Alternate Tunings: Who Uses What?

Most guitarists learn to play in EADGBE "standard" tuning, and alternatives can be intimidating. But alt. tunings can pay dividends.

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Most guitarists learn to play in EADGBE "standard" tuning, and alternatives can be intimidating. But alt. tunings can pay dividends. One of the best ways to learn is to know what others use and when.

Here's a very brief starter guide to just a few famous songs and players...

Dr. Derek Trucksopped D (DADGBE, low to high)

An easy one, and widely used across numerous genres and picking styles. It can add depth to some basic chords D primarily - but G chords will be harder. Double dropped D sees the high E also dropped down to D.

Some examples of dropped D tuning are: The Beatles "Dear Prudence", Fleetwood Mac "The Chain", (but capo'd at the second fret). Neil Young "Ohio", "Harvest Moon" and many more, though Young's "Cinnamon Girl" is in double drop D. Nirvana "All Apologies" is drop D, but with all strings down a semi-tone. Foo Fighters "Everlong" is drop D and shows the tuning's powerchord potential. Soundgarden "Black Hole Sun" (main guitar) is drop D, as is Rage Against The Machine "Killing In The Name".

Dropped variations

Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi (arguably) started the trend by tuning down to C# (regular intervals) - but that was more to do with his damaged fretting fingers finding regular tuning tension hard. There are plenty of dropped C songs (some CGCFAD, some CFBbEbGC)...

Queens Of The Stone Age "No One Knows" is in regular intervals, but down to C (CFA#D#GC). Steve Vai "Bad Horsie" is CGCFAD = dropped C, like dropped D but down another tone. Bullet For My Valentine and Rammstein have many songs in dropped C tuning. Warning: dropping your "standard"-tuned guitar down to C is not always a great idea without altering your set-up/strings.

Open E, D and G

Open tunings are favoured by slide guitarists, but others too. The name signifies that the strings are tuned to play an "open" (without any fretting) major chord. Open E is thus EBEG#BE it's sometime called vestapol tuning. Open D is DADF#AD. Open G is DGDGBD often called slack-key tuning.

For slide playing, open tuning is not compulsory but there are few players who play slide in standard EADGBE tuning. You don't have to play slide in open tunings, though. Here are a few classics that won't make much sense unless you switch to open...

The Rolling Stones "Start Me Up", "Honky Tonk Women", "Street Fighting Man", "Jumping Jack Flash" and many more are open G. Note that Keith Richards usually removes his sixth string so the lowest tone string is the root of the chord (ie, G). Hence Keef's self-deprecating description of his playing as "Five strings, two fingers, one a--hole."

The Black Crowes "Twice As Hard" and many others are open G. Indeed, Rich Robinson often tunes to open G but then slaps a capo on. "Remedy" and "Sometimes Salvation" are in open G but with a capo at the 3rd fret, making for an open Bb tuning. "Thorn In My Pride" and the Crowes' cover of "Hard To Handle" move the capo up to the 4th fret, making them open B. Fun to be had, but don't get confused!

Yet confusingly, the vestapol (or sebastapol) term is often used for many open-chord tunings. Many lauded bluesmen used open tunings the actual "root" note would often change - there weren't digital tuners back in the delta of the early 20th century! Open tuning blues tunes (but not slide) include...

Big Bill Broonzy "Joe Turner Blues", Blind Willie Johnson "John The Revelator" (open E) and "Jesus Is Coming Soon" (pitched at G). Many bluesmen of the early 20th century used open tunings. Yet maybe one of the draws for guitar nerds of Robert Johnson is that no-one is exactly certain what tunings he used. Some scholars claim C#G#C#FG#C# - like dropped D but down another semi-tone is a good bet.

The most important thing is to remember the intervals on any open tuning. Whether your root note is D, G, Bb or A or whatever, the intervals are:

  • 6th string root note
  • 5th string - 5th note of the major scale
  • 4th string root
  • 3rd string - 3rd note
  • 2nd string - 5th note
  • 1st string root

    For slide students, note that Derek Trucks plays slide in open E. More slide guitar tips. And, here, even more slide guitar tips.

    DADGAD tuning

    The origins of DADGAD aren't obvious. It's not a slide or blues tuning. DADGAD was popularized by British folk guitarist Davey Graham, some saying he discovered it on a trip to Morocco in the early 1960s. It likely existed in North Africa and elsewhere for many years.

    DADGAD is a "modal" tuning, and great for acoustic pickers willing to take the plunge. But it's been used on many famous rock tracks. Jimmy Page calls DADGAD "my CIA tuning" by which he means Celtic / Indian / Arabian. It's an apt nickname, as the tuning can offer the pipe-like sounds of Scottish and Irish music as well as the drones of North African, Indian and Arabian musics. Songs in DADGAD include...

