Tips on Alternate Guitar Tuning

The tuning of the guitar that we call "standard" (EADGBE) has been around for a long time, from about the 17th century according to some sources. Before the six string guitar was the five string guitar. For this instrument several tunings were used, but the most popular was ADGBE, which is identical to our standard tuning minus the lowest string. This tuning became EADGBE with the introduction of the added low E making it a six string instrument in approximately 1800. That tuning has survived as "standard" to this day.

Though we call EADGBE the standard tuning, there have been and will always be alternatives. This workshop will demonstrate some useful tunings, their strong and weak points, and how you’re playing and composing can benefit from using them.

Some Definitions

In defining some terms, we'll make a distinction between open tunings and other alternate tunings. An open tuning is simply one that gives the sound of a chord, either major or minor, when the guitar is strummed without being fretted. The tuning is often named by this chord. For instance, if the guitar sounds a G major chord when strummed, the tuning will be named open G. If the chord is a D minor, then the tuning will probably be called open D minor, or simply D minor. The beauty of this is that a person can learn to play simple songs on the guitar easily by using one finger to barre across the fretboard at the proper points to make the familiar 1-4-5 chord progression. These tunings are also popular for slide or bottleneck style playing. Continuing to the next step beyond major and minor are variant open chord tunings such as C6, G7, etc., which again describe an open chord sound. These variations have been popular with both fingerpicking and slide players. 6th and 9th tunings are popular in the world of pedal steel guitar. Other tunings which do not sound like a major or minor chord do not have generic names, and have various descriptive names such as Modal, Sawmill, Cross-note etc. The problem with these names is that they do not mean anything to persons outside the original circle of players where they originated. We prefer to call tunings by the chord name if they form a common open chord, and to use the capitalized six (or twelve) string note-names (i.e. DADGAD) if they do not sound an obvious open chord. To summarize, Open tunings that sound a major or minor chord can be referred to by the chord name, and other tunings can be described by the note names of the strings.

We can analyze a tuning either by the notes that make up the tuning, or by the intervals between the adjacent strings. The interval pattern of standard tuning, EADGBE, is 4-4-4-3-4. For six strings we have five intervals. E to A is the interval of a fourth, as is A to D, and D to G. G to B is a major third, and B to E is again a fourth. If we look at tunings by the interval method, we find that many tunings that appear to be different are really similar. The complex looking F#CEAC#F# is simply standard tuning raised one whole step. Many times you will see a new tuning written out as letters and find that it is one already familiar to you, when you see it in terms of intervals.

Another way to express an alternate tuning (this works very well for explaining how to do a tuning to your friend over the telephone) is to show how to arrive at the tuning starting from standard tuning. In this way the popular tuning DADGAD becomes "First string down one whole step, second string down a whole step, sixth string down a whole step". Now you're in DADGAD. What seems complicated becomes simple!

A Brief History of the Modern Use of Alternate Tunings

There has long been alternate ways to tune the guitar. In an 1838 guitar method book, The Elements of Guitar, a version of the tune Spanish Fandango, titled simply "Fandango" is presented as an example of a song in a "Peculiar Tuning", which turns out to be Open G. Alternate tunings started to have more popularity in the USA around 1920 with rise of the blues. The tuning that became most popular with the blues players is open G, or DGDGBD. The blues players used this tuning with and without a slide or bottleneck. It became known also as Slack Key tuning and is used in a distinctive playing style in Hawaii to this day. "This tuning has much in common with the standard G tuning on five string banjo, and because of this, a theory has been advanced that it is an "original" American invention. However this same note sequence appears in the tuning of the German cittern- the Thuringer Waldzither. Since many of the early American guitar makers came from those areas in which the Waldzither was the most widely used plucked instrument- it is just as likely that "Slack Key" was brought to the U.S.A. by one of these European immigrants."

