Introduction To Alternate Tunings

There are TONS of alternate tunings available on the guitar. This article explores some of the more common tunings and provides off-site resources for further reference.

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First of all, let me state I'm in no way an expert on Alternate Tunings...or for that matter, much of anything. However, I've seen too many examples here that are either not in the correct tuning, or, if they are, too many responses asking, "What is XYZ tuning?" As I said in the Summary, there are TONS of alternate tunings. Most people are familiar with Drop D and tuning down a half or whole step. You may have even heard of "DADGAD" (otherwise known as "Modal D Tuning), or even Double-Drop D (DADGBD). What if I told you there are about SIXTY alternate tunings? You'd probably have the same reaction I did... I won't list all of these, but I will list some. Further, I'll point you in the right direction to find more complete explanations, as well as a host of other tunings...for FREE. ;) Of course, there are some very good publications commercially available. But, why pay for something that's available at no charge? If you find one that's better than what I've found, or any other source, please let me know. Before we delve into alternate tunings, let's look the progression I've seen in Standard Tuning to, "Time For Me to Fly," by REO Speedwagon. Great song, btw. D G A D Sounds pretty good, right? Now, listen to the recording. Correct key, but the guitar sounds much fuller and richer, right? So, how'd he do it? He was tuned to Open D...a variant of DADGAD tuning. Open D's tuning is DADF#AD. Using your tuner, lower your 6th (low E), 3rd, 2nd, and 1st strings to D, F#, A, and D respectively. Are the notes of the tuning familiar? They should be; they're the notes of the Dmaj triad (D, F#, A). Strum all the open strings and you're playing a 6 string Dmaj chord. The six string chord (and lower octave) adds a lot of fullness and depth. OK...so what about the rest of the song? You tried fretting the other chords and they sounded terrible, right? Since you've changed the tuning, now you have to build the chords. Further, the G is really a Gadd9 and the A is an Aadd4. Yet, like the open Dmaj, these are simple: Gadd9 5x5500 Aadd4 7x7700 Add one more chord that closes out the phrases in the verses, Gadd9/D, and you have the entire song. Again, the tuning makes it simple: Gadd9/D 020100 Now compare the full sound you get with Open D compared to Standard...Open D sounds much better...full and rich. The open treble strings serve as "drones" common to all the chords. Here are a few other common tunings: Open C: CGCGCE (you guessed it, strumming the open strings produces a Cmaj chord) Open G: DGDGBD (ditto for a Gmaj) Open A: EAC#EAE (ditto for an Amaj) Here's a link to a free 96 page PDF written by Bill Sethares. He explores these, as well as over 30 other tunings in great detail. He also includes chords for each tuning, as well as instructions on how to find chords in each tuning. Here's a link to the Sound Thinking Chord Finder. It includes about 60 alternate tunings, tunings for various instruments, an interactive chord finder, and many other neat features. Again, it's FREE! As you can see, one lesson covering all of these tunings would be REALLY LONG. By using a practical example, I think most people can see the value of exploring alternate tunings on their own. Besides, you won't learn this by reading...you'll learn by trying these tunings and applying them. Hope this helps!

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    mrddrm
    That again, is true. Other instruments (key word here) have had other tunings around the world because they were built to that specific tuning. For electric guitar, and specifically electric guitar, it is abnormal (I hinted at this say that alternate tunings are an interesting matter in my original post). HOWEVER Constant retuning is bad, which will happen. Here is a post that more acurately describes my point of view: "Thats a very common question. Here is the answer to clear it up, Most guitars that have truss rods have the ability to accept a variety of strings. On a electric guitar it could be from extra light gauge (8's) up to heavy gauge (13's). Changing tunings will take away or add tension to the neck, which is then componsated by adjusting the truss rod exactly the same as when adjusting for string gauge. for example a set of 10's tuned a whole step down, will have about the same neck pull as a set of 9's tuned to standard pitch. A guitar is set up to accept one specific string gauge at a time. Changing the tuning or string gauge will effect the neck and the intonation. Pick one and set it up for that specific one. You can change tunings without causing damage to your guitar but it will compromise its sound." http://community.legacylearningsystems.c... iewtopic.php?p=119895&sid=13402883fd8458955a5ba76e9f286092 Yes, there is a truss rod, this allows alternate tunings, but the guitar works best with one tuning at a time, with standard working the best because that is how the guitar is designed! Same with string gauge, it will potentially damage the guitar if you don't set up your guitar properly. Same with every instrument. The difference between a guitar and most cellos is that the guitar uses mechanical tuning whilst the cello uses friction (thus the knobs at the head). If you loose one string, the entire cello essentially "falls apart." Do not take that over the top as you people have been doing thus far. There are pieces for cello and many other instruments that require you to tune strings down, but never up. There is a reason for this. And, ultimately, it doesn't matter if you change tuning. So you change the notes on the fret board to a different order. That's all that happens. Unless you go psycho about it like Sonic Youth, then you can get different timbres.
