Music can take us farther than we thought we could go, as a performer, as a musician, and as a person. The study of music stretches us and our capabilities.
There are some things that fire our imagination and make us consider possibilities we had not seen before. Sometimes a new technique or an alternate approach can open up new areas of the musical world—increasing the possibilities exponentially.
Whether you’re stuck in a rut, just starting out, or simply looking for something new, exploring the range of alternate tunings for guitar can create a dramatic shift in your playing.
Standard Guitar Tuning
This is the home base! The standard tuning for the six-string guitar is EADGBE. It’s probably the first tuning you ever learned, and for some guitarists, it might be the only tuning you’ve ever used. The vast majority of songs played on the guitar use this tuning. If you strum it unfretted, it creates an Em7+11 chord. A chord seldom used in this voicing—save for that Stevie Wonder turnaround.
You’ve probably learned hundreds of patterns and shapes that apply to standard tuning. If you’ve only played your guitar in standard, effectively utilizing alternate tunings for guitar may require a shift of imagination—but it can help strengthen your ear and bring you back to that explorative mindset of a beginner.
There are dozens of alternate tunings for the six-string guitar alone (we included a helpful list at the bottom of this page). In this article, we will get into a couple of broad categories and give advice on how to explore them.
Drop and Down Tuning
‘Drop tuning’ is a term with a double meaning in guitar. One refers to lowering the pitch of the entire standard guitar tuning by a certain interval, like a capo in reverse. Another refers to dropping primarily the 6th string of the guitar so that most of the fretboard is the same, but you get a few bonus notes down low. Both are valid! But when discussing them, you may need to clarify. Down tuning is more accurate when describing the reverse capo.
If you’re new to alternate tunings for guitar and you want to try out a couple of them without relearning chord shapes and scale patterns, drop and down tunings are a great place to start—especially if you like playing metal.
This is the perfect place to start when coming from standard tuning. Drop D is very similar to standard guitar tuning, but the 6th string is lowered one full step so most left-hand forms and patterns apply.
This is a classic tuning in rock and metal because of the extended low range, and the simplicity of playing power chords fast. You can use one finger to hold down a single fret position on the lowest three (or just the 6th and 5th) strings and get a straightforward powerchord. This makes creating progressions relatively easy. No third in the chord gives it raw, open power.
Drop D is also somewhat common in acoustic and classical guitar music, to a much different effect. Its similarities to standard also make it great for quickly jumping between the two tunings.
- Foo Fighters, “Everlong”
- Joni Mitchell, “Furry Sings the Blues”
- Rage Against the Machine, “Killing In The Name”
- John Dowland, “Lady Hundson’s Alman”
Drop C takes all of the strings of Drop D and brings them down a whole step. It has the benefits of Drop D with an even lower pitch range.
Once you get outside of the normal pitch range, it is time to consider what strings you’re using again. Lowering the pitch changes the tension on your strings, and raising the pitch raises the tension. Too much tension, and you can experience more hand strain, or even break strings. Too little tension and the electric guitar strings will not feel with and have a hard time sustaining notes. This is why it can be crucial to adjust your string gauges if you want to commit to a tuning long term. We suggest going up about a gauge per tuning. A standard .010 high E is at about 17.8 pounds of tension, whereas a .011 High D is about 17.1 pounds of tension. As you tune low, the change in gauge has to be larger to compensate. A setup is never a bad idea either!
- Killswitch Engage, “Holy Diver”
- Pretty Reckless, “Going to Hell”
- System of a Down, “Aerials”
- Arch Enemry, “War Eternal”
The alternative to the method where you Drop a single string is down-tuning the entire guitar evenly.
Let’s use this baritone-esque BEADF#B tuning for example – Some call this ‘Drop B’ because you’re dropping the tuning down to B. Some others more accurately refer to this as ‘B standard’ since it retains the chord shapes and relationships between strings from standard tuning. The farther you get from E standard, the better off you are intonating your guitar. Intonation is how in tune your guitar is around the fretboard by setting the 12th fret as your halfway point.