    Led Zeppelin "Kashmir" and "White Summer/Black Mountain Side". The late Bert Jansch was a big influence on Page, and Jansch was a peer of Graham and his DADGAD tuning. Slipknot "Circles". Pierre Bensusan, French acoustic maestro, plays 90% of his tunes in DADGAD.

    More DADGAD tuning.

    Weird tunings

    The great Albert Collins was a one-off. Collins tuned his guitar to an open F minor chord (FCFAbCF), and then often used a capo at the 5th, 6th or 7th fret. Unique stuff. If there is anyone out there who employs Collins' wacko tuning/capo set-up, let us know?

    Sonic Youth threw conventional tunings out the window. The NYC noiseniks treat tunings as part of the songwriting process. Even so, their tunings are curveballs.

    "Kill Your Idols" is in GGDDD#D#. "Bad Moon Rising" is in F#F#F#F#EB. And that's just Thurston Moore. On hit "Teenage Riot", fellow guitarist Lee Ranaldo went for a tuning redux of GGDDGG - try playing that in a straight-up rockabilly tune.

    King Crimson's Robert Fripp decided to invent an all-new approach in 1984 he calls it "new standard tuning". It's CGDAEG, with the five lowest strings in fifths. Need a mnemonic? - "California Guitarists Drop Acid Every Gig". Tuning your guitar is the easy part: playing chords in Fripp's "NST" is a whole new world.

    What's your favorite alt tuning? Or is it hard enough already to play in EADGBE?