    mrddrm
    There are more tunings than just open chord tunings, mate. That said, I dislike alternate tunings for tunings have a purpose. It goes back to acoustic instruments requiring to be set up a specific way so that the notes would, well, play in tune. As our tuning systems have evolved, so did how we set up or instruments. So, whereas you may think that tuning to an open chord makes the guitar sound "fuller," all you've really done is play more pitches (notes) that are sequentially closer and will undoubtedly sound a little off than how a normal guitar would be set up. That said, alternate tunings are very interesting, especially with electronic instruments, where we are limitless with our experimentation because alternating how we set up the instrument won't change the tone and quality of the sound quite as much as it would on an acoustic. Bands like Sonic Youth have experimented heavily in alternate tunings to the point where their guitars hardly sound like a "guitar" would. It's very interesting. For some styles changing the tunings is vital to create the tone that is used (like any of the death/black/whatever metals). There is a science behind this, which I don't even fully understand, but I believe you give off a very uneducated guitarist knowledge about it. Superficial in another word. I don't mean to be harsh, but changing things on your guitar, without the knowledge of what is happening and how, can seriously damage it. For example, if you raise the string to be a higher pitch, you increased tension which will potentially damage the bridge or the neck. To counter this you would need to lower action accordingly or something similar.
    JimBonJovi
    Wesserz wrote: I've seen ECDGAD before. I am not really one to do alternate tunings because I prefer standard, but when I have fiddled around, how does one make the string go higher without breaking it? For example, G string to and A?
    Just purchase lower gauge strings.
    suminorudder
    And, ultimately, it doesn't matter if you change tuning. So you change the notes on the fret board to a different order. That's all that happens. Unless you go psycho about it like Sonic Youth, then you can get different timbres.
    yes, all that happens is that you can play intervals that are literally impossible to play for a normal human. when would you ever be able to play a M9th interval on the two lowest strings of your guitar? if you tune first string A and second string B, you have opened up a whole realm of possibilities in chording and inversions. you cant tell me that that isnt worth something. and your points about the guitar being "built" to accept one tuning at a time i find lacking. there likely is some very small amount of damage that could be done, but you could do FAR worse things by winding the strings the wrong way. and besides, the way an instrument is built traditionally has absolutely NOTHING to do with the way i choose to play it. prepared instruments can do things normal instruments cannot as well. for example, i gave my acoustic guitar a "second bridge" with a screwdriver, and set it at an angle to achieve microtones. jimi hendrix opened up whole new worlds of sounds with all sorts of abuse he dished out on his guitars. basicly, my point: music should NEVER be hindered based on what is considered a "lawful" or "traditional" use. the way its designed can be changed to suit my needs and desires, im not going to adjust what i want because of how the manufacturers intended it to be used.
    mtowenby
    Guys, this was not written to be the "be-all/end-all" article on alternate tunings,nor did I profess to be an authority on them (or anything else!). Yes, there are dozens more tunings than the some of the "open" tunings I mentioned...THAT'S WHY I SUPPLIED OFF-SITE LINKS. There are dozens MORE popular artists who've used alternate tunings beside REO (The Beatles, The Stones, SRV, blah blah blah). Concerning the dangers of tuning "up," Kansas used "Nashville" tuning (low E through G tuned UP an octave; requires special set of strings, or high strings from a 12-string set) for the 2nd guitar on "Dust In The Wind." I wrote this simply to share knowledge. If you want to explore the sounds a guitar is capable of, look into alternate tunings. If you think you'll damage your instrument simply because of a comment you read, then don't...simple as that. Do your research and make your own decision. Oh, and if you do find that playing in anything other than standard tuning does, in fact, risk snapping the neck off your guitar, please pass this on to the scores of successful artists who use them.
    mrddrm
    mckay21 : wait, if I tune my guitar down, how does that change nothing? every step I go down on my low E string is a step I couldn't play in standard tuning. I think you're being a little too preachy here. yes, if you constantly tune all over the place without being set up, you will kill your intonation. other than that, go nuts. I'm not going to try and tune my guitar to all E's anytime soon (whacky Soundgarden tuning), because I don't have an army of roadies hanging around to keep breaking strings and re-stringing, but if you stay within the realm of what your string gauge can handle, the guitar will miraculously survive.
