Q: I have started playing with alternate tunings on my guitar but they don’t always sound great—they’re often buzzy and I can’t get them to stay in tune. What can I do to make this work better?
A: This is a great example of a simple question with a multifaceted answer. A truly well-done guitar setup often involves splitting some fine hairs of action, neck relief, intonation, and more—and alternate tunings certainly can throw some of those fine adjustments out of balance. However, in most cases, a happy medium is possible. When setting up a guitar for a player who uses many alternate tunings, I take a slightly different approach from the usual setup job.
To begin, we want to consider how much variation there will be between the highest and lowest tunings. I seldom encounter alternate tunings with higher pitches or tension than E standard; most of the popular alternates involve tuning down to some degree. Since one of the great satisfactions of lower tunings is the rich, deep bass register, I always want to skew the setup to favor those low notes when I can. This begins with string selection—if a player will regularly be tuning the low E down to a C, for example, I would recommend a thicker string gauge that will give that low C some clarity and depth but will still tolerate tuning to E standard. D’Addario’s very helpful online string gauge/tension calculator has been a real asset for me in this process.
A quick interjection: when changing string gauges, especially to larger ones, it’s important to make sure the nut slots are cut correctly. A few thousandths of difference in diameter can make the difference between a nut that tunes smoothly and one that binds and pinches—annoying in any context, but especially problematic when you are trying to switch frequently between tunings. This is routine work for any competent instrument tech and will always be money well spent. Also, I have noticed that players who retune frequently can wear down the nut slots more quickly, as the windings in the strings act as an abrasive, chewing away the bone. Composite nut materials with self-lubricating qualities (such as the Graph Tech Tusq products) are sometimes advisable in these situations.
Once we’ve chosen the string gauges, other complications begin to arise. Putting thicker strings on a guitar means that the truss rod will likely need adjustment, and this is where the hairsplitting begins. There is a significant difference—nearly 20 percent—in the overall tension of standard tuning versus something like the popular C G D G A D, and the ideal setup for these two tunings would require different truss rod positions. Furthermore, correct setup for the low tuning would probably involve slightly more relief, as the lower-tension bass strings have a wider oscillation. Reality works against you in this case: without adjusting the truss rod between tunings, the higher tuning would have the most relief and the lower tuning would have the least—the opposite of what you want.
In these cases, I generally try to compromise between the lowest and highest tuning tensions and set up the truss rod for that middle tension. For example, using the above tunings, I would set the truss rod ideally with the guitar tuned to D Ab D G Bb Eb, so the variation from ideal position would be minimized in each direction.
Wherever possible, I also recommend that players seek out guitars with rigid necks for playing with alternate tunings. Not only does this minimize neck relief variations, but I and many other builders have found that stiff necks can improve the response of lower-frequency notes. The brilliant Adrian Legg, who has been at the forefront of alternate tunings for decades, has chosen Adamas and other guitars with multipiece laminated necks. Modern guitars with carbon-fiber neck reinforcements are also a good choice.
The same issues of tension arise with the top itself. On a lightly built guitar, there may be noticeably more top deflection with the higher tunings than with lower ones. Because there are not many options available here, I use the same approach of setting the bridge saddle height using a median tuning, in hopes that the uppermost and lowermost ranges will stay close enough to the ideal setup to be satisfactory.
The final struggle is with intonation. It is perfectly reasonable to expect that a .052″ string tuned to E will have a different intonation point than a .058″ or .062″ tuned to low C. Lower tension strings are also often less forgiving in this regard, since it is considerably easier to bend them sharp while playing. In a few cases, I’ve had players bring me low-tuned guitars complaining of intonation issues, and the instrument checked out fine with the electronic tuner—but the demands of actual chordal playing are very different from the controlled workbench environment.
Thicker strings tend to be less flexible, and thus require more intonation compensation. Since these adjustments on an acoustic guitar are usually both time consuming and limited (you can only squeeze so much out of a 1/8″ saddle, after all!), this is where string gauge selection can go a long way. It’s often a question of finding a balance between the string that sounds best at low C, and the string that plays in tune in upper positions. Trying different string compositions (hex core versus round core, and different core to wrap ratios) can also be helpful in dialing in the best choice—alongside an acceptance that perfect intonation is nearly unattainable on any equal-tempered instrument, and guitars are no exception.
Alternate tunings are a fascinating and exciting way to break out of conventional patterns and ruts in practice and composition. I can’t let this question go by without mentioning some important players who have paved the way for this approach—Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, Pierre Bensusan, Will Ackerman, Andy McKee, Antoine Dufour, and many more have proven the creative potential of alternate tunings. More recently, some adventurous players have integrated retuning into the music itself; Jon Gomm and Alexandr Misko are great examples of the musical value of this technique.
With a few careful adjustments, most guitars can be set up to improve the sound and feel of lower tunings, and the results might make the difference you need to continue exploring.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.