfied myself with playing the easier pieces.

I know better now.

By our definition, an alternate tuning is any tuning that is neither standard nor open. What I’d like to do, with your permission of course, is to quickly rid ourselves of a burdensome subcategory, namely any tunings that have the same intervals betweeb each string as standard tuning. What I mean by this are tunings such as this:

Example tunings

Those of you who play a lot of Nirvana, as well as other 90’s groups, will recognize these as “low tunings”. While they are indeed, by our definition, alternate tunings, they are simply transposed standard tunings. All the intervals between the strings are the same as they are in standard tuning. “Alternate #1” is tuned a half step lower than standard, “#2” a whole step lower and so on. You can find these and many others (some of which we will cover more extensively) on Guitar Noise’s tunings page. Why do people do this? A lot of the time it is to accommodate their voices. I also suspect, though, that some guitarists secretly wish they were bassists and just keep tuning their guitars down yet another half step. Then again, I know some people who do this out of fear of busting their strings.

To get any of these low tunings is fairly simple. For instance, if you wanted to do “Alternate #3” you would just tune your sixth string down a step and a half. This new tuning would mean that you would now be in tune with your A string when you press the eighth fret (instead of the usual fifth). Once you have the low string at the proper pitch you simply tune your guitar as usual. Conversely (and in my opinion a little easier, you could just tune your first string to Db (same as the second fret on the B string) and then tune backwards (from the high string down) as you normally would.

You’ll also see on the tunings page some alternate tunings that are standard tunings tuned up a half or whole step. Personally, I don’t know why anyone would do this. It seems to be quicker and much less of a hassle to slap a capo on the first fret than to tune each string up a half step. I’m kind of lazy that way, I guess.

It’s also worth pointing out that I have not given any names to these tunings. Most alternate tunings do not have names. Some do. And of course some have many names (just in case you weren’t confused enough). So if you tell someone that you’re playing a song in “alternate tuning #4” he or she will probably inch further away from you until he or she feels somewhat safer. Just a friendly warning.

Dropping (And Droning) Ds

One tuning that does have a name is the “drop D” tuning. Here it is:

Drop D tuning

Confused? I hope so. If I were to tell you, “in order to get ‘drop D’ tuning, just tune your E string down to D,” what would you do? Which E string would you tune, the first or the sixth? Why not both? This is why names of tunings get very confusing very fast. For the record, the first tuning (D A D G B E) is considered to be “drop D” while the third tuning is usually called “double drop D.” I have heard many names for the middle one, some of which are not suitable to be printed.

Why would you use a drop D tuning? Well, just play your standard D chord (remember, now you can strum all six strings) and listen to full it sounds with the low D in the bass. Pretty nice, huh? It’s also useful in the fact that your three bass strings are now D, A and D … I, V and I in your D scales. This gives you a powerful alternating bass line right at your fingertips. Playing the chords one usually finds in the key of D isn’t much of a problem at all. A or A7 is still the same (just don’t hit your sixth string) and Em, as well as Em7 is a breeze. G is the only one you really will have to think about.

Drop D chords

In the TAB files, you can find a number of songs that utilize the drop D tuning such as Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain, Neil Young’s Ohio as well as Dear Prudence by the Beatles and All Apologies by Nirvana (in the latter case the guitar is already tuned down a half step (as in “Alternate #1”) so I guess you could call it drop Db tuning, if you prefer). I’m going to show you it in regular drop D. All you purists can tune everything down a half step from there. Here goes:

All Apologies riff part 1
All Apologies riff part 2

In All Apologies, even thought the TAB does not indicate to do so, I tend to strike the open sixth string every beat so that the low D (Db whatever) serves as a drone under the rest of the riff. A “drone,” according to my Webster’s New World Dictionary is “a droning sound.” Now isn’t that helpful? Wait, it’s also a verb! To drone, then, is “to make a continuous humming sound.” Slightly more useful, I guess. Musically, droning is the continual playing of a note (or notes) while the rest of the song plays over it (or under it if it’s a high note … while we associate droning with lower bass tones it could just as easily be higher). It’s a nice effect for any musician to be familiar with, whether she or he is a rhythm guitarist, lead guitarist, bassist, or songwriter.

The use of fourths or fifths as a droning sound is as old as the hills. When I think of two note droning, bagpipes always come to mind. But stringed instuments have used this effect for ages as well. Every culture has a three-stringed instrument in its history, from the gimbri to the balalaika to the Cretan lyre to the Appalachian dulcimer (not to be confused with the hammered dulcimer) (and yes, the Appalachian dulcimer actually has four strings but it still operates in the same principal). They are all played with two open strings ringing freely while a third string is playing a melody line. Many folk songs in most Western cultures are steeped in this style of play.

This is why quite a number of guitars fall in love with what is known as DADGAD tuning. No, it’s not John Wayne swearing at someone, it’s simply how the guitar is tuned. Watch:

DADGAD tuning

As you see, it’s practically an open D tuning. The only difference is that instead of the F# on the third string we keep the original G string tuning. To achieve this tuning on your guitar simply tune the first and sixth strings so they are, respectively, an octave above below the D string. Then tune your second string so that it is an octave above the A string. Voila! This is used a lot by groups that specialize in Celtic music. Not only do your have your D – A fifths at both the high and low strings, but you also keep the D – G fourth (or G – D fifth if you’re inclined to look at it that way) in the middle for an added drone when you’re playing a G chord.

