Love Mumford and Sons? Joni Mitchell? Led Zeppelin? Patti Griffin? Have you tried to play their songs but just couldn’t quite make them sound quite right? Welcome to the world of alternate tunings.
Not all songs are written for, or played in, the standard E-A-D-G-B-E tuning.Alternate tunings open up a whole new world for guitarists willing to look beyond the standard tuning, offering the possibility of creating combinations of notes not previously available, or only available to those with enormous hands. There are tunings in whichonly one string’s tuning is changed, but others which retune three, four or all of the strings to different pitches.
A favorite “one-string” altered tuning is the “Drop D”, in which the low E string is tuned down one step to D. Since D is usually a 4-string chord, this drop-D tuning has the advantage of giving the D chord use of all of the string, and a resonant low bass note. BUT, any other chord in the song using the lowest string must then be played a whole step, or two frets higher. Some people like drop D because when you barre the bottom three strings you get a “power chord” that sounds good anywhere on the fret board. The easiest way to get to drop D tuning is to pluck the low E and the D string together and tune down the low E until it matches the D string’s pitch.
Another very popular tuning is the open G. Once tuned, the strings will produce a G chord without placing any fingers on the strings. For this tuning, you will leave the A-D and G strings unchanged, but tune the low E down to a D, the A up to a G, and the high E down to a D. This tuning makes it very easy to play any major chord progression just by barring the whole fret. The Rolling Stones favored this tuning- listen to the opening riff of “Start Me Up, ” or “Honky Tonk Women.”
And, one of the most popular tunings I’ve come across is the Dsus4, more commonly known as “DADGAD”, for the order of the tuning of the strings: low E down to D, A stays the same, D stays the same, G stays the same, the B is tuned down one step to A, and the high E is tuned down one step to D. Playing in this tuning can be a bit intimidating at first, but with just a little work, you can play some of the most beautiful major and haunting minor chord voicings. Since the notes of the open strings played together form a Dsus4 chord, the best place to start is the key of D because you can play any of the open strings at pretty much anytime, which makes for some really nice “drone chord” voicings. While this tuning lends itself to, and may have originated in Celtic music, it has become a favorite of folk musicians.