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Alternative Tunings: Demystified

Alternative Tunings: Demystified

Posted by Robinson Earle on Feb 16th 2019

One of the great things about the guitar is its versatility. It can be employed as a lead, rhythm, or solo instrument. Players can decide between a myriad of body, wood, design, and electronic options. Much of the world’s music has already been arranged for it. These are all compelling virtues, but one of my favorite things about the guitar is that you can re-tