Throughout my workshops and teaching, I’ve noticed that alternate tunings can intimidate people. Some are concerned because they don’t immediately recognize chord shapes in alternate tunings, while others feel that alternate tunings mean they have to play obscure compositions or write original tunes. But 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—that I came up with 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#.
Example 1 depicts a few chord shapes in this tuning. Notice how easy it is to make the Emaj7, which would be much tougher to pull off in standard tuning. Once you have these chord shapes under your fingers, try the etude in Example 2, which shows how the tuning allows you to play drone notes on the fourth and fifth strings that would be nearly impossible in standard tuning.
I find that the popular traditional tune “The House of the Rising Sun” sounds great in E B B F# B E. I encourage you to explore uncommon tunings like this. Other alternate tunings—like DADGAD or open G—have become so common that they are almost like other standard tunings. But there are many more possibilities, and if you give them a chance you’ll discover that they’re far less intimidating than you think.
Peppino D’Agostino is a virtuoso fingerstyle guitarist, composer, and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
This article originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine and was reprinted in the September/October 2020 issue.