When learning to play guitar, most beginners start in what is considered “Standard” tuning: E – A – D – G – B – E. Some of our favorite riffs and songs have been written in standard tuning for many decades, which is the most common. Alternative tunings are when a single string, or group of strings, is tuned to a different pitch. Also under the umbrella of alternate tuning is “Open” tuning. Open tunings happen when the strings are tuned in such a way that when all open strings are strummed, it produces a chord. One of the best examples of this are songs from The Rolling Stones. Keith Richards is a big fan of open G tuning, which is: D – G – D – G – B – D. This produces a G chord when strummed open, giving way to a whole different set of chord voicing and fingerings.
There are a substantial number of alternate and open tuning combinations that have been explored and used for compositions over the years. Some alternative tunings, such as those in folk music, were created so that certain notes could drone while playing, giving the folk songs a kind of eerie tonality. Alternate tunings are also very common in traditional European and Eastern music to provide some ethnic characteristics to the music.
Some tunings just require the changing of one string, like the very popular “Drop D” tuning. In this tuning, the low E string is tuned down to D, while all the others remain the same. This tuning is very common in rock ‘n’ roll and heavy metal music. The dropped D makes it possible to play power chords with one finger barred across the fretboard. Some users of open tunings include Duane Allman and Derek Trucks, who, as slide players, use alternate tunings for the compositions.
Alternate and open tunings also create new fingerings and chord shapes on the guitar—sometimes making difficult chords in standard tuning easier to play, like the example above of Drop D tuning. There is no shortage of online resources that list a number of the most popular alternate and open tunings. Songwriters will use some of these tunings in writing new material if they feel stuck or are trying to achieve a different kind of sound and vibe.
If you want to get some ideas, check out guitarist/bands such as Kaki King, Vicki Genfan, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, and Albert King. Exploring the different tunings is a great way to expand creativity and add some variety to your playing and songwriting. I highly recommend giving it a try—the sky’s the limit with all the sonic possibilities!
Also, be sure and check out our lessons section articles “Acoustic Fingerpicking Basics” and “Demystifying the Fretboard,” which will introduce you to fingerpicking and the CAGED system.