    Somewhat true, and is the point I eventually tried to make after some minor research on my part. You need to set your guitar or instrument up to one tuning and keep it until you want to set up your guitar or instrument again. It can stand up against a lot, but you have to leave it set up in a specific way so that it will perform correctly. And
    suminorudder :basicly, my point: music should NEVER be hindered based on what is considered a "lawful" or "traditional" use. the way its designed can be changed to suit my needs and desires, im not going to adjust what i want because of how the manufacturers intended it to be used.
    Just because you can't doesn't mean you should. An instrument is built to specific physic specifications. Why do you think the bass is longer than the guitar? To handle the heavier strings and to play correctly. This is the same for all stringed instruments. They are built to play correctly, so when you change stuff, you may be in fact damaging it. However, there is one weird instrument, and that is the viola. It is not built correctly (and actually has been known to cause damage to musicians bodies because the size ratios are off, which is why many violaists actually get the instrument built smaller, closer to the size of a violin!), and if it were built correctly, it'd be bigger than the bass due to the string ratio (similar to how an electric bass's fret board is longer than that of a guitar). They can cheat due to string gauge or some weird physic thing that I don't understand. It appears that tuning down is acceptable for most instruments because all it does is mess up your intonation and release tension (which could be bad if you have any instrument without a fixed bridge). This past semester there was a piece we cellos had to tune our C string down to a B (a half step). It changed the sound of the cello dramatically.
    Im_Broken : MRDDRM has the most compelling point of view. knows his stuff.
    Thank you. I'm not advocating ~not~ to use alternate tunings, because I think the concept is interesting, and I like Sonic Youth; however, I'm advocating to be careful in changing ~anything~ on your instrument and to make sure that you set up your instrument to handle what you are doing to it...
    mckay21
    wait, if I tune my guitar down, how does that change nothing? every step I go down on my low E string is a step I couldn't play in standard tuning. I think you're being a little too preachy here. yes, if you constantly tune all over the place without being set up, you will kill your intonation. other than that, go nuts. I'm not going to try and tune my guitar to all E's anytime soon (whacky Soundgarden tuning), because I don't have an army of roadies hanging around to keep breaking strings and re-stringing, but if you stay within the realm of what your string gauge can handle, the guitar will miraculously survive.
    DeanRedneck
    most of your strings can handle being tuned up a step, unless your using really heavy strings already. for example open E is a fairly common tuning and is EBEG#Be open C requires you to tune your b string up 1/2 step. old strings may break if you try to tune them up too high, but in most cases, you're ok
    Fausch
    You missed a couple of fun tunings like BADGBe(Alter Bridge tuning,) DADAAd(Open D5) and AADGBe
    DeanRedneck
    hur
    mrddrm wrote: I don't mean to be harsh, but changing things on your guitar, without the knowledge of what is happening and how, can seriously damage it. For example, if you raise the string to be a higher pitch, you increased tension which will potentially damage the bridge or the neck. To counter this you would need to lower action accordingly or something similar.
    i have never once heard of anybody damaging a guitar by using an alternate tuning. you may need to adjust the truss rod, but changing a string's tuning, even several steps in either direction is not going to do any serious damage to the guitar. and thinking that lowering the action will offset the tension shows that you really have no idea what you're saying.
    mrddrm
    I'm sorry I came off a little harsh, I meant to add: I used to mess with alternate tunings because I thought it was cool. I actually made my strat into a baritone gutiar for a little while, complete with two sets of string gauges so I could have the lower notes. I'm very lucky I never damaged my guitar. So I wanted to stress the dangers of alternate tunings.