A possible reason to use certain open tunings (besides facilitating the making of chords with one finger) is that the tension on the guitar strings and hence the amount of finger pressure required to hold down the string is reduced. A player with a cheap guitar that is already straining the abilities of his fingertips might be easily convinced about the merits of open G. Another tuning used in early blues playing was open E minor EBEGBE, which could be fretted to a major chord by raising the G to G#. Other tunings used were DADGBD and DGDGCD.

As folk and blues players progressed in their abilities, the widespread usage of these tunings declined. The obvious reasons for this are a disdain for the utter simplicity and lack of flexibility in using only one finger to make a chord, and the fact that almost all guitar method books published, then as well as now, are for standard tuning.

A turning point was reached, though it is difficult to say exactly what year, when players realized that one could play scales and chords in the alternate tunings, and make complex arrangements using these skills. The advantages were apparent, but the task was difficult. The most obvious advantage noticed by experienced players trying a new tuning is that chords and arpeggios which are difficult or impossible in standard tuning become workable in alternate tunings. They also noticed that in some tunings the open intervals provide a basic foundation that makes the playing of certain musical styles, such as Scottish and Irish, sound more like the typical settings for that music. Also, many composers of guitar tunes found that being freed from the same old chords and sounds they had gotten used to on the guitar, and being forced to find new ones, inspired their creativity in many ways.

We could say that the recent movement of alternate tuning started in the early 60's and was in full force by the early 70's. The revolution came from several fronts, and all players using alternate tunings today (outside of blues revivalists) can trace their inspirations back to three waves of influence. The first wave began in the early sixties with the British fingerstyle guitarists Davey Graham, Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, and Bert Jansch. The latter two were the core of the popular British folk group Pentangle and featured complex and challenging guitar arrangements in the group's material. Most of what these players did at that time is seminal to what has happened stateside with regard to the use of alternate tunings. It is said that Davey Graham "invented" DADGAD, and that he is the founder of the British folk revival. Some background on the roots of the British acoustic guitar playing revival of the early 60's is found in the 1977 British book "Guitars" by Tom and Mary Anne Evans:

"Whereas American steel-string players are heavily blues based both in original inspiration and style, English musicians are more eclectic. There is an important historical reason underlying this: while American folk music, whether black or white, has a long tradition of guitar accompaniment, there has been no equivalent use of the guitar in English or European music. Before the 1950's, the one way for a guitarist to make a living was in a dance band. Thus when the revival of interest in the steel string guitar began in Britain in the late 1950's, there was no ready made audience with pre-formed musical tastes, and no one obvious tradition to draw on for inspiration. The English players were therefore not inhibited from using a wide range of sources in creating their own music. These sources included American blues and country music, and whatever elements could be suitably adapted to the guitar from traditional British music, Indian music, Irish pipe and fiddle tunes."

The British players extended this eclectic freedom to encompass alternate tunings. If a tuning allowed a player's style to be enhanced or extended, or to emulate certain ethnic music sounds, there was little hesitation to utilize it. Ironically, most of the British players, when asked, claim American bluesmen as being a motivating force in their development.

The next direction came from the "Fingerstyle Guitar Heroes". This group is characterized by players like John Fahey and Leo Kottke. Almost everything they played was in something other than standard tuning. In the case of Leo Kottke, a whole style of playing was introduced by his tunings and fierce right hand technique. The playing styles of Fahey and Kottke were largely influenced by country and blues: a tuning they favored was DGDGBD. A unique aspect of their popularity is simply that they were solo guitar players. The next heroes to bring tunings out of the closet and onto the turntable were Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed. Chet recorded tunes such as "Blue Gypsy" in DGDGBD (Open G) as early as 1952, and confounded more than a few players with Reed's "Steeplechase Lane" (DGDEBD) in the early 70's. Some of Jerry's complex and tricky tunes are possible only by virtue of an alternate tuning. One of Chet's finest albums in the eyes of many players is his 1973 "Chet Atkins Alone". This album featured unique arrangements of many old and familiar tunes arranged in several tunings as well as innovative new tunes.

