by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
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. But these tunings have drawbacks, too. Since the pitches of the strings have changed and standard chord shapes and scales no longer apply, an unfamiliar tuning can leave you disoriented and fumbling on the fingerboard. And in performance, constantly retuning can be a drag for you and the audience, stalling the momentum of your show.
Fortunately there is a way to get some of that alternate-tuning mojo without straying too far from what you know: By retuning the bass strings while leaving the rest in standard tuning. This is the idea behind drop-D tuning, where you simply lower the sixth string to D—a quick and straightforward adjustment from standard tuning that extends the low end. If you explore beyond drop 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. That’s what you’ll do in this Weekly Workout, using two lowered bass tunings, G6 and dropped C, as employed by such guitar luminaries as Lonnie Johnson, Chet Atkins, Lindsey Buckingham, and Richard Thompson.
First, get set in G6 tuning [see tab below]: From low to high, the notes are D G D G B E. Tune your sixth string down to D (as in drop-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.
To get oriented in G6 tuning, try out the basic chord shapes in Ex. 1. With the G chords, you’ll immediately see how nice it is to have a G bass note on the open fifth string. That means you can easily move up the neck on the treble strings—up to the seventh or tenth fret, as shown in measures 2 and 3, or higher—and still have a low root. (If you want to put a low D, the fifth of a G chord, in the bass, you can add in the open sixth string as well.)
With the D shapes, you can also take advantage of the low open-string root (D on the sixth string) to play up the neck and still have a deep bass note, as in measure 5. Play the D in measure 4 as a first-finger barre. For a C chord, you have to move up to the fifth fret to play a root in the bass, but the open-position C/G in measure 6 is a rich voicing too.
Some of these chord shapes are movable, including the C in measure 6, the Am in measures 7 and 8 (if you leave out the open first string), the Am7 in measure 9, and the F in measure 10. Try moving these shapes around the neck to form different chords.
Now try Ex. 2, a simple fingerpicking pattern in a relaxed style reminiscent of Hawaiian slack key. Take advantage of the low D on the sixth string for the alternating bass under the G and D chords. The example makes the most of the open strings and adds a little melody over the ringing bass notes.
G6 tuning works beautifully for melodic fingerstyle, as you can hear, for example, in Chet Atkins’ renditions of “Vincent,” “Yellow Bird,” and “Wreck of the John B”; Eric Lugosch’s arrangement of “The Eighth of January,” and Don Ross’ tune “Leger de Main.”
To hear a sampler of G6 songs on Spotify, look up the playlist “Songs in G6 tuning.”
Check out a couple more examples of what you can do in G6 tuning. Ex. 3 is a little waltz that demonstrates how the tuning makes it easy to play melodies and chords up the neck. Start in seventh position, and in measure 5 take advantage of the open strings to maneuver down to open position and then climb back up in the last two bars.
G6 tuning isn’t just good for gentle, lyrical songs. Early blues/jazz pioneer Lonnie Johnson used the tuning on blues workouts such as “Blues in G” and “Away Down in the Alley Blues.” Doyle Dykes’ blazing instrumental “Hurricanes, Earthquakes, and Tomatoes” is also in G6, as is Catie Curtis’ R&B-flavored “I Still Want To,” and a bunch of hard-rocking Soundgarden songs, such as “Superunknown.”
Ex. 4, the rhythm pattern from my song “Bones,” takes G6 tuning in an acoustic rock direction. Play fingerstyle, using a thumb slap on the G chord as shown in measures 2, 4, 6, and 8, and percussive slaps with your picking hand on the backbeats (beats two and four) throughout. In the chorus (starting in measure 10), the tuning facilitates a cool bass line that descends by half steps under a partial C chord. In the second to last measure, slap the open sixth string twice with your thumb for a little extra propulsion. It feels good.
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—let’s call it drop C. You can hear drop 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). In a song of mine, “My Bad,” the tuning makes possible the signature funky bass line. (Again, you can find a sampler of songs in this tuning on Spotify—search for “Songs in dropped C.”)
Any of the chord shapes from Ex. 1 that use the top five strings still work in dropped C, but listen to those delicious C chords you get in Ex. 5. Try out the D, E, and F shapes, too, which are adjusted for the low C on the sixth string. Note that the big D barre chord shape in measure 3 is movable, as are the E5 and F5 in measure 4.
Ex. 6 is inspired by “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” Get your thumb alternating between the fifth and fourth strings under the G and add the single-note riffs on the top two strings, keeping your first finger planted at the third fret (capo up as indicated to make the stretches easier for your fret hand). Thompson’s intro riff is fancier than this, and he plays at a motorcycle racer’s tempo, but the basic idea is the same.
The payoff for the tuning comes in measure 4, where you can play that sweet, low bass note under the C. I’ve written the bass as alternating between the sixth and fourth strings on the C chord, but you could also go between the sixth and fifth string.
Once you’ve got the G alternating bass locked in, try improvising riffs over it on the treble strings, as Thompson does.
The final example comes from my arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” where I loosely adapted the funky clavinet part into a kind of hopped-up country blues. If you want to sing, try different capo positions to find a comfortable key. To match the original key, you have to capo all the way up at the eighth fret.
I use a pick for this arrangement, but fingerstyle works great, too. Play with a swing feel throughout, and use hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides to spice things up. (I’ve indicated a few.) When you hit the chorus, in measure 9, slide your first finger up to the fifth fret, and then fall off going back to the open strings—play like your finger is a bottleneck.
Get stories like this in your inbox
All of the examples in this lesson have been in the key of G, but bear in mind that you can play in these tunings in other keys as well. Try a song in the key of D in G6 tuning, for instance, or in the key of C in dropped C tuning.
And, of course, you can always capo up to play in other keys. Even though your bass notes won’t be as low with the capo, you’ll have the same intervals between strings that give the tuning its special character.
Learn more about alternate tunings in Guitar Essentials: Alternate Tunings.