Two years ago I wrote an article on best practices for busting out of a playing slump. Perhaps it’s fitting then, that upon recently finding myself in a bit of a funk, I took some of my own advice. First, I focused on the idea that playing the guitar is supposed to be fun. Then I started twisting the tuning pegs on my guitar.
Alternate tunings are the easiest way—at least for me—to change the way one approaches the fretboard. When conventional voicings and familiar structures aren’t there to fall back on, the challenge becomes finding new combinations that sound good, which in turn provides a new source of inspiration.
If such a challenge sounds interesting to you, here’s a quick primer on the several types of alternate tunings and a few songs to familiarize yourself with how each one sounds in real time.
This is arguably the most basic of alternate tunings. And if you are (or have ever been) a fan of ‘90s and 2000s nü-metal, you’re probably a fan of drop D. Pretty much every band from that era—from Adema to Korn and from Linkin Park to TrustCompany—relied heavily on Drop D tuning.
By lowering the bottom string a step from standard tuning (D-A-D-G-B-E), you get a one-finger, three-string power chord that sounds awesome with distortion. And you get it by merely extending a finger across the bottom three strings. Now, it’s certainly expandable beyond those strings, but speedy single-finger riffage potential is what makes drop D so popular.
Tom Morello is the author of many solid drop D riffs, but the main hook from “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine is still one of my all-time favorites, as is the theme from “Echo” by Incubus. “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters is up there, too, and a solid strummer. And all of them are in drop D.
Of course, there are plenty of classic examples of drop D tuning, too. Check out Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell”, Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” and Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” if old-school rock is what gets your motor running.
Or, if acoustic pop is more your speed, check out John Mayer’s “Your Body is a Wonderland” which is also in drop D.
SIDE NOTE: Rather than break out a separate section on the many drop D variants that exist, let’s just say that if you’re into heavy music, the notion of drop C#, C, B or even drop A shouldn’t be unfamiliar to you. Of course, lower tunings aren't exclusive to heavy music—as exhibited by John Mayer's drop C "Neon"—but it is more common in the land of djent.
I mentioned Led Zeppelin in the last section and guitarist Jimmy Page wrote a variety of songs in alternate tunings. One such classic is “Kashmir”—and it’s in DADGAD tuning.
DADGAD tuning is achieved by lowering the bottom and top two strings down a step from standard tuning, so as the name implies, it goes D-A-D-G-A-D. Not only is this tuning a personal favorite alternate tuning of mine, but it also allows for—and in a completely different way than drop D tuning, I might add—a stunning array of melodic, single finger playing. I’m a huge fan of open string drones and DADGAD is ideal for such applications. Just slide your finger up and down the G string (heh) and enjoy what happens.
As the venerable Mr. Page taught us though—chording in DADGAD is fun, too. Further examples include “Black Mountain Side” by Led Zepellin, “Circle” by Slipknot, “Out On the Western Plain” by Rory Gallagher and "Epiphany" by Staind.
SIDE NOTE: If you’re looking for something easier, or just a bit more familiar, you can simplify DADGAD and go with double drop D instead. Just drop both the high and low E a step from standard tuning to make D-A-D-G-B-D and you’re ready to play “Cinnamon Girl” by Neil Young.
OPEN A / E / D
Open tunings offer a distinct advantage—the ability to create remarkably complete (and easy to play) chords at every single fret. As such. open tunings are ideal for slide players. So if you're interested in slide guitar, tuning up with one of the following options is a great place to start.
Open A can be heard in "Seven Nation Army" by The White Stripes and "In My Time of Dying" by Led Zeppelin and is tuned as follows: E-A-E-A-C#-E.
For open D, tune your guitar to D-A-D-F#-A-D and listen to "Corrina, Corrina" by Bob Dylan or "Black Balloon" by the Goo Goo Dolls.
Open E is featured in "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones, "Just Got Paid" by ZZ Top and in almost all the music of Derek Trucks. To tune to open E, set your strings this way: E-B-E-G#-B-E. (Or just put a capo at the second fret of an open D tuned guitar.)
As you’ll hear listening to these songs, slide playing abounds—but standard rhythmic picking is possible, as well. I suggest you try them all on for size and see which one fits you best. And if you’re less into self-discovery and more into cheat codes, there are plenty of open tuning tutorials and chord charts available online.
I wanted to split open G from the other open tunings because—for a reason I'll get to in a moment—I find it more interesting than the rest.
To begin though, if you want to hear what Open G sounds like, go listen to Keith Richards—because he's the Open G master. “Start Me Up”, “Honky Tonk Woman” and “Brown Sugar” are all time-tested Open G classics.
Like the other open tunings, it’s done by tuning the guitar to create an open chord when strummed without any fingers on the fretboard. In this case, as you might expect, the D-G-D-G-B-D combination equals an open G chord.
But what makes open G tuning so interesting—and sets Richards apart—is that you can do it with only five strings.
In his autobiographical memoir, Life, he says the following:
"A lot of five-string playing came from when Sears & Roebuck offered the Gibson guitar in the very early '20s, really cheap. Before that, the banjos were the biggest selling instrument. Gibson put out this cheap, really good guitar, and cats would tune it, since they were nearly all banjo players, to a five-string banjo tuning.
The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitar is that you've only got three notes—the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart. It's tuned GDGBD. Certain strings run through the whole song, so you get a drone going all the time, and because it's electric they reverberate. Only three notes, but because of these different octaves, it fills the whole gap between bass and top notes with sound. It gives you this beautiful resonance and ring.
I found working with open tunings that there's a million places you don't need to put your fingers. The notes are already there. You can leave certain strings wide open. It's finding the spaces in between that makes open tuning work. And if you're working the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it, which you're actually not playing. It's there. It defies logic."
In much the same way as I find Max Cavalera and Jimmy Bower only using four strings completely fascinating—which is another topic altogether, I realize—I love the innovative route Richards takes to make this open tuning work for him. And I hope you do, too.
SIDE NOTE: A hidden advantage of open G is that—whether you play it with five or six strings—three of them are tuned the same way as standard tuning, meaning that if you're looking for a bridge over to alternate tunings, this might be a good one to start with.
ALL THE REST
There are loads of ways to tune your guitar—just ask Joni Mitchell. In a career spanning nearly five decades, she's released songs in more than 50 different guitar tunings.
From more common varieties like open E (which she used on "Big Yellow Taxi") to more innovative concepts like B-F#-B-E-A-E (which she allegedly developed based on a bird's call and used for a haunting tune called "The Magdalene Laundries") she's continually shown that, when it comes to open tunings, you can get as adventurous as you can imagine.
Other quirky modern examples include Coldplay's "Yellow" that's tuned in an E-A-B-G-B-D# configuration and "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls, which is tuned to B-D-D-D-D-D. Similarly odd is Stephen Stills'—yes, the Stills of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young acclaim—usage of E-E-E-E-B-E tuning on several tracks of the Déjà Vu album.
But, again, the sky is the limit when it comes to open tunings. There are many other varieties that I didn’t cover here and, perhaps, some that you can discover all on your own—even if it means taking strings off. Get creative and see where it leads you.