There's an infinite number of guitar tunings beyond the accepted standard of EADGBE. Open G, DADGAD… names that conjure images of slide players and folk aficionados, which some may find off-putting.
Alternate tunings, however, needn’t be baffling. Having command of a few of these help to broaden one's usefulness as a player. In this tutorial, I'll present three simple tunings that require minimum adaption to your current knowledge base.
Starting with the most common.
Before you do anything unfortunate, this does not refer to retuning a guitar by letting it fall to the floor.
Drop tuning is taking the lowest string and retuning it down, usually by a tone. For example:
- Standard Tuning EADGBE
- Drop Tuning DADGBE
This particular tuning is known as Drop-D.
The Idea Behind This
The biggest attraction is what it does to the three lowest strings. Look again:
This creates a power chord, namely a root note, a fifth note and an octave.
What’s more, the notes are all on the same fret so a single finger is required instead of two or three fingers for standard tuning. This makes moving the shape around far faster.
Another trick is to use the lowest note as a pedal tone, which is a sound played repetitively as a backdrop to other sounds.
A song where you’ll hear both of these traits is Girl All The Bad Guys Want by Bowling For Soup.
Lower and Lower
This isn’t the only possible tuning. Those who favour heavier sounds can tune the entire guitar down and then apply drop tuning.
For example, Alter Bridge’s Isolation is played in Drop-C. This is how you’d arrive at this tuning:
- Standard Tuning EADGBE
- D Standard DGCFAD (all notes down a tone from Standard Tuning)
- Drop C CGCFAD (D Standard with the lowest note down a tone)
We’ve plumbed the depths, let’s go higher.
As the name suggests, it’s a derivative of standard tuning as the intervals between strings remain the same. As the lowest note here is G, however, you end up with a completely different tuning.
- Standard Tuning EADGBE
- G Standard GCFA#DG
Up or Down
I should point out this involves tuning the guitar up from standard. I wouldn’t recommend doing this with your regular gauge strings, especially if you play 10s or above, as the increased tension may seriously damage the guitar’s neck.
Choose a lighter gauge as this balances the increased pitch of the tuning with the reduced tension of the gauge. I have a guitar in this tuning and I use 7-gauge strings, which are the lightest you can buy. The only caveat is that you’ll need to play more carefully as a lighter gauge means a greater likelihood of breakage.
If you want to tune down to G, then good luck—you’ll need strings like overhead cables to combat the significant loss of tension. The intonation will be practically non-existent and the resultant sound will appeal only to whales and elephants.
No New Knowledge
Don’t forget, this is still a standard tuning. This means that everything you know in standard tuning—chords, scales, arpeggios—all still applies.
The point you must remember is whatever you play in G Standard will sound a minor third above standard tuning.
For example, if you play a G chord in G Standard, the shape you use looks like G but the resultant sound is actually B flat.
Couldn’t I Just Use A Capo?
If you’re re-voicing chords then, yes, you could. However, as soon as you use a capo, you’re reducing the number of frets available. Not only have you cropped the range of the instrument but the highest notes on the guitar remain unchanged.
Using G Standard means you lose a little from the bottom of the guitar’s range but you gain at the top end.
This is especially useful for soloists. Even electric guitarists struggle to hit the top of the guitar’s range, as the frets get closer together the higher you go. Having a guitar tuned up brings these top notes down the neck, so frets become wider apart and playing becomes easier.
As a session guitarist, I get handed keyboard-composed parts that are beyond the guitar’s range. Eventually, I set up a guitar in G Standard and it’s been in use ever since. I can’t recommend it enough.
Purportedly, the name comes from the usage of this tuning by Nashville session guitarists and was originally a way to simulate the rich chorusing sound of a 12-string guitar.
How it Works
Here’s the good news—it’s exactly the same as standard tuning. So, everything you already know can be played in this tuning as well.
It’s all about the gauge of the strings. Nashville tuning takes the E, A, D, G strings and tunes them up one octave. Now, as mentioned when covering G Standard you can’t take the regular gauge strings and crank them up that far—they’ll either burst or the guitar’s neck will give way.
Instead, replace these four strings with those of a much lighter gauge. Traditionally, this was done by taking the octave strings from a 12-string set. Doing this leaves you with a full set for standard tuning, as well as some spares.
If this sounds too difficult, you can also buy Nashville Tuning sets.
Six Versus Twelve
If you own a 12-string guitar, you might struggle to see the point of this. That said, Nashville tuning has some key advantages. It’s:
- Cheaper than owning and maintaining a 12-string
- Easier to play
- Kinder to your fingers
- Electric 12-strings are less common than acoustic ones, limiting your choice of sound. By contrast, Nashville tuning can be played on ANY 6-string guitar
It’s not just about producing a 12-string’s characteristic jangle. Adding a Nashville part to an existing six-string recording creates clarity and richness, lifting it in the mix. Plus, if you capo the Nashville guitar, you’ll have pseudo-mandolin parts.
Alternate tunings can feel like a backward step, as they often involve learning new shapes and patterns. These three tunings are simple, fun, and require little or no new adjustment to your playing.
- So why not try:Drop tuning for rich lows and pedal tones
- G Standard for new voicings and increased upper range
- Nashville tuning for brightness and lift in a mix