A Crash Course in Alternate Tunings

Is your playing in a rut? Are you looking for something to spark your creativity and experimentation? The solution may lie in a few twists of your machine heads. Dive in as we journey to the land of alternate tunings!

Open D… definitely will bust you out of a rut with interesting sounds!

Since you are tuning up a few of the lower strings one full step, lighter gauge strings are recommended. 

Drop D tuning

(low to high: D A D G B E)

First up is a simple one – Drop D tuning. Take your standard tuned guitar (low to high: E A D G B E) and drop the low string one whole step from E to D. Now fret an open D chord and strum all 6 strings. It sounds full and thick, since we’ve added a lower D note to the chord. Moving chord shapes around the neck with that low string droning out makes for some cool sounds.

Another benefit of this tuning is the ability to play root-6 power chords with one finger. This facilitates some quick riffing, as was popularised in the early 90s by heavy rock bands such as Alice In Chains, for its thick sound and easy power chord shapes.

The traditional power chord shape results in a suspended chord sound that also became popular in the 90s – think Foo Fighters “Everlong”.

To keep the right tension on the detuned strings, Rotosound has designed a number of hybrid gauge sets featuring heavier bottom strings. Check out the Roto Orange, Roto Blues, and of course the heavyweight Darkzone set.

Double drop D tuning

(low to high: D A D G B D)

Next, take your high string and tune it down one whole step from E to D. The result is called Double Drop D tuning. Now you can add a droning high D note with your chord shapes as you move across the neck, resulting in a richer sound.

DZ10 Rotosound Roto Darkzone Dark Zone DZ 10 Nickel regular Light Top Heavy Bottom Hybrid Gauge Electric Guitar Strings giutar guage stings srings rock palm muting 60 drop tuning
Rotosound's Darkzone strings are designed for drop tuning

Open D tuning

(low to high: D A D F# A D)

Now, let’s take our double dropped D guitar, and detune a few more strings. This time, drop the 2nd string (B string) down one whole step to A, and the 3rd string (G string) down a half step to F#. Remember to re-check the tuning of all strings as some strings may have drifted slightly.

The result is that now a strum of all 6 open strings sound out a D major chord. This tuning is called Open D. An open tuning gives you a full chord with open strings, and allows you to play that same type of chord (in this case, a major chord) all over the neck with one finger. This is especially useful for slide players to be able to slide in and out of full chords.

Open D offers shapes for major and minor chords without too much adjustment, and definitely will bust you out of a rut with interesting sounds!

Rosie Frater Taylor Bloom 2
DAD-GAD is a common tuning for folk-inspired musicians such as Rotosound player Rosie Frater-Taylor

DAD-GAD Tuning

(low to high: D A D G A D)

With your guitar in Open D, raise the 3rd string up a half step to G and you arrive at DADGAD. This is a popular tuning that sounds a Dsus4 chord when you strum the open strings. Inspired by Celtic music, and the folk music from overseas, this tuning is neither major or minor, which opens up plenty of richness and avenues for exploration, particularly while using open strings as drones as you use movable chord shapes up and down the neck. The tuning is a staple of folk or rock guitarists such as Roy Harper, Neil Young, and Jimmy Page.

Open E tuning

(low to high: E B E G# B E)

Raising each string up a whole step on a guitar tuned to open D yields Open E tuning. This tuning uses the same shapes as Open D, so you can instantly transfer your vocabulary to it. It is also a favourite tuning for slide players, and has been used extensively on recordings by The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.

A word of warning: since you are tuning up a few of the lower strings one full step, lighter gauge strings are recommended. Rotosound’s Rotos range includes a wide choice of lighter gauge strings.

r8 Rotosound Roto nickel wound electric guitar strings. Best quality affordable giutar string for rock pop country metal funk blues
Light gauge strings like these Roto Greens are a wise choice for tunings where strings are raised in pitch.

Open G tuning

(low to high: D G D G B D)

On a standard tuned guitar, dropping the 6th, 5th, and 1st strings down one full step leads to Open G tuning. This is another example of an open tuning, where strumming all the open strings sound a chord – in this case – G major. Like other open tunings, you can use a single finger to play full major chords.

It is also easy to transfer your standard tuning vocabulary using the 4th, 3rd, and 2nd strings directly to this tuning, and combine accordingly with the detuned strings. This open tuning is very popular, and was used frequently by Keith Richards, Led Zeppelin, The Black Crowes, and plenty of Mississippi Blues artists such as Robert Johnson.

Let your creative juices flow

Pick one of these alternate tunings, tune your strings accordingly, and experiment. A good place to start is with your usual chord shapes. See how they sound in the new tuning. Alternate tunings are especially fun to combine movable chord shapes with open droning strings. See what kind of sounds you can come up with.

Learn how to adjust your familiar shapes to figure out new shapes for major, minor, seventh, and suspended chords by applying your knowledge of theory to the changed intervals between strings. Once you figure out a few basic moveable chords, you’ll find a wealth of creativity just waiting to be unleashed! Most of all, have fun with it!

As alternative tunings can change neck tension, you may find that you need to change your string gauge. Check out Rotosound’s Roto range, which is a great place to start.

Guitar Tricks

By Shawn Leonhardt for Guitar Tricks and 30 Day Singer

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