Most of the guitar related content you listen to and learn is played in standard tuning, which is E A D G B E.
However, there are many other ways to tune, which opens a lot of doors into new sounds, different approaches to songwriting, more fluidity with certain techniques, and more.
Besides being fun to see how we need to “relearn” the instrument (especially if you’ve already memorized the fretboard), you may well be inspired to write new things that probably wouldn’t have occured to you if you were still playing in standard.
In this KillerGuitarRigs Guide, we’ll take a deep dive into alternate tunings, open and drop tunings, for example (both of which are very popular), as well as some others that aren’t quite as common, such as DADGAD and New Standard Tuning.
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Check out our ultimate guide to music theory to find more jumping off points.
Benefits of Alternate Tunings
Alternate tunings don’t need to be complicated, some of them are actually meant to make some aspects of playing easier, such as Drop and Open tunings.
Drop tunings are perfect for creating heavy riffs with a crunchy distortion sound, and open tunings sound great in a bluesy context, especially if you play with a slide.
Some of these tunings will work best if you set up your guitar specifically for that tuning. This includes adjusting your string gauge, string action, and your truss rod, for instance.
There are no rules that define which tunings can be used with which styles, so experiment to your heart’s content and you might find a sound that suits your individual playing style perfectly. While you’re getting up to speed, following tab for some of your favorite songs in that tuning will give you a good taste of it.
When you’re changing tunings, make sure you’re aware of the strings you need to tune down, and the ones you need to tune-up.
Most of the time, you tune in the direction that allows you to reach the target note faster, for example if you wish to tune an E string to D, it is much easier to just drop it a whole tone than to tighten it up and go through all of the other notes until you get to D. This would most likely break your string, and the increased tension can damage your guitar’s neck.
Standard Tuning and its Variations
E Standard Tuning
As you know, this is the tuning that the majority of players use all the time, and it is also referred to as E Standard Tuning, because of the lowest string being an E.
All strings are tuned in fourths, except for the B string, which is a major third from the G string.
From the lowest string to the highest, we’ve got E A D G B E.
Eb Standard Tuning and Lower Variations
Eb Standard Tuning is achieved by simply tuning all of your strings a semitone lower.
This gives you Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb.
Despite being only a semitone lower than normal, there’s something magical about this tuning that has drawn hundreds of guitarists to it.
It is great for getting a lower, deeper and heavier sound to your riffs, especially if you like playing in the key of E, since your riffs and phrases will now be in Eb.
Countless legends such as Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Slash played and still play in this tuning all the time, and others have followed their footsteps over time.
Some examples of songs in this tuning are:
- Stevie Ray Vaughan – Pride and Joy
- Jimi Hendrix – Voodoo Chile
- Guns n’ Roses – Paradise City
Apart from Eb standard, you can also tune every string even lower, which gives you tunings like D Standard, C# Standard and C Standard tuning.
These consist of the same tuning, only lower by a number of semitones.
As you tune down, keep in mind that your string tension lowers, so compensate for that by using a higher string gauge.
The illustrations below show you the notes that correspond to each tuning:
The following songs were written in these tunings:
- Nirvana – Come As You Are (D Standard)
- Mötley Crüe – Kickstart My Heart (D Standard)
- Black Sabbath – Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (C# Standard)
- Dream Theatre – As I Am (C Standard)
Another great option to explore lower registers on the guitar is to play a baritone guitar.
Baritone guitars tune down a perfect fourth from E Standard Tuning (or 5 semitones).
The main reason why this tuning works best on a baritone guitar is that they have longer scale lengths. This makes it much more comfortable to play than using a regular guitar and tuning down so much lower.
Drop Tunings are some of the most popular choices for players who like to write riffs based on power chords.
This is primarily because they allow you to play them with a one finger barre shape across the lowest three strings.
They have a characteristic sound, but the biggest advantage is that it becomes a lot easier to play certain riffs when you only need to move one simple shape across the neck of the guitar.
With any drop tuning, you might want to look into using a higher string gauge to compensate for the lower tension. It will feel and sound better.
Drop D is certainly the most popular, since it only requires you to tune down your lowest string by a whole tone.
Apart from drop D, there is also a variation of it called “Double Drop D”, which means you drop the low E and also the high E string to D.
Some songs played in Drop D are:
- System of a Down – Aerials
- Wolfmother – Joker and the Thief
- Avenged Sevenfold – Bat Country
With drop C, your starting point is to tune your guitar to D Standard (all strings one whole step down), and then drop the lowest string a whole tone.
It is basically tuning to drop D, but starting from D standard.
Drop B is the same as drop C, but just a semitone lower.
Open tunings have been a favorite among guitarists for decades.
They allow you to play full chords on all six strings of the guitar with just a one finger barre – similar to drop tunings, but not limited to the lowest three strings.
They are an amazing tool for songwriters, slide players, and you can hear them on countless records spanning over several genres from various decades.
Most open tunings such as open D and open G are based around major chords, but there are also “Open Minor” tunings – they’re the same, but the barre shape plays a minor chord instead of a major one.
The most popular open tunings are, Open D, Open G, Open E, Open C and Open A. With most of these tunings, you’ll need to lower the pitch of some of your strings, but pay close attention to cases such as Open E and Open A, in which you need to tighten several strings.
This increase in tension could potentially damage your neck, so make sure to adjust your string gauge, and potentially your truss rod accordingly.
Our guide for tuning 12 string guitars also goes over several open tunings for 12 strings.
Modal tunings are an interesting concept: the strings are tuned in a way that forms a chord that isn’t major or minor (due to the lack of a major or minor third).
They often form a suspended chord on the open strings, which gives them their signature sound.
These tunings allow musicians to create very characteristic and unique melodies or chord progressions while having open strings used as drones.
Some of the most popular musicians that have embraced these tunings include Sonic Youth and the legendary guitarist Jimmy Page, who used the DADGAD modal tuning for songs such as Kashmir and Black Mountain Side.
Some of the existing modal tunings are Dsus4 (DADGAD tuning), Bb modal (Bb F Bb Eb G Bb), used by Neil Young and EEEEBE (Bruce Palmer Modal Tuning), used by Stephen Stills in “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes).
Regular tunings are heard a lot less frequently than Drop or Open tunings. The concept here is that all strings are tuned in equal intervals.
For instance, you’ve probably noticed that in standard tuning, everything is tuned in fourths, except for the B string, which is a major third away from the G string.
This forces us to adapt every fingering and voicing that we play when that string is a part of it. However, with regular tunings, the patterns and shapes are the same across all strings.
The most common regular tunings are , Major Thirds, Perfect Fourths and Perfect Fifths, which you may already know from the circle of fifths.
One aspect you must take into account is that these tunings require you to tune almost every string higher than it would be in standard tuning, so like always, change your string gauge accordingly and take your guitar for a setup if you’re planning on keeping it tuned that way for extended periods of time.
Less Common Guitar Tunings
There are other guitar tunings that you’ll find much less frequently, which is probably because they have a very specific sound, and as such, end up being used on fewer songs in general.
The Ostrich Tuning is an example of a less conventional tuning.
It is a type of trivial tuning, meaning that all the notes are tuned to the same note.
In this case, you tune all the strings to E, covering three different octaves. As you can imagine, it has a very distinctive sound to it.
It has been used in songs such as:
- Soundgarden – Mind Riot
- Velvet Underground – Venus in Furs
- Lou Reed – The Ostrich
Open C6 Tuning is an open tuning that you’ll hear less frequently but is still present on several songs. It is an extended tuning since it plays a chord with a major 6th.
On lap steel guitars, people might tune in Open C6 in different ways, but for a regular guitar, the most common tuning is C A C G C E.
This tuning can be heard in:
- Led Zeppelin – Bron-Yr-Aur
- Soundgarden – Head Down
- Led Zeppelin – Friends
The New Standard Tuning is an alternate tuning that was invented by Robert Fripp from King Crimson, back in 1983.
It has similarities to the all fifths regular tuning since they’re all tuned in fifths, except the highest string, which is a minor third away from the second.
The notes are C G D A E G, from lowest to highest.
This tuning allows chord shapes to be shifted between sets of strings like the regular tunings, and it also has a wider range (lower and higher) than the standard tuning.
Having this wider range allows you to play music that isn’t even possible to play in standard tuning.
This tuning places the neck under higher tension than standard though, and because of that, there are special sets of strings that were put together with New Standard Tuning in mind.
Using an alternate tuning can be a great source of inspiration to write new material, or simply a way to obtain new and unique sounds by exploring all the options that exist.
By rearranging the notes around the guitar’s neck, you will come up with new ideas that you probably wouldn’t have if you were playing in standard tuning.
Make sure you know which strings need to be tuned up and down, and pick a string set that goes well with that tuning, so it feels comfortable while playing.