You don’t have to change anything with your left hand that you’ve already learned. But you get a completely different sound out of your guitar.
- Soundgarden, “Searching With My Good Eye Closed”,
- Black Midi, “953”
- Type O Negative, “Black No.1”
- Electric Wizard, “Funeralopolis”
Alternate Open Guitar Tunings
All open tunings create a chord when the guitar is strummed without fretting any notes, and are named for the root of the chord they create. They can be major or minor chords, but the major tunings seem to be the most commonly seen in popular guitar music.
There are some common techniques that apply to all open tunings.
As with Drop D, barring across the neck of the guitar is an easy way to create chord progressions. Not all chord progressions are desirable, of course. A series of major chords will be more useful, generally, than an extended series of minor chords. But, if you’re in an open minor tuning, it’s far easier to create a major chord than to try to go the other way around. Using a slide is the same principle, but with the slide’s distinctive characteristics.
Arpeggios are facilitated with open tuning. Adding melody to chords and arpeggios is a signature technique for open guitar tunings. Strumming the open chord while one or more strings are fretted and then moving along the fretboard creates some nice effects and many possibilities. It’s also a good way for you to get you and your guitar’s feet wet with alternate tunings.
Most bluegrass music is in either G or D. This flavor of open tuning is especially suited for quick picking.
Here are a couple of examples of ways to get started.
Create the hand shape for an E7 chord.
With this tuning, it’s actually a suspended D chord (DBDGAD).
Take the same handshape and move it up two frets.
– O4O3OO (DC#DAAD); a wanna-be maj7 chord.
Now, make an “E chord” shape.
This makes a “very suspended” chord (DBEGAD; a sus2,4,6)
Strike the chord. Then clear your hand when you strike again. This gives you the resolution.
Those are just a couple of straightforward things to get your creative juices flowing.
There are many, many examples of Open D. Here are just a few:
- Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”
- Bruce Cockburn, “Sunwheel Dance”
- Pearl Jam, “Even Flow”
- My Bloody Valentine, “Sometimes”
This tuning is used frequently in blues, folk, and slide guitar.
The Rolling Stones used it so much that Keith Richards would remove the 6th string on many of his guitars so that he would have the root as the lowest note. The Black Crowes are also well-known practitioners.
- Rolling Stones, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”
- The White Stripes, “Death Letter”
- Chet Atkins, “Spanish Fandango”
- Black Crowes, “Twice As Hard”
Joni Mitchell used another popular Open G tuning (GGDGBD) in “Electricity” and “For The Roses”.
Typical tuning: CGCGCE
This tuning is commonly used with 12 string guitar strings but is frequently used on the six-string guitar as well. The repetition of C and G on the bottom 5 strings makes this tuning incredibly intuitive and very suitable to heavy riffing, a-la drop tunings.
This is also one of the most flexible open tunings since only the E on the 1st string renders it a major tuning, and that note can be easily avoided.
- Elliot Smith, “Independence Day”
- Big Thief/Adrianne Lenker, “Wolf”
- Stephen Stills – “Love The One You’re With”
- John Butler Trio, “Ocean”
This very popular tuning got its name from the pronunciation of string assignments: DADGAD. It’s similar to open tunings in that it makes a chord: a suspended four. Therefore, many of the guitar techniques used for open tunings can be applied with this one.
This tuning is used a lot for Celtic music. But it is also used in folk, metal, rock, and many other genres. Jimmy Page used it in “Kashmir”, “Black Mountain Side”, and “White Summer.” Pierre Bensusan’s acoustic guitar work makes considerable use of DADGAD as well (He’s even written books on the subject).
DADGAD sounds best in the keys of DM/Bm, so it’s recommended that you limit your repertoire to those keys. Because of the “suspended” nature of this tuning, unfretted strings can create sympathetic vibrations and lush resonance on the guitar. DADGAD also lends itself to typical Celtic/Irish/Scottish music featuring melodies over open drones from the lower strings.
If you want to create even more suspension, second-fret the 4th string to add a “sus2” to the Dmaj chord. And because DADGAD doesn’t contain the 3rd of the chord, it can in theory be used in both major or minor keys.