    mrddrm
    True, because guitar is not my primary instrument, I'm a cellist. "For the most part, you can figure out how to tune to open chords by figuring out what notes are in the chord and then adjusting your strings. One very important piece of advice is to try and tune downward whenever possible. Tuning up on a string adds a great deal of stress on both the string and the neck, and can cause damage to the guitar. The easiest thing to do, if a song calls for a tuning that would require you to tune up on strings, is to tune to a lower chord and then use a capo to change the key. For example, open-E tuning might be the most popular open tuning of them all. However, tuning the fourth and fifth strings up two frets can create a great deal of strain on the instrument. Instead, tune down to an open-D, and then use a capo on the second fret to achieve the key of E. If you absolutely must tune up, try and go no higher than two or at the most three frets for any strings. " http://www.essortment.com/hobbies/acoust... "There are a few things to keep in mind before you begin retuning your guitar. First of all, never tune your guitar to a tuning that increases the pitch of the strings. If you increase the pitch of the strings, you are also increasing the tension that the strings put on your guitar's neck, which can severely damage your guitar. You want to always use tunings that decrease the pitch of the strings. You can always use a capo to increase the pitch of your guitar if you need to. " http://www.essortment.com/hobbies/acoust... S o, as I said, I was wrong with the action, guitar isn't my primary instrument, I just dabble in it, but I do know that increasing tension is bad for the neck of any string instrument. Don't say I'm completely wrong for one mistaken fact. A guitar, like any instrument, is a machine, and if you change things, the machine can break or react differently. So your "several steps in either direction" is clearly wrong. Down, maybe, but up? You have 1 half step, and maybe one whole step if you want to push it. Never mind the strings would snap at anything around a whole step up.
    JimBonJovi
    mrddrm wrote: True, because guitar is not my primary instrument, I'm a cellist. "For the most part, you can figure out how to tune to open chords by figuring out what notes are in the chord and then adjusting your strings. One very important piece of advice is to try and tune downward whenever possible. Tuning up on a string adds a great deal of stress on both the string and the neck, and can cause damage to the guitar. The easiest thing to do, if a song calls for a tuning that would require you to tune up on strings, is to tune to a lower chord and then use a capo to change the key. For example, open-E tuning might be the most popular open tuning of them all. However, tuning the fourth and fifth strings up two frets can create a great deal of strain on the instrument. Instead, tune down to an open-D, and then use a capo on the second fret to achieve the key of E. If you absolutely must tune up, try and go no higher than two or at the most three frets for any strings. " http://www.essortment.com/hobbies/acoust... "There are a few things to keep in mind before you begin retuning your guitar. First of all, never tune your guitar to a tuning that increases the pitch of the strings. If you increase the pitch of the strings, you are also increasing the tension that the strings put on your guitar's neck, which can severely damage your guitar. You want to always use tunings that decrease the pitch of the strings. You can always use a capo to increase the pitch of your guitar if you need to. " http://www.essortment.com/hobbies/acoust... S o, as I said, I was wrong with the action, guitar isn't my primary instrument, I just dabble in it, but I do know that increasing tension is bad for the neck of any string instrument. Don't say I'm completely wrong for one mistaken fact. A guitar, like any instrument, is a machine, and if you change things, the machine can break or react differently. So your "several steps in either direction" is clearly wrong. Down, maybe, but up? You have 1 half step, and maybe one whole step if you want to push it. Never mind the strings would snap at anything around a whole step up.
    I know that back in the middle ages they weren't playing in what we call nowadays standard tuning. Many of the Spanish and Japanese guitars & other instruments used such exotic tunings, so saying that tuning down and up will damage your guitar is true, but maybe not, because I've had my acoustic for 10 years and I've tuned up & down to the most extreme tunings, and no problems have arose. Sure a few snapped strings but hey that's a simple fix, don't discourage people from trying alternate tunings, using a capo by itself sometimes isn't enough to get away from the boring same old standard tuning. Tune to an exotic tunings such as DADDDD and then toss a capo on somewhere, now that's the epitamy of having fun and exploring on guitar, while creating such a distinct sound. Standard gets dull sometimes, not because I don't know how to play any unique chords in it, which I do, but because creating the same chords I could do in standard, in a different tuning does infact feel fuller and it is. Well...there it is...
    DeanRedneck
    saying you cant tune up is akin to saying that you cant go to a heavier string gauge because is increases the tension. i used to play a 7 string set tuned up to D on a 6 string guitar with zero problems. several open tunings call for one or two strings to be tuned up, and have never caused any actual damage. Ever. i know nothing about cellos, but guitars have truss rods to reinforce the neck and can handle considerable tension. tuning up even several steps with not cause any real damage, only required truss rod adjustment
    Wesserz
    I've seen ECDGAD before. I am not really one to do alternate tunings because I prefer standard, but when I have fiddled around, how does one make the string go higher without breaking it? For example, G string to and A?