As soon as you re-tune the strings on your guitar an entirely new world of harmonic possibilities becomes available. Although strange at first, many of the chord voicings available through the the use of alternate tunings are impossible to under standard tuning. This is what draws many guitar players into discovering and using them. They help you to break into new sonic ground on guitar and give your ears a burst of new tonal colour.
Alternate tunings are not haphazard way or random in any way. In fact, each string is tuned just as precisely as the standard tuning you already know and use. There are a number of famous alternate tunings which have been used extensively already and some bands such as The Rolling Stones, The Black Crowes and Coldplay employ the use of alternate guitar tunings extensively.
Drop D Tuning
This tuning is probably the most well know alternate tuning of all as has been used by everyone from Bob Dylan on acoustic folk ballads along with John Denver and James Taylor to heavy grunge songs by Alice In Chains on electric guitar and Pearl Jam. The Dropped D is considered one of the easiest tunings to get started with because only one string (the low E or 6th string) is altered. It changes from an E and is tuned down a whole step to D meaning that the rest of the guitar remains just as you are used to it.
With the 6th string tuned to D you now have a very strong and resonant D bass note and this immediately opens up the key of D on guitar in a huge way. Here is the exact tuning should you wish to try it.
1st – E | 2nd – B | 3rd – G | 4th – D | 5th – A | 6th – D
Start off by playing a D chord and listen to how the bass note on the 6th strings adds a massive amount of depth and security to the key. With standard tuning the lowest note on a guitar is E so a truly low D bass note (sitting a whole step below it) simply isn’t possible. In drop D however it is. Classical guitarists rarely emply the use of alternate tunings with one exception – dropped D.
Obviously the key of D is the mostly widely used when it comes to a dropped D tuning however the keys of G and A will also work very well.
Pronounced DAD GAD by guitarists this tuning is very popular. When you strum all 6 strings the sound of a Dsus4 chord is heard and the absence a 3rd makes it sound very neutral being neither major nor minor. Many things are possible in this tuning which are quite impossible on standard. Here’s how to tune your guitar for DADGAD
1st – D | 2nd – A | 3rd – G | 4th – D | 5th – A | 6th – D
As with practically all alternate tunings you’ll find yourself making extensive use of open strings with your chord shapes. Often the intervals which occur between the notes in a chord can overlap and reverse whenever open strings are mixed with fretted notes and this can make for some strikingly beautiful chords. While D again is a very popular key in this tuning the key of G major is also very rewarding (D being the V chord of G which is of extreme importance in any major key).
One useful tip is to begin by learning how to form the major and minor triads in your chosen key when experiment by allowing different notes and open strings to blend in with the triad. This is very much like combining colours on a canvas and you’ll quickly find out that an entirley new world of sonic colour is out there just waiting to be discovered. It’s fine to start with the suggested fingerings from books but you should very soon after start making up your own.
The whole spirit behind guitar alternate tunings is that of breaking away from the old so embrace that and build your own collection of chords and voicings with each tuning you study.
How To Learn Alternate Tunings?
There a number of free resources online which will help you discover and explore all the new and unfamiliar chord shapes with alternate tunings. Typically these come in guitar fretboard maps which will allow you to enter how each string is tuned and the chord you’d like to play. The software will then generate every conceivable place where those notes occur so you can see all the possible shapes.
Starting in this way you can take something which is totally foreign to you at first and gradually find some common ground to build on. Start by simply looking for the shapes of the most common major chords in your chosen key and print out some chord boxes so you can write out your own collection of chord shapes and voicings. Once you have been through all 7 chords in the key and have a number of different types of chords and alterations written out for each you’ll have more than enough to start experimenting with progressions using the tuning and I’m quite sure you’ll be amazed at the results you’ll get.
If you’re a songwriter many new tunes are going to come out very quickly.
Don’t rush into trying to master a new tuning on guitar. After all, they should be given the same dedication and respect as standard tuning. In fact, from a certain point of view, standard tuning is itself an alternate tuning on guitar… they all are!