Here are some of the basic chords:
Dmaj – OO542OO
Gmaj – 55O4OO
Asus – OO22OO
B7 – X2122X
Emin7 – 22OOXX
F#min7 – 4422XX
Cmaj – X34O3O
- Led Zeppelin, “Kashmir”
- Russian Circles, “Xavii”
- John Fahey, “Voice of the Turtle”
- Ani Defranco, “If It Isn’t Her”
Popular as an open tuning because it is similar in sound to E standard, this tuning is great for slide and airy riffs since you can always jump back to, and pull little melodies out of in a familiar E major context.
- The Allman Brothers Band, “Statesboro Blues”
- Bo Diddley, “Bo Diddley”
- The Smiths, “Headmaster’s Ritual”
- Bob Dylan, “Blood on the Tracks”
Open F9 aka ‘American Football’ tuning
This unique and somewhat ambiguously cheery F9 chord is favored by modern bands exploring the ‘math rock’ and ’emo’ styles. These communities use a lot of open tunings, due to the creative results that occur once you begin tapping and pulling off to an open string. One of the earliest examples in this style is the internet’s favorite ‘Never Meant’ by American Football, so the tuning has been nicknamed as such.
Modern players like Yvette Young of Covet and Tim Collis of TTNG have taken this tuning and playing style to the next level.
- Covet, “Pelagic”
- TTNG, “Crocodile”
- American Football, “Never Meant”
- Into It. Over it., “Midnight: Carroll Street”
Alternate Intervallic Guitar Tunings
Standard tuning (mostly) utilizes consistent intervals between each string. Besides the Major 3rd between G and B, it is all Perfect 4ths. This means that it is mostly the same distance between notes on every string. There are popular alternative tunings built with other intervals too!
New Standard Tuning
Developed by the unparallelled Robert Fripp of King Crimson, this cello inspired tuning is all 5ths up to that G, which is tuned down from the next 5th, A, because a note that high won’t last on the guitar for very long. It allows for a larger range than the standard guitar, and it makes Robert’s unique emphasis on quintal harmony more accessible with smaller hand movements for a larger range.
Ralph Patt was an innovative guitarist who found inspiration in the atonal movement started by Schoenberg and continued by the free jazz improvisers like Ornette Coleman and late-era John Coltrane. To better facilitate atypical and non-diatonic tonal centers, Patt moved to an all major-thirds tuning that added symmetry to the guitar neck and removed those consonant muscle memory shapes.
Named after our city, Nashville tuning was developed to add rhythm and harmony in the studio, without taking up all the room a guitar typically does. It is the doubled strings from a 12 string set only so the first two strings are the same and the bottom 4 are an octave higher than normal. This results in a fun but familiar fretboard with some new sounds. Heck, you can even combine this idea with other tunings. For example, what if you tuned down Nashville tuning?
High Strung Tuning
Similar to Nashville tuning, High Strung tuning is a great trick for adding new sounds in the studio without taking up the whole mix. The only difference is that the first three are normal, and the bottom three are an octave higher.
Carl Kress was an American Jazz guitarist who longed for a symmetrical tuning akin to both Robert Fripp and Ralph Patt – but way before their time. Robert’s fondness for the cello prevented him from tuning even lower, but Carl did not find this same roadblock and tuned down until he could successfully have an all fifths tuning across the board.
So, that’s our introduction to the world of alternate tunings for guitar. I know it was quick and we covered a number of topics very briefly, but the internet holds a dazzling amount of information, including many, many how-to videos that will help you to dig much deeper into this subject. If you find your new home in one of these tunings, we do suggest building a custom string set so that you can retain a balanced string feel.
As a final word, I strongly recommend that you watch Jim Martin’s 4-part video series on alternate guitar tunings. He is a considerable master of the subject and uses many of the tunings we talked about already, plus many more. Especially amazing is his ability to quickly change from one tuning to another (apparently it helps to have perfect pitch). You can start watching here. Links to the rest of the series are provided below the first video.
Good luck and have fun exploring alternate tunings on your own guitar!