This post explores some common — and some of the more obscure — alternate guitar tunings to inspire you to write your next masterpiece.
Have you ever experimented with different guitar tunings? It’s one way to provide a creative spark, and this post explores a host of alternate guitar tunings to instruct and inspire you — as it has so many other songwriters.
C F Bb Eb G C
(Notes are listed from low string to high)
One of the reasons alternate tunings can spark ideas for songwriters is because they make you play the guitar differently, which forces you to experiment with different sounds and shapes on the guitar neck. Not so with C standard tuning, which is tuned exactly like standard E tuning, only two whole steps down. In other words, you can play the guitar exactly the way you’re used to, only what would normally be an E major chord is now a C major.
This tuning is often associated with metal and hard rock bands — it gives guitars a heavier, deeper sound — but for my money, that’s all the more reason to try it if you play another genre entirely, like funk of folk. This just might make your music stand out.
It’s amazing how simply lowering your guitar can make you hear familiar voicings in new ways. An added side benefit: the strings are looser, so they’re easier to bend.
If you’re looking for something new, but don’t want to learn new chord voicings or scales, give this one a shot. Queens of the Stone Age use a C standard tuning pretty often, including on “No One Knows.”
Open G Alternate Tuning
D G D G B D
Open G is an open tuning, meaning the strings are tuned to a chord — in this case, G major. Open G is a favorite among blues guitarists, including Robert Johnson and Keith Richards, in part because it sounds great with a slide. So tune it up and strum it and you’ve got a nice, big, G major. Grab a slide and move it up to the third, fifth, or seventh fret and you’ve got Bb, C, and D major chords, respectively.
One thing to keep in mind when playing around with this tuning is that your D, G, and B strings are exactly the same as in standard E tuning, so this shouldn’t be too difficult a transition to make.
Open G is used in a ton of Stones songs: “Brown Sugar,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’” — in fact, here’s a clip of Richards discussing the virtues of open tuning — but I thought this video offered a nice example of how open G isn’t just for blues:
Open D and E Alternate Tunings
Open D: D A D F# A D
Open E: E B E G# B E
If you like open G, you should try other open tunings as well, like open D (a favorite of Dylan’s) or open E. If you ever struggled to play “Gimme Shelter,” try it with an open E tuning and it’s the easiest thing in the world.
D A D G A D
Similar to open D, but instead of being tuned to a D major chord, this alternate tuning is a Dsus4, which gives your chords a very mystical, middle-eastern feeling. This is a modal tuning, neither major nor minor, and it’s a favorite of Jimmy Page’s. This tuning inspired one of his most famous songs, as he discusses in this video:
The Nick Drake alternate tuning
C G C F C E
Nick Drake used a lot of different tunings, but this was one of his favorites and it gives his most famous songs (like “Pink Moon,” “Which Will,” “Parasite”) their dreamy sound. This is similar to D A D G A D, but in this case, we have a C major chord with an added 4th (rather than a suspended 4th), and that subtle change makes all the difference. Here’s a faithful cover of “Place to Be,” in which you can see the guitarist’s finger work.
D D D D D D (or E E E E E E, etc.)
Lou Reed named this alternate guitar tuning after an early song of his. When he showed this to John Cale, Cale was so impressed he wanted to form a band with Reed, and yada yada yada, the world was given the Velvet Underground.
What appealed to Cale was this tuning’s amazing drone capabilities. Also, because every string is tuned to the same note, even the strings that aren’t being played resonate, giving you a huge sound. Throw some distortion and play with a slide and you’re ready. (It’s also a great tuning for beginners.)
Bruce Palmer modal
E E E E B E
Very similar to the Ostrich, except for that B string. This is named for its creator, who was the bassist in Buffalo Springfield. Palmer taught it to bandmate Steven Stills who would later use this tuning a lot in his early CSN days (and even on “Carey” by Joni Mitchell).
P4 Alternate Guitar tuning
E A D G C F
Jazz guitarists love P4 (perfect fourths) tuning because it’s symmetrical. (Actually, it makes learning the guitar a lot easier.) Here’s a clip of Stanley Jordan discussing it.
E G# C E G# C
This is another alternate tuning for jazz guitarists. M3, short for Major third, has every string tuned a major third higher than the previous one. At first, this may seem pretty weird — if you strum the open strings it gives you an augmented E chord. But it makes chromatic runs extremely easy. Actually, this video by Tony Corman explains it better than I could.
C G D A E G
Developed by King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp in the early ‘80s, this is mostly a perfect fifth system, except for the major third on the high G. There aren’t a ton of good videos with this tuning, but this one does a good job of explaining it and showing how it offers some unique chord voicings.
I figured I’d close out this article by highlighting two artists who have taken the use of alternate tunings to an epic level.
Joni Mitchell has used over 60 different guitar tunings over the course of her career. She even developed her own notation system for each tuning. This website shows you every tuning for every song. It’s worth a look. You may find a tuning of hers that will ignite your creativity.
Atypical tunings are a big part of Sonic Youth’s sound. Where the other tuning systems we’ve covered in this article all tend to fall in the open, modal, or unison families, Sonic Youth’s alternate tunings seem to defy those conventions. In their songs you’ll see tunings like: F# F# G G A A (“Schizophrenia”), G G D D D# D# (“Green Light”), or A C C G G# C (“Theresa’s Sound World”), to name just a few.
Usually, Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore are tuned differently in the same song, which seems counterintuitive, until you realize they each take different approaches to playing the guitar, with Lee being a more traditional guitarist and Thurston being more of a visual player who thinks in terms of physical patterns. At any rate, there is something for every kind of player at every level of ability in their tuning systems, which can all be found here.
What are some of your favorite alternate guitar tunings?
Scott McCormick is a musician and the author of the Mr. Pants series of graphic novels for kids. His new audiobook, Rivals! Frenemies Who Changed the World, has been described as “drunk history for middle-grade kids” and is available on Audible. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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