11 Alternate Tunings For Every Guitarist’s Knowledge
These fundamental tunings will change the way you play the guitar from drop D to DADGAD and beyond.
Generations of guitarists have extensively researched and mined the E A D G B E tuning, in which the strings are tuned from low to high, for riffs, licks, and chord voicings.
While familiarity is advantageous in terms of the many fretboard shapes and patterns you have spent so much time learning, it can also occasionally work against you because it can be difficult to come up with new chords and licks when playing by habit.
tunings for every guitar
1. Drop D
In many popular music genres, especially rock and metal, this is the most prevalent alternate tuning, and it’s also the easiest to switch from standard tuning. To match the pitch of your open fourth string or “middle D,” which is one octave lower, tune your low E string down one complete step, or two frets, to D.
I’ve discovered that the quickest and simplest method for tuning to drop D is to play the natural harmonic at the 12th fret of the sixth string and tune it down to coincidentally match the pitch of the open fourth string. Listen intently for a gradual slowing of the “beating,” or pulsating, sound until it stops to focus in on the pitch match.
DADGAD is a common tuning among masters of fingerstyle acoustic guitar, including Pierre Bensusan, Phil Keaggy, Martin Simpson, and Mike Dawes. It goes one step further than double drop-D by also lowering the B string of the guitar one whole step, to A.
The result is a Dsus4 chord that has three open D notes in different octaves, two As, and a G. In this tuning, guitarists frequently employ the G string as their main melody-playing string, with the other strings typically acting as open-string drones and practical same-fret octave forms. The Led Zeppelin song Kashmir is probably the most well-known example of a song in DADGAD tuning. Jimmy Page brilliantly combined shifting two-note fretted shapes with open strings in Kashmir, particularly during the song’s recognisable descending sus4-3 chord riff heard between the verses. For this section, Page simply moved alternating two-finger shapes down the fretboard to lower positions while incorporating ringing open strings as common tones in each voicing.
3. Open D
On the original studio version of Street Fighting Man, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones used open D tuning in a non-slide context. He barrowed his index finger across all six strings to create a movable major barre chord shape, which he then embellished harmonically and melodically with two-finger “extensions” to create rich-sounding major add9 and sus2-4 voicings.
Open-D tuning is perfect for playing slide on acoustic guitar, with its thick, tight strings, because of the relaxed tension of the strings and the signature interval stack of a root-fifth-octave power chord on the bottom three strings and a first-inversion major triad (3-5-1) on the top three. Elmore James, the father of the blues, used this tuning on songs like Dust My Broom and other well-known ones because it was one of his favorites.
4. Double drop D
Sound the D natural harmonic on the 12th fret of your fourth string to obtain a reference D pitch for tuning down your high E string. The D note on your B string’s third fret can be used as a reference pitch if you discover that tuning a regular note to a harmonic like this is too challenging to hear and judge due to the difference in tone. Simply pick and hold that note as well as the open high E note, then reach over and tune the open high E note down to D with your pick hand.
With three open D strings – low, middle and high – this tuning is great for crafting drone-y riffs and accompaniments in D major or D minor and presents opportunities to easily finger lush-sounding chord voicings.
5. Open E
Many renowned slide guitarists, including Duane Allman and Derek Trucks, embraced open E tuning – low to high, E B E G B E – as their primary tuning for slide playing once solidbody electric guitars, with their slinkier strings, became popular in the middle of the 20th century. Trucks almost always plays in open E, even when not utilising a slide.
You run a higher risk of breaking a string in open E tuning, especially on an acoustic guitar, because it feels tighter than open D and exerts more force on the neck, causing it to bow more than it would in open D tuning or even standard tuning.
Open E tuning has been explored and used by acoustic players in such folk and rock classics as Little Martha by the Allman Brothers Band (both Duane Allman’s and Dickey Betts’ guitars were tuned to open E for this acoustic duet), Jumpin’ Jack Flash by the Rolling Stones, and She Talks to Angels by the Black Crowes, despite these potentially problematic issues.
6. Open A
Open A tuning, which ranges from low to high in the key of E A E A C# E, is to open G what open E tuning is to open D. It is the same thing one whole step higher and, similarly, for many players, the electric guitar’s counterpart. When the strings are in open A tuning, the D, G, and B strings are all raised one whole step to E, A, and C#, respectively, giving you a voicing that is equivalent to a first-position A chord in standard tuning.
In some of their songs, many other blues greats have made extensive use of the open A tuning on the electric guitar, both for their slide-playing and non-slide fingerpicked riffs. Boogie Chillen by John Lee Hooker and Mean Town Blues by Johnny Winter are two well-known examples.
7. Open G
Another altered tuning that is well-liked by both electric and acoustic guitarists is open G: low to high, D G D G B D. This tuning has a pleasing tone and a relaxed feel in terms of string tension
Jimmy Page used open G tuning extensively in the songs Dancing Days, That’s the Way, and Bron-Y-Aur Stomp. The latter two were performed on an acoustic guitar and were respectively transposed down a half-step (low to high, Db Gb Db Gb Bb Db), and a whole step, to what could also be considered open F. (low to high, C F C F A C). On Jealous Again, Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes used open G tuning that was tuned down a half step to create the song’s catchy, rocking, and distinctly Stones-like electric guitar riffs.
Similar to DADGAD, this tuning has an enigmatic sound and an unresolved character, producing what might be referred to as a Csus2/D (Csus2 over D) chord. The Rain Song by Led Zeppelin is the only well-known song I can think of that employs this uncommon tuning, but it’s a masterpiece that’s well worth studying if you’re a fan of changed tunings and a daring songwriter/composer.
9. Open C
For two of Soundgarden’s biggest hits, Burden in My Hand and Pretty Noose, the late, great singer-songwriter and guitarist Chris Cornell used a particular tuning.
It’s a variant of open C tuning (low to high, C G C G C E), where the B string is tuned down to G in unison with the G string rather than up to C. This unison doubling makes notes played together on those two strings at the same fret, or open, really stand out.
10. Open C6
Open C6 (low to high, C A C G C E), for which the A, G, and high E strings are all tuned properly, the low E and D strings both drop down to C, and the B string goes up to C, is another tuning that Jimmy Page made fantastic use of.
On the acoustic versions of Friends and Bron-Yr-Aur by Led Zeppelin, the guitarist used this tuning. I Will Wait and Little Lion Man, two of Marcus Mumford’s band Mumford & Sons’ biggest hits, were written in open C6 tuning and performed with a capo at the fifth fret.
11. EEEEBE tuning
Despite being odd, the 11th tuning is interesting. It is what is frequently referred to as Bruce Palmer modal tuning, so named in honour of its creator, the late guitarist and bassist for Buffalo Springfield, Bruce Palmer.
The low E, high E, and B strings are tuned normally with this tuning. Then, in harmony with the “middle E” string, the A string descends to match the low E, the D string ascends to E, and the G string descends to E. The outcome is an ethereal, drone-like E5 chord. In the classic Crosby, Stills & Nash song Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, as well as in 4+20 and Carry On with Crosby, Still, Nash & Young, Stephen Stills used this tuning to great effect to create his sitar-like acoustic guitar parts.