I’ve been producing a project where the guitar player has been using a lot of alternate tunings in order to get the overdubbed layers to sound different, so I thought it was time revisit the subject again in a post.
Sometimes changing the tuning of a guitar from standard to some alternate tuning can create a different sound that really makes a song sparkle or a guitar stand out from the track. In this excerpt from The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook (co-written with my good buddy Rich Tozzoli), we’ll take a look at the different types of alternate tunings available as well as provide a few examples of it being used songs that you’ve probably heard before.
“Like an electric, the standard tuning for an acoustic guitar is E-A-D-G-B-E (low to high), where the pitch of each note is referenced to a standard pitch (A = 440.0Hz). However, the guitar is an easy instrument to experiment with alternate tunings in order to create a whole new palate of sonic possibilities. These tunings can be placed into several subcategories, such as open tunings, lower tunings, higher tunings, dropped tunings and double drop tunings.
Open tunings allow the guitarist to play a chord without any fretting, and has long been a favorite of the blues greats, especially those specializing in the slide guitar. You’ve heard Open G tuning, D-G-D-G-B-D, on many of the Rolling Stones hits including “Start Me Up,” “Brown Sugar” and “Honkey Tonk Women.” It was also a favorite tuning of Mississippi Delta bluesmen Son House, Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson.
Open A tuning (E-A-C#-E-A-E) was famously used by The White Stripes on “Seven Nation Army” (although that’s not acoustic), and Open D tuning (D-A-D-F#-A-D) is favored by 60’s folk giant Richie Havens.
Another popular tuning, D-A-D-G-A-D, is sometimes called D modal or Celtic tuning. You’ve heard it on Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and “Black Mountainside,” and the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water.”
Drop tunings lower just the 6th string of the standard tuning, with Drop D being one of the most popular. Drop D is tuned as D-A-D-G-B-E and is used by Soundgarden (“Spoonman”), Creed (“Higher”), Radiohead (“Optimistic”) and Led Zeppelin (“Moby Dick”). Drop C (C-G-C-F-A-D) would be a full step down from Drop D.
With double drop tunings, the 1st and 6th strings are dropped a full step, so Double Drop D is laid out as D-A-D-G-B-D. This was used by Neil Young on his hits “Cinnamon Girl,” “When You Dance,” “The Loner” and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio.” Double Drop C (C-G-C-F-A-C) is a full step down from Double Drop D.
With lower tunings, all six strings are tuned down, but stay in standard tuning. An Eb tuning drops each string down a half-step and has been very popular with some of the greatest guitar players of our time such as Edward Van Halen, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix and Slash.
D tuning (D-G-C-F-A-D) where each string is tuned down a full step, is a favorite of John Fogarty, Dream Theater and the Nirvana hit “Come As You Are.”
C tuning would be down two full steps to C-F-Bb-Eb-C-G, and has been used by Queens of the Stone Age and other metal bands. Tunings even lower are favored by Swedish death metal bands, but string tension will be quite low on some of these tunings, causing tuning and intonation problems.
Higher tunings, which are not used as much with acoustic guitars, will increase the string tension. F# tuning would be one full step up from standard with the strings at F#-B-E-A-C#-F# and G tuning (also sometimes called Third tuning) is G-C-F-A#-D-G. Not all acoustic instruments can handle these tunings, so it might be better to use a capo instead.”
As you can see, not only will alternate tunings make you guitar sound different even with the same guitar and amp settings, but it can also be an quite an inspiration when it comes to songwriting. Give it a try.
You can read more from The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.