Alternate tunings are a great way to spice up your playing and find new inspiration. It may seem intimidating to change all the notes that you’ve worked so hard to learn, but it doesn’t have to be difficult, and the rewards are new sounds and new ideas. You can get started with any guitar you have, steel or nylon, and it’s not necessary to use different strings. A chromatic tuner can be helpful. Here are a few tips to get you started on the path.
- Dropped D
- Major Chord
- Get Sus (DADGAD)
- Leverage What You Know
- Embrace the Unknown
- Intervals Instead of Chords
- Try a Song You Know
- Use Your Ears
1. Break the Ice with Dropped D
Lowering your sixth string a whole step so that it sounds an octave below the fourth string puts you in dropped D, an easy and effective introduction to alternate tunings. Everything but string 6 remains the same as standard tuning, so you can continue to use chord shapes and scales you already know. But strumming an open D chord across all six strings gives you a huge sound instead of the relatively weak D chord in standard tuning.
Having octave Ds on strings 4 and 6 provides strong bass support as you play higher up the neck in the key of D. Just remember to adjust any chords that use the sixth string, playing that string two frets higher than in standard. For example, you can form an open G chord by fretting string 6, fret 5, and string 1, fret 3; and muting string 5.
2. Tune to a Major Chord
A string configuration like open G (lowest string to highest, D G D G B D) or open D (D A D F# A D) is so named because the open strings are tuned to a chord. Open G is a beautiful and accessible tuning that is easy and fun to explore. You can access the I, IV, and V chords in the key of G by playing the open strings and then barring at the fifth and seventh frets, making it a great tuning for playing slide.
For a classic open-G sound, play the open strings, then form what would be a two-finger Am7 chord in standard tuning. Also try sliding that shape up to the third fret. Once you are comfortable with open G, you can replicate many of the same sounds in open D simply by shifting the shapes over by one string. You can also try their sad-sounding counterparts, open G minor (D G D G Bb D) and open D minor (D A D F A D).
3. Explore Sus Tunings
Another common type of tuning replaces the major or minor third with a suspended fourth or second. The most popular example is DADGAD. The open strings in the key of D are all roots and fifths, except string 3, which is the fourth in the key of D, creating a more ambiguous, unsettled sound.
You can find the I, IV, and V chords in DADGAD using just one finger. Play string 3, fret 2, to form a D power chord; string 5, fret 2, for a G chord; and string 4, fret 2, for A7sus4 (omitting string 6). It’s easy to find melodies in the key of D in DADGAD because the notes of the D major scale occur on the open strings and at the second and fourth frets across all six strings.
Other common sus tunings include C G D G C D (aka Orkney), E A D E A E (E7sus4), and D A D E A D (Dsus2).
4. Leverage What You Already Know
Many tunings can be related to some tuning you are already familiar with, like standard. For example, in open G, dropped D, and standard, strings 2, 3, and 4 are all tuned the same. In open G, the remaining strings have been lowered by a whole step (the equivalent of two frets) from standard.
So, if you wanted to find a way to play an Am7 chord in open G, you could start by fingering that two-finger open shape you know in standard tuning. The notes will be correct on the middle strings. You’ll just need to move the notes on strings 1 and 5 up by two frets.
5. Embrace the Unknown and Unusual
A big reason to use an alternate tuning is to get unique chord voicings that would be difficult to achieve in standard, so don’t spend too much effort trying to exactly replicate standard tuning chord sounds. For example, the I, IV, and V chords described above for DADGAD sound different than their standard tuning counterparts. That’s the whole point—to get new fresh sounds.
Don’t be afraid to explore. Find a shape that sounds nice and try moving it around the fretboard to see how it sounds against the open strings. Just put your fingers down in random places and see what sounds come out. Remember that a shape that sounds dissonant when strummed may sound quite nice when arpeggiated or fingerpicked.
6. Focus on Intervals Instead of Chords
Ringing open strings are part of the appeal of open tunings, so we tend to focus less on complete six-string chord shapes or barre chords. For example, in DADGAD tuning, play string 6, fret 5, and string 3, fret 4; arpeggiate across the strings, skipping the fifth. Now move that shape up two frets (to string 6, fret 7, and string 3, fret 5), again including open strings. We can think of those two shapes as G and Am, although the chords are in fact more complex variations.
For other interesting sounds, move that shape all over the fretboard, allowing the fretted strings and open strings to interact.
7. Learn or Arrange a Popular Song in an Alternate Tuning
A good way to go beyond just noodling with open strings is to learn a specific song with its defined harmony and melody. Pick a three-chord folk tune, or a pop hit that you know, and find the chords in a new tuning, using your ear or your knowledge of basic harmony to work out fingerings. There are also free chord charts online for almost any alternate tuning.
8. Use Your Ears
When in standard tuning, it’s easy to fall into a rut and mindlessly play what falls under our fingers. One fun aspect of alternate tunings is that our go-to shapes and patterns are disrupted. Find something that sounds nice just by randomly noodling in an alternate tuning. Then stop and listen. What do your ears tell you the next note or chord should be? Hear it first, then go find it. Being lost can help you consciously create melodies and chord progressions rather than relying on well-worn patterns.
Of course, the only rule is to have fun exploring a changed musical landscape, so dive in and see what you can create!
Below is the notation for Doug Young’s DADGAD arrangement of the traditional song “The Water Is Wide,” which corresponds to what he plays at the end of the accompanying video.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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