    Thanks for the report to Michael Leonard, Gibson.com

  • 174 comments sorted by best / new / date

      ItsApocalypse
      It's worth mention that Mark Tremonti in his more recent songs has been using all sorts of different tunings.
      sideslick
      My personal preferences: -One RG in drop-C -One RG in drop-D -My Tele in Eb-standard I'm saving for a Synyster Gates Custom-S right now to put into Eb-standard, then use my Tele as a backup. I need Floyds.
      JBTheLefty
      I use my LP in Drop D/Standard, my Tele in half step/drop Db, and I use my Strat copy for any strange tuning I want to try out, currently it's in Kool Thing tuning (F#F#F#F#BE). I also recently tuned my acoustic to FACFAC. It's pretty interesting.
      Redfinton22
      For over a year now I've been using a tuning I borrowed from Devin Townsend, it's his open tuning with the highest string as the second of whatever "key" it's tuned in instead of the major third. 6s = B-F#-B-F#-B-C# 7s = Ab-Eb-Ab-Eb-Ab-Bb-Eb
      Camron62\m/
      k, my question is. during live performances, for artists that play in muliple tunings, how do they perform each song? switch guitars? take the time to tune? i love drop D, drop Db, drop B and drop A, but i'd find it annoying to switch guitars or tune. i must need more guitars if i'm so picky, and love multiple tunings.
      Shreddaboi12
      I'm suprised no one's mentioned Pantera, they used quarter step tuning which is halfway between E and Eb, or in some songs D and Db. Also Andy Mckee uses some pretty crazy tunings in his music.
      kettmannism
      Daniel Johns, Silverchair, Emotion Sickness & Paint Pastel Princess on Neon Ballroom, Open c#m tuning. low to high C# G# C# G# C# E
      MR.ParKs
      I'm a big fan of the tuning Mastodon uses half the time. A-G-C-F-A-D, turns your two-string powerchords on the sixth string into octaves.
      baumaxx1
      Mine are boring... D Standard (which isn't really alt), Drop D and Open C (which I haven't used for a while since no-one else I jam with uses it XD). That being said, I'm really interested in trying NST, but I'd need to set-up one of my guitars specifically for it, and it's not really a luxury I can afford with 2 XD.
      Metalxorxdie
      any tuning I can work with since I've got more than one guitar, but changing tunings on a guitar with a Floyd Rose can really be a pain, and people who have them know what I'm talking about.... by the way, lowest tuning I ever heard of was from Meshuggah on a song called Spasm...it's and 8 string tuned down a whole step to E (which would be equivalent to the lowest E string on a bass in standard tuning since it's an octave lower than standard E on a guitar)
      RC52190
      My personal favorite tuning is Dropped C, which is really the only tuning I can play in as my guitar which boasts a floyd is set up for that specific tuning... Such a pain in the ass having a floyd.
      toast25
      A tuning I got to love on the acoustic and have been writing in quite frequently is (6th to 1st string) C-G-D-g-c-d sometimes called 'Orkney tuning'. It is well suited for writing in C major or minor, as well as related keys.
      XZero
      I use drop Db primarily, but I also like B-E-D-G-B-E, D-G-D-G-B-E, Drop B, standard, and B-F#-B-E-G#-C#. and if I had a 7-string, i would use Db-Db-Ab-Db-Gb-Bb-Eb. ( the low 7th string is tuned 1 octave lower than the 6th string)
      Afroboy267
      Opeth use Open Dmadd9 on this song:
      Quite a beautiful tuning methinks, especially on the 12 string acoustic guitars
      breakinslash
      I have a double locking system which always ****s up low tunings unless you put in a lot of effort, tuning itself is a big process, so i generally play standard and drop d and occasionally 1/2 step down, anything more than that is a pain in the ass to tune.
      deadsmileyface
      I mostly use Standard and Drop D but i have experimented with Drone A tuning (AAAAA), Dobro (GBDGBD and Augmented 4ths (CF#CF#CF#).
      qrEE
      Just beat everybody and never tune your guitar, then you have ALL SORTS of weird tunings.
      sugarsupernova
      If memory serves, Andy McKee is a pretty big advocate of DADGAD, and John Mayer is known to use the dropped C tuning! And I have to admit, alternate tunings really are fun, given that the vast majority of songs we've ever heard are in standard tuning, alternate tunings really provide a very refreshing change from what we're used to hearing! Maybe the reason a lot of songs sound the same these days is really just because we're too used to hearing songs written in the standard tunings? I think it may just be the way to go in terms of originality.
      DanDood666
      Fightstar have a really ****ed up tuning for Sleep Well Tonight, the bottom strings are tuned to C# and the top strings are tuned half a step up from standard So it goes C# G# C# c g# f This was a result of Charlie leaving his guitar next to a radiator for 2 weeks, the song sounds so good though
      xijack
      It's so much easier to learn music theory in Vestapol (open D E etc)Problem is when anyone ever does an article about this or Spanish tuning it's always so mundane. Derek Trucks has really dug deep though, his style deserves a lot more attention
      alteredtunings89
      My personal favorite is d-A-G-D-C-D. A tiny variation of mine from Michael Hedges' Aerial Boundaries which is in d-A-G-D-C-C
      forrestguitar94
      Justin Vernon from Bon Iver uses some weird tunings as well as Kristian Matsson from the Tallest Man on Earth.
      Agent51
      I keep my LP, SG, and project Strat all 1/2 step down (Eb). My acoustic, American Strat, and Tele are all standard, and my Ibanez RG is drop D. My Ibanez bass is 1/2 down, my Fender bass is standard And my ukulele is in GCEA
      Drg23
      I wish Soundgarden was mentioned in a few more sections other than Drop D, I mean for christ sakes, Drop D, EEEEBB, standard tuning, modified drop C , slightly modified open G, Open C doubled fifth, DGDGBC (7 or more different guitar tunings ON ONE ALBUM, Superunknown), not to mention Mind Riot's EEEEE
      Machineflame
      My favorite Tuning is Tuned down two steps (C F Bb Eb G C) Playing a C harmonic minor scale solo with this tuning is like a constant orgasm.
      SaulGoodmanDR
      No Dashboard Confessional, they use like 50 different ****ing tunings, also im fairly sure black hole sun is dropped a half step as well as drop tuned
      dumbface12
      Black Hole Sun is just drop D.
      Drg23
      actually it's drop d and a half step up (so drop Eb I guess)
      dumbface12
      I just looked at the sheet music it's actually drop D then it says, "the recording sounds approx. 1/4 step sharp" So, everyone was wrong.
      Gäz
      Jeff Martin Jeff Martin Jeff Martin Jeff Martin Jeff Martin Jeff Martin Jeff Martin Jeff Martin Jeff Martin.
      MrMan33
      I like using B-A-D-G-B-E and A-G-D-G-B-D for my six strings, and my seven string alternates between F-D#-G#-C#-F#-A#-D# or G-D-A-D-G-B-E. I like f*cked up tunings.
      shred_wizzard
      for the most part playing in drop c (CGCFAD) isn't out of the tuning range for most guitar strings and set ups...below that things get a little iffy
      henrihell
      Double dropped is pretty awesome, I use double dropped C# on the bass, as does Paolo Gragoletto from Trivium G# C# G# C# F#
      erixdream3d
      Should mention Alter Bridge! They use a lot of alternate tunnings, the cool thing is that they keep it all inside their characteristic hard rock sound, it's amazing!
      EspTro
      Ill use drop C with a low G on my 7 strings sometimes deviating from A standard or drop G just to add the extra bass note to all my chords
      umbrella666
      They're one of my all time favorites! They're definitely worth mentioning! Especially Tremontie's D,A,D,A,D,D and B,A,D,G,B,E tunings he uses a lot lol
      N7Crazy
      I remember the replacement's song "left of the dial", being played in a weird tuning, something with B i think... But it is ages ago...
      CryoCarnage
      in an article about weird tunings, not one mentions of Johhny from the Goo Goo Dolls?