Sarah McLachlan is fond of using a variation of this tuning in the low E remains the same while the rest of the strings are tuned a la DADGAD, like this:

Variation of DADGAD tuning

In Building A Mystery, she uses this tuning and puts a capo on the seventh fret so that even though she’s playing E minor shaped chords, the song is actually in B minor. If you lookup any of the TABs in the archive, they do indeed put the song in B minor and while the end result, chord wise is the same, listen to the difference you get when you play it like this:

Building a Mystery part 1
Building a Mystery part 2

Here the droning effect is on the higher strings. Let’s look at the actual notes in the chord voicings that we’re using (and remember that with a capo on the seventh fret, the guitar is actually tuned BEADEA) (now isn’t that a cool name…). Here are the fingerings:

Chord fingerings

And here are the actual notes from the sixth string to the first (again, taking the capo into account):

Actual notes

You can see that, with the exception of the D, the lower four strings contain the I, III and V of each of their respective chords. The D also contains the B, which is its VI … in fact most tabs list the chord as a D6.

An incredibly interesting sidebar to note here (yeah, I know … yet another digression) is that the Bm and the D (or D6 if you will) contain the exact same notes. But the entire tonality of the chord is changed by which note is in the bass. Can you hear this? Try it out! This is why things like chord voicings are often as important as the chord itself.

Okay, back again. If you look carefully at the make up of the chords, you’ll notice that each one has notes that are not part of its normal make up. A and E in the Bm and the G. B and E in the D and D in the A. Yet all of these notes do not greatly detract from the chord itself. In fact in some cases they seem to enhance it. The D in the A chord serves as a suspended fourth, something with which we are somewhat familiar (see the column Multiple Personality Disorder). These notes are yet more examples of passing tones. Because they are part of the natural scales of these chords our ears do not find them very dissonant as long as we do not put undue emphasis on them. In fact, if you were to play the notes as an arpeggio instead of a straight strum, you’d find it almost captivating. Which, in an incredibly roundabout way, leads us to possibly the most important reason why many guitarists use alternate tunings.

Hypnotic Patterns

Another musical convention that’s been around pretty much from the get-go is the use of a repeated group of notes (or motif) to establish a rhythmic or melodic pattern for a piece. Often the set of notes will be such that they are capable of being played over several chord changes without being dissonant, much in the way that first and second strings were able to do this in Building a Mystery. While this is a fairly easy thing to do on a piano, it is not always feasible on a guitar. The repeated notes may require wretched fingerings and, ideally, open strings give a much nicer tone to this effect. But after you’ve exhausted the possibilities in standard tuning, where is there to go?

It is with this in mind that many alternate tunings are created. Let’s look at a specific example. David Crosby uses the following tuning in his song Déjà vu as well as the aforementioned Guinnevere:

Guinnevere tuning

Okay, we could easily argue that this is an open tuning instead of an alternate tuning, since we get an E11 chord when we strike the open strings. Of course, we could also argue that “standard” tuning is just A9(add4) open tuning, too. You can always come up with a chord name for something if you want to. So rather than being annoying for the sake of being annoying, let’s agree that this is an alternate tuning so that we can listen to what David Crosby did with it in Guinnevere. Here is the main strumming pattern of the song (and additional practice for your finger picking):

Guinnevere tab

Appropriately mysterious and enchanting, isn’t it? Now let’s again look at how we can change to whole tone of the tuning simply by changing our chord voicings. Here is the main picking pattern of a song I wrote called Always. In this notation the down-stemmed note should be played with the thumb while the notes with the up-stems can be played with whatever fingers you’re using these days:

Always part 1
Always part 2

You can hear that the mood of this piece is much more whimsical even though we’re still using the first three open strings in much the same way that we did in Guinnevere. This is why you should take the time to explore and map out each different tuning you try, much in the same manner we did in the second open tuning column Here There Be Monsters.

Just For You

I’ve put together a list of different alternate tunings, some of which we’ve covered, some we haven’t but will and some I have found interesting. This is by no means a definitive list of all the possibilities. I mean if you take your guitar and one day decide to play with the first string tuned to Eb, then you’ve got an alternate tuning. It really is all that simple to do. The tricky part comes when you try to do something with your tuning. And we’ll be going over some of those things in the next two columns. Remember, I have not put any formal names on these tunings, but I have made some notes about a few of them.

  • E A D G B E – standard
  • E B D G A D
  • E E E E B E – Stephen Stills uses this in Carry On and Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. The fifth string is tuned to the sixth while the third and fourth strings are tuned to the E an octave above that (and an octave below the first string)
  • E B E G A D
  • E A D G C F
  • E B B G B D – Ani DiFranco uses this in Not a Pretty Girl. Again both the fourth and fifth strings are tuned to same note
  • E A D G# B E
  • E A D F# B E
  • E A D G B D
  • D A D G B E – Drop D
  • D A D G B D – Double Drop D
  • D A D D A D
  • D A D E A D – Not used by Jerry Garcia (at least as far as I know) (sorry, I couldn’t resist)
  • D G D G A D
  • D G D G B E
  • D G D F# B D – yes, technically open Gmaj7
  • C A D G B E
  • C G D G B E
  • C G D G C D – one of my favorites
  • C G D G B D
  • C G C G B E
  • C G C G C D
  • C G D G A D

It’s safe to say you could spend quite a bit of time looking into this.

As always, please feel free to drop me a line at [email protected] with any questions, concerns, comments, corrections or requests. Or leave a note on the Guitar Forums. And speaking of pages, have you checked out the rest of Guitar Noise lately? I don’t know how Paul finds the time to do all this work but I think we can all agree that we’re certainly glad that he does. Check it out and I’ll see you next week unless I get the sudden urge to run off to the Himalayas again…