Alternate tunings on the guitar are quite alluring: They open the door to unconventional sounds, generate complex chords with easy fingerings, and extend the range of the instrument. Here are some easy—and one unconventional—tunings for you to play around with. Check out the link in each section for examples, notation, and videos.
To get into open G (D G D G B D) from standard tuning, lower both E strings a step to D and lower your fifth string from A to G. Strings two, three, and four stay the same. This is an important thing to remember because it means that everything you already know in standard tuning on those three strings—chord shapes, scale patterns—still applies.
The basic I, IV, V chord progression in G is easy to find just by strumming the open G chord and barring the fifth fret for the C chord (IV) and the seventh fret for the D chord (V). For more, check out this lesson and video.
Dropped-D tuning (D A D G B E) lowers the bass string only slightly but opens up a new world of tonalities and textures. To get into dropped-D tuning, lower your sixth string from E down to D. Use your fourth string as a reference point; your sixth string should be exactly an octave lower than your fourth string. You don’t need to go very far—on a steel-string guitar, it typically takes less than a full turn of the tuning peg.
Keep in mind that any chords played on the top four or five strings (C, A, Am, Bm, etc.) in standard tuning don’t need any modification at all in dropped D. Any chords that incorporate notes on the sixth string, however, will need to be modified slightly—you have to raise the notes on the sixth string up two frets. Learn more about dropped-D tuning here.
If you explore beyond dropped D and lower the bass strings a bit more, you can access a whole range of sounds that are further off the beaten track yet still easy to wrap your fingers and head around. Here are two lowered bass tunings, G6 and dropped C, used by guitar luminaries like Lonnie Johnson, Chet Atkins, Lindsey Buckingham, and Richard Thompson.
To get set in G6 tuning (D G D G B E), tune your sixth string down to D (as in dropped-D tuning), and lower the fifth string to G. If you were to tune the first string down to D, you’d be in open-G tuning, with a G major chord on all the open strings. But leave the first string tuned to E, which gives you the notes of a G6 chord. So the top four strings are still in standard tuning.
Detune a little more: Leave the fifth string at G, but drop the sixth string an additional step to C. People refer to this tuning by different names, but let’s call it dropped C here. You can hear dropped C at work in Chet Atkins’ “Just As I Am,” in slack-key pieces such as Keola Beamer’s “Kapalua Bay,” in Fleetwood Mac’s “Never Going Back Again” (where Lindsey Buckingham capoed up at the sixth fret), and in Richard Thompson’s ever-popular “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” (capo III). Check out more of this lesson here (includes video and notation/TAB).
Try This Unusual Tuning, E B B F# B E, for New Chord Voicings
There isn’t anything particularly difficult about open tunings. Let your ears guide you and don’t worry too much about theory, and you’ll find that alternate tunings will allow you to create chord voicings that are impossible in standard tuning and let you sustain notes you can’t in standard tuning. You can also use alternate tunings to play any song you want—not just originals or obscure fingerstyle tunes.
Let’s take a look at an odd tuning—E B B F# B E—created by modifying a tuning John Renbourn used on “Reynardine.” To get into E B B F# B E tuning, raise your fifth string a whole step, to B (you’ll probably want to use light-gauge strings for this tuning); lower your fourth string a step and a half, to B; and drop your third string a half step, to F#. The popular traditional tune “The House of the Rising Sun” sounds great in this tuning. Check out the rest of this lesson here.
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