The third wave came with the Singer/ Songwriters of the late 60's and early 70's, notably David Crosby and Joni Mitchell. David Crosby is a excellent "guitar thinker" and folk-pop innovator. A whole generation of folk guitarists inadvertently discovered alternate tunings while trying to figure out songs such as "Guinnevere" and "Wooden Ships". When Joni Mitchell came forward as a recording artist in the late 60's, her songwriting style incorporated a well developed and individualistic approach to the guitar. She wrote her music primarily on guitar, and always used tunings as a creative part of the process. By the end of the decade she had recorded scores of songs with guitaristic foundations. The number of tunings used by Crosby and Mitchell ranges into the hundreds. Paul Simon brought a playing style back from England which was new to many American ears with his arrangements of such tunes as "Scarborough Fair" and Davey Graham's "Anji".

Tunings Today

Right now there are more guitarists playing and recording music in alternate tunings than ever before. The wave of popularity we are seeing now started about 1984 and comes from two directions. Stylistically, the first recent influence comes from a revival of Celtic music in the USA. This has happened through folk festivals, radio programs, and wider distribution of Irish and Scottish music to the states. The second recent influence comes from what I call the "Windham Hill phenomenon". Being in apparently the right place at the right time, the Windham Hill record company released a number of solo guitar albums which, to the surprise surprise of many, sold very well. The people who bought the records were not just guitarists, who do not make up a large enough community of record buyers to allow albums to be a commercial success. The record buyers were a cross section of upper middle class listeners, and the music also turned up on "easy listening" radio and even in elevators! This was very curious because these original guitar compositions were not pop music and in some cases were structurally complex and interesting musically. Some of the players, such as Alex DeGrassi, were technically excellent and innovative guitarists. It appeared to be a new era for solo acoustic guitar, and alternate tunings played a big role. More guitarists followed in the "modern steel-string acoustic original instrumentals" vein with admirable success, notably Michael Hedges, the duo Acoustic Alchemy, Pierre Bensusan, and Preston Reed.

The current acceptance and popularity of the use of alternate tunings has been facilitated by several developments. The first is the increasing proliferation of tablature notation for guitar. The impact of tablature on the proliferation of guitar music cannot be understated. In its most obvious usage, tablature allows guitar players who do not or cannot read standard music notation to learn highly complex guitar arrangements note-for-note. In the case of music using alternate tunings, tablature has a double impact: even if you do know how to read music for the guitar and have every point of the fretboard memorized, those skills become practically useless when the tuning of the guitar is changed. With tablature, however, all you need to do is read the standard notation (or listen to a recording of the music) to get the time values, and place your fingers as the tablature indicates. Your brain doesn't need to know or care anything about how the guitar is tuned while you are learning the piece. This removes much of the fear some players seem to have about learning to play in alternate tunings.

Another development that I believe to be important is the widespread availability of inexpensive and highly accurate electronic guitar tuning devices. With a unit such as the Sabine digital tuner, which recognizes and directly displays the name of the note being played, a guitarist can go into a new tuning very quickly and accurately without thinking too hard about which way a particular string goes or how far. This takes away one of the biggest areas of frustration for a player who wants to begin using multiple tunings.

How to Accomplish the Tunings

There are several points to consider when changing the tuning of the guitar. Guitars and string sets are designed for standard tuning; several things happen when we depart from standard tuning.

First, keep in mind that as we tune a string higher, the tension increases, and as we tune lower the tension decreases. If we create a tuning that generally pitches the strings higher, we risk breaking strings and endangering the structure of the instrument. If the tuning pitches the strings lower, there is no danger to the guitar, but there is a loss of tone and volume. A rule of thumb that I use is not to tune a string higher than 1½ steps or lower than 2 steps from its standard pitch (unless I change the string to a different gauge).

Second, in many tunings we have some strings at normal tension, some at higher tension, and some at lower tension. This can lead to an unevenness of tone and feel. If the tuning you are using causes this problem and it is bothersome, you can try slightly lower or higher gauges accordingly on the offending string(s) to equalize the tension.

Third, if you change the tunings often, strings will inevitably start to break. Some players solve this problem by having several guitars that stay in tunings, and switch guitars to play different tunes. Others avoid the string breakage problem by changing strings often, and even changing certain strings before a performance. New strings are less likely to break.

