Most guitarists learn to play in EADGBE ‘standard’ tuning, and alternatives can be intimidating. But alt. tunings can pay dividends. One of the best ways to learn is to know what others use and when.
Here’s a very brief starter guide to just a few famous songs and players...
Dropped D (DADGBE, low to high)
An easy one, and widely used across numerous genres and picking styles. It can add depth to some basic chords – D primarily - but G chords will be harder. Double dropped D sees the high E also dropped down to D.
Some examples of dropped D tuning are: The Beatles “Dear Prudence,” Fleetwood Mac “The Chain,” (but capo’d at the second fret). Neil Young “Ohio,” “Harvest Moon” and many more, though Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” is in double drop D. Nirvana “All Apologies” is drop D, but with all strings down a semi-tone. Foo Fighters “Everlong” is drop D and shows the tuning’s powerchord potential. Soundgarden “Black Hole Sun” (main guitar) is drop D, as is Rage Against The Machine “Killing in the Name.”
Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi (arguably) started the trend by tuning down to C# (regular intervals) - but that was more to do with his damaged fretting fingers finding regular tuning tension hard. There are plenty of dropped C songs (some CGCFAD, some CFBbEbGC)…
Queens of the Stone Age “No One Knows” is in regular intervals, but down to C (CFA#D#GC). Steve Vai “Bad Horsie” is CGCFAD = dropped C, like dropped D but down another tone. Bullet For My Valentine and Rammstein have many songs in dropped C tuning. Warning: dropping your ‘standard’-tuned guitar down to C is not always a great idea without altering your set-up/strings.
Open E, D and G
Open tunings are favoured by slide guitarists, but others too. The name signifies that the strings are tuned to play an “open” (without any fretting) major chord. Open E is thus EBEG♯BE – it’s sometime called vestapol tuning. Open D is DADF♯AD. Open G is DGDGBD – often called slack-key tuning.
For slide playing, open tuning is not compulsory… but there are few players who play slide in standard EADGBE tuning. You don’t have to play slide in open tunings, though. Here are a few classics that won’t make much sense unless you switch to open…
The Rolling Stones “Start Me Up,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Street Fighting Man,” “Jumping Jack Flash” and many more are open G. Note that Keith Richards usually removes his sixth string so the lowest tone string is the root of the chord (ie, G). Hence Keef’s self-deprecating description of his playing as “Five strings, two fingers, one a****le.” More on Keith Richards’ open G playing.
The Black Crowes “Twice as Hard” and many others are open G. Indeed, Rich Robinson often tunes to open G but then slaps a capo on. “Remedy” and “Sometimes Salvation” are in open G but with a capo at the 3rd fret, making for an open Bb tuning. “Thorn in my Pride” and the Crowes’ cover of “Hard to Handle” move the capo up to the 4th fret, making them open B. Fun to be had, but don’t get confused!
Yet confusingly, the vestapol (or sebastapol) term is often used for many open-chord tunings. Many lauded bluesmen used open tunings – the actual “root” note would often change - there weren’t digital tuners back in the delta of the early 20th century! Open tuning blues tunes (but not slide) include…
Big Bill Broonzy “Joe Turner Blues” Blind Willie Johnson “John The Revelator” (open E) and “Jesus is Coming Soon” (pitched at G). Many bluesmen of the early 20th century used open tunings. Yet maybe one of the draws for guitar nerds of Robert Johnson is that no-one is exactly certain what tunings he used. Some scholars claim C#G#C#FG#C# - like dropped D but down another semi-tone – is a good bet.
The most important thing is to remember the intervals on any open tuning. Whether your root note is D, G, Bb or A or whatever, the intervals are:
6th string – root note
5th string - 5th note of the major scale
4th string – root
3rd string - 3rd note
2nd string - 5th note
1st string – root
For slide students, note that Derek Trucks plays slide in open E. More slide guitar tips. And, here, even more slide guitar tips.
The origins of DADGAD aren’t obvious. It’s not a slide or blues tuning. DADGAD was popularized by British folk guitarist Davey Graham, some saying he discovered it on a trip to Morocco in the early 1960s. It likely existed in North Africa and elsewhere for many years.
DADGAD is a “modal” tuning, and great for acoustic pickers willing to take the plunge. But it’s been used on many famous rock tracks. Jimmy Page calls DADGAD “my CIA tuning” by which he means Celtic / Indian / Arabian. It’s an apt nickname, as the tuning can offer the pipe-like sounds of Scottish and Irish music as well as the drones of North African, Indian and Arabian musics. Songs in DADGAD include…
Led Zeppelin “Kashmir” and “White Summer/Black Mountain Side.” The late Bert Jansch was a big influence on Page, and Jansch was a peer of Graham and his DADGAD tuning. Slipknot “Circles.” Pierre Bensusan, French acoustic maestro, plays 90% of his tunes in DADGAD.
More DADGAD tuning.
The great Albert Collins was a one-off. Collins tuned his guitar to an open F minor chord (FCFAbCF), and then often used a capo at the 5th, 6th or 7th fret. Unique stuff. If there is anyone out there who employs Collins’ wacko tuning/capo set-up, let us know?
Sonic Youth threw conventional tunings out the window. The NYC noiseniks treat tunings as part of the songwriting process. Even so, their tunings are curveballs.
“Kill Yr Idols” is in GGDDD#D#. “Bad Moon Rising” is in F#F#F#F#EB. And that’s just Thurston Moore. On hit “Teenage Riot”, fellow guitarist Lee Ranaldo went for a tuning redux of GGDDGG - try playing that in a straight-up rockabilly tune.
King Crimson’s Robert Fripp decided to invent an all-new approach in 1984– he calls it “new standard tuning.” It’s CGDAEG, with the five lowest strings in fifths. Need a mnemonic? - "California Guitarists Drop Acid Every Gig." Tuning your guitar is the easy part: playing chords in Fripp’s “NST” is a whole new world.
What’s your favorite alt tuning? Or is it hard enough already to play in EADGBE?