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Why You Should Learn Alternate Tunings on the Guitar

And How They Will Expand Your Musical Mind

Stanley Jordan, a touch guitarist who plays using Perfect Fourths tuning.

We've covered where standard tuning comes from in my previous post (if you haven't had a chance to read it, here it is), and in all honesty, standard tuning is surprisingly important to being able to play the guitar. When you learn to play in standard, you're continuing the tradition of chordophone instruments, the tradition of Spanish musical history, and the history of the most popular instrument in the world. That's pretty wicked.

But... why do we HAVE to play in this tuning? Have you ever stopped to consider playing the guitar in a totally different way than anyone else? Have you ever wanted to explore the tonal possibilities that your guitar is able to produce? Well, that's where alternate tunings come into play, and I'm going to show you why they're super important, and how learning them will accelerate your skills on the guitar IMMENSELY.

What is an alternate tuning?

First things first, we must define what the heck we're talking about. To set this straight, an alternate tuning is a tuning that uses a different pitch set that traditional standard tuning. This means an alternate tuning can be as simple as lowering one string down a full tone, such as the most common alternate tuning "Drop D," or it could be as crazy as using a custom string set and changing the entire pitch structure of the guitar, such as the tuning known as Perfect Fifths tuning (or New Standard Tuning) created by the guitarist for King Crimson, Robert Fripp.

Different Types of Alternate Tunings

Before we dive into this crazy world, We should probably classify all the tunings that are already popping into our heads into different categories. This will make it MUCH easier for us to talk about these tunings. Here is a list of the most common categories of alternate tunings:

  • Regular Tunings
  • Open Tunings
  • Dropped Tunings
  • Shifted Tunings
  • Other Tunings

I'm going to go through what defines all of these tunings, give you the most common tunings within these categories, and then tell you how I personally approach the concept of using alternate tunings.

Regular Tunings

Regular tunings are ones in which all the notes have equal musical intervals between the paired notes of their successive open strings. Basically, this means that the interval between each pair of strings is consistent. This will include tunings such as Perfect Fourths, Major/Minor Thirds, Perfect Fifths, and Augmented tunings.

These tunings are useful because they are what is called symmetrical tunings, meaning that each chord shape doesn't change when you move to different string sets. This is especially useful for jazz guitarists who play in a variety of keys and use a wide chord vocabulary.

Open Tunings

Open tunings are any tuning in which a chord is sounded when all of the strings are played open (no notes are fretted). These tunings are used a lot by slide players, and blues players. The cool part about open tunings is that we can tune to any chord quality and these tunings have their own sub-categories:

  • Major
  • Cross-Note
  • Modal
  • Extended Chord

Major is exactly what it sounds like, it's any tuning tuned to an open major chord (such as Open E, Open A, Open D, etc).

Cross-Note is just a fancy way to say "Open Minor Chord." If you wanted a guitar to be tuned to an open Cmi chord, we would call the tuning "Cross-Note C."

Modal is any tuning that is not major or minor in quality. This would be tunings like sus4, add9, and sus2 tunings.

Extended Chord tunings are tunings that form chords with higher extensions, such as ninth, 11th, and 13th chords. Examples of this would be C6th Tuning, Open Page Tuning (D G C G C D), and Emi11 Tuning.

Phew! Now let's move into the most popular alternate tuning, Dropped Tunings.

Drop Tunings are tunings in which the 6th string is dropped from the standard tuning. Examples of this would be the classic "Drop D." You can also shift these tunings down to get tunings like "Drop C#," and you can keep shifting as low as you so desire to.

There is also what we call "Double Dropped Tuning." This is when you drop the sixth and first string by the same interval. This creates some unique droning sounds!

A variation of dropped tuning is to drop the sixth string down to double the fifth string an octave below, and then shift strings one to five up or down. This can create some interesting stuff. Bands like Mastodon and Periphery have done things such as this. Try it out!

Speaking of shifting strings, let's talk about Shifted Tunings.

These are tuning where all the strings are shifted by the same interval. This lets us use the same chord shapes we are familiar with, just with either a lower or higher pitch. Tunings such as this include Eb Standard, D Standard, F Standard, and Octave Tuning.

Now let's dive into the quirky, interesting Other Tunings!

Other tunings don't fit into the above categories. You can make up any ones you want (if you don't break a string doing it). I'm going to list my favourite ones with the pitch set, and some that I think are just fun to try out!

DADGAD (pitch set same): MOST POPULAR

FGC3 (FGCEG#C): Developed by Ian Low for a different approach to classical guitar playing.

Cello Tuning (CGdabe): Cello tuning on bass strings with two standard high guitar strings.

There is also the world of extended range guitars and reduced range guitars, which have all their own categories of tunings. I've only been talking about six string guitars, but if you have an extended or reduced range guitar, try some stuff out!

Warning: Make sure your guitar is set up properly before trying these tunings!

The guitar is designed in a way that allows it to withhold a certain amount of tension and pressure. If you try tuning without getting it set up by a profession guitar technician, you could end up damaging your instrument. I highly recommend getting a guitar set up for a specific tuning before you dive into it first.

Why alternate tunings are important

Why is it so important to experiment with all these crazy tunings we just talked about? It's almost a lot of work being spent on tuning your guitars rather than playing it.

You're not wrong, you will spend a lot of time learning about the ins and outs of setting up your guitar, and restringing it. BUT what you will learn is how the guitar reacts and behaves in specific scenarios. You'll have a deeper understanding of what pickups sound better with specific tunings. You'll start to appreciate standard tuning more. You WILL break out of the habits that you've created from playing guitar in standard tuning for so many years. You will become a better guitarist, I promise.

Do you feel like you've learned something about the guitar? Send me over a gift or tip! You inspire me to continue to write about what I write about, and what I am passionate about.

Until next time.

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