Using Capos to Create Tunings

A method that avoids changing the pitch of the strings altogether is to use special capos to accomplish the tuning. Remember that the tuning itself is relative. There is a device called the Third Hand Capo(3) that is designed to allow you to achieve specific alternate tunings without having to actually change the tuning of the strings. It is a rubber bar divided into six cam-shaped sections. Each section can be raised or lowered by turning it. This capo is good for creating the pitches for a DADGAD-like tuning by placing it at the second fret and allowing the capo to hold down just the 3rd 4th and 5th strings. I say that it is "like" DADGAD because it is really EBEABE, which would be DADGAD with a full capo at the second fret. A way to get true DADGAD and switch to true standard tuning with the Third Hand is to first tune the guitar to DADGAD, then switch to standard when you need to by placing the Third Hand at the second fret adjusted so that it stops the 1st 2nd and 6th strings.

P L E A S E N O T E:
(When the above paragraph was written, I hadn't actually used this type of capo, or even thought much about how the technique would work. Later I tried it and was stunned to find that it works "hardly at all". If you think about it, you will realize that partial capoing to get a tuning like the "DADGAD equivalent", for instance, is like having another person hold down three strings at the second fret. That does not change the tuning of the guitar in any way, and any chord you hold above the second fret that doesn't use the capo'd (or held) strings will sound the same as in normal tuning. In other words, partial capoing as offered by the Third Hand and other devices is NO SUBSTITUTE for retuning the guitar. The only thing this capoing technique is good for is for playing styles that utilize the fingering of one or two melody strings against the background of the "open" interval pattern. The Buster B Jones technique that follows is similar, but makes use of capos primarily to change the interval of the lower strings. The same warnings apply.)

Another capo method to create alternate tunings was invented by innovative guitarist Brad "Buster B" Jones. His method is to use one or two Kyser(4) capos. This method only works with a Kyser capo, the kind that is like a big clothespin held on the neck by spring tension. Because of the design of this device, you can clamp it onto just 5 or even 4 strings and it stays in place. You can get a Drop D type tuning by clamping the Kyser across 5 strings at the 2nd fret, leaving the 6th string open. Brad also uses 2 Kysers simultaneously. One of his tunings involves a Kyser at the 4th fret across the first 4 strings and another one at the 2nd fret across the first 5 strings. This is a very quick way to achieve a radically different tuning, and even though strings 1 through 4 are at a full 2 steps above normal tuning, they are in no danger of breaking.

Ironically, a problem with using capos to get into a tuning (besides losing part of the length of the neck) is that you then can't use a another regular capo to raise the whole pitch of the guitar without rearranging everything. (try it and see, and also see note above)

A Note About Notations

Some guitarists help us out by listing the tunings they use in the liner notes of their albums. When there is tablature for tunes in non-standard tuning, the tuning may be indicated. However, the tuning notes shown are sometimes misleading. Sometimes the guitar is tuned to a non-standard tuning and then capo'd up, but instead of indicating this on the notation, they just print the actual absolute value of the notes. If you see a set of notes for a tuning that look too high, check into the idea that a capo might have been used as well as a tuning. Please don't damage your guitar by tuning up too high without using appropriate string guages.

Developing Your Personal Perspective Toward Tunings

Opportunities to learn and play in alternate tunings are numerous. There are hundreds of tunes published that have been created or arranged in various tunings, and you can also begin to explore on your own. I feel that branching out in this direction on the guitar is a very personal thing. Not every player will be comfortable with the prospect of making a drastic break with the familiar. Going into a new tuning is like walking into an unfamiliar forest with no trails or markings. Of course a walk into the forest may lead to an adventure.

It is usually not useful to tune your instrument into some odd tuning just to see what it will sound like, though some players love to do this. Most guitarists need a reason to try a tuning. For me it has been that I hear someone playing a tune and I would like to play the tune badly enough to switch to the required tuning to learn it. Sometimes I have found this to lead me almost nowhere. One tuning = one tune is not a very productive use of my resources. In some cases though, I have found that my hands fall very naturally into chord patterns, and my mind comes up with all kinds of new ideas. I found this to be true with the tuning EADEAE. I first picked up the tuning in order to play Davey Graham's arrangement of the Irish tune "Lord Mayo". (Note: Davey Graham calls EADEAE a "pipe tuning" and says it was taught to him by Martin Carthy) While fooling around with the tuning I found that I was drawn to a set ot chords and patterns that were great for country and bluegrass. My first experiments yielded a novel arrangement of "Old Joe Clark". I found that I could come up with arrangements for tunes that usually weren't done on fingerstyle guitar which fit perfectly into this tuning. My arrangements for "Sixteen Tons", "Steel Guitar Rag", and "Ghost Riders in the Sky" came from experimentation in EADEAE. I now have over 25 tunes to play in that tuning, including many that I have written. For me the break with standard tuning has been a creative experience and not frustrating at all.

The criteria I have developed to determine if a tuning is worthwhile is to find out whether I can use it to arrange or create a significant range of tunes (or arrangements), in different styles and various keys. I look for comfortable chords and I always experiment with finding fingerings for familiar simple chords. If I don't get workable results from this prospecting, then I will probably abandon the tuning. I don't know how many tunings a guitar player can remember how to play in, but for me the limit seems to be 4 or 5. Beyond that point I begin to forget things. I have forgotten many tunings completely and others have literally become part of me.

Taking It from Here...

If you look at the accompanying table of deviations from standard tuning, you will notice that most of the tunings do not deviate from standard by more than one whole step in pitch. It is amazing that these small changes in tuning can make the guitar seem so radically different. Also notice what the tunings have in common as well as how they differ; almost all of them have E, D, or C as the lowest note, and have an interval of a 4th or 5th between strings 5 and 6. Also notice that some tunings, such as EADEAE require changing the tuning of only 2 strings from standard.

It is easier than you think to begin to use alternate tunings, and it could be the start of a guitar adventure.

Current Players Who Play Primarily In Non-Standard Tunings and the Tunings They Use (with sincere apologies to anyone who was left out or mis-classified)

Dan Ar Bras--DADGAD, others
Pierre Bensusan--DADGAD, DGDGCD
Martin Carthy--DADGAD, EADEAE
Dave Evans--CGDGAD
Davey Graham--DADGAD, EADEAE
El McMeen--CGDGAD, Standard
Brad Jones--DADGBE, EBF#BEbAb (using 2 capos), DGDGBD, STANDARD
Stanley Jordan--EADGCF (all 4th intervals)Pat Kilbride--DADGAD, DADGBE
Adrian Legg--Several, with numerous tuning changes while playing via Scruggs banjo tuners
Joni Mitchell--Numerous tunings, mostly undocumented

Quick Methods For Some Popular Tunings
  • DADGAD: Tune the 1st string down one step, 2nd string down one step, 6th string down one step
  • DADEAD: Tune the 1st string down one step, 2nd string down one step, 3rd string down 1½ steps, 6th string down one step
  • EADEAE: Tune the 2nd string down one step, 3rd string down 1½ steps
  • DGDGBD: Tune the 1st string down one step, 5th string down one step, 6th string down one step
  • CGDGAD: Tune the 1st string down one step, 2nd string down one step, 5th string down one step, 6th string down 2 steps.
Article courtesy or The Rock House Method - www.rockhousemethod.com

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Matt said...

Nice article on alternate tunings - been trying these out and they give me some fresh ideas. I wish artists would make more info available: I've been trying to figure out Pentangle's "Traveling Song" forever. Not to mention any of the slide work of Katherine from the "Smoke Fairies".

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Thank you for sharing this very informative and inspiring post. With the emergence of several aspiring guitarists, it really becomes difficult to standout with your own techniques. There are even times when pros become mediocre when they stand side-by-side other players. In this world, learning should never stop, indeed. This post is really very helpful. Thank you again for sharing.