Consider how many hours you've spent crafting a sound through amplifiers, guitars and effects pedals with the intention of making it your own identity, only to feel that you're lacking that certain something. An alternative tuning is what you're looking for.
In this tutorial, I'll explain how tuning your guitar to a nonstandard tuning gives your music a unique sound and approach and gives you a unique identity.
In this tutorial, I'll cover the following topics:
- String gauges
- Tuning tips
- Multiple guitars
- Types of guitar tunings
Use a chromatic tuner. For tuning at home, a mobile phone application will be sufficient.
For live performing, invest in a chromatic tuner like the popular Boss – TU-3. Speed up the tuning process using a string winder.
2. String Gauges
You should restring a guitar with a different string gauge than the one you're using for standard tuning. This helps keep the appropriate tension across the strings for consistency of tone and ease of playing.
When selecting a string gauge, you should be aiming for a gauge that gives you the same tension that the guitar was set up for, but with an alternative tuning.
The table below shows the average tension of a set of gauge 0.010–0.046 guitar strings.
Let's say you want to up-tune your 6th string from the standard E to an F—a rise of a semi-tone.
- Locate the tension for the 6th string (lower E) with a gauge of 0.046". This will be 17.5 Ibs.
- Now locate the closest string tension to 17.5 Ibs in the F column. The closest is 18.0 Ibs, which gives you a string gauge of 0.044".
You may wish to use the site String Tension Pro in selecting the most appropriate gauge for your alternative tuning.
Be aware that the guitar may bow slightly, which is normal, due to a change in string gauge and tuning. If so, a setup will most likely be required, which will involve altering the truss rod to correct the bow of the neck, and bridge to correct string height and intonation.
You may find Fariz Pahlevi's tutorial on setting up a guitar to be helpful.
4. Tuning Tips
Always start with the 6th string. Once the strings are tuned, pull on each string about an inch between the neck and the bridge, most likely sending them out of tune.
Repeat the process until pulling the strings from the fretboard doesn't alter the guitar's tuning.
5. Multiple Guitars
If you're performing live with, for example, three different alternative tunings, ideally you're going to need three different guitars for the following reasons:
- Repeated tuning wears on strings.
- Strings don't become immediately stable.
- Setup will alter—neck relief, string height, and intonation.
- Retuning takes time.
6. Types of Guitar Tunings
The alternative tunings have been divided into six types:
- Dropped—D, Double D and B
How to Read the Tuning Tables Below
- The top row contains the string numbers—6th string being the lowest in pitch.
- The bottom row contains the pitches. If a pitch is in bold, then this indicates that this string is in non-standard tuning.
Drop D is often the first alternative tuning that everyone tries. It's not surprising given the number of well-known songs that have been created from drop D tuning and that it's quick and easy to do.
Double Dropped D
The same as dropped D but now with the 1st string detuned to D too.
Play a power chord on the 6th and 5th strings in dropped B and the playing octaves.
This is when all the strings are lowered but at the same interval. You may find Ryan Leach's tutorial helpful on intervals.
Lowered tuning is often used in hard rock and heavy metal music. Easy to play with guitars that have a high action or larger gauge strings or simply to keep in range with the voice.
One Half Step Lower
Two Full Steps Lower
Open tuning is where you tune a guitar to a chord.
So, for example, if you strummed the open strings without fretting them, it would play a chord. It can also be good for complete beginners, as you only have to use one finger to barre the strings to perform a different chord.
This tuning is also useful for rhythm or slide guitar.
As the root is played from the 5th string, it's not uncommon to remove the 6th string from the guitar.
The open D often has more bass to the sound than open G. This is due to the root note of the chord being on the 6th string, unlike the open G above where the root lies on the 5th string.
Sometimes referred to as Celtic tuning, this catchily named tuning has found its way into folk and rock music.
Nashville tuning was born in the home of country music. This doesn't mean that it is used by country musicians only. It's the same notes as standard tuning, but with the lower four strings (6th, 5th, 4th, and 3rd) pitched an octave higher.
The EADG strings should be replaced with lighter unwound string gauges. You might want to read Toby Pitman's tutorial for a more in-depth look at Nashville tuning.
Throughout guitar history, artists have made a huge number of inspiring tones. These sounds aren't always created from amps and effect pedals alone. Below are a few guitarists who have sculptured their own sounds by exploring alternative tunings that they have made their own.
- Pipeline/Kill time by Sonic Youth
My Bloody Valentine
- Swoon by My Bloody Valentine
- Place to Be by Nick Drake
- Friends by Led Zeppelin
Alternative tuning can open up a whole new world of possibilities. I hope this tutorial inspires you to write a first piece of music in nonstandard tuning and maybe even to create your own tuning, giving you and your music an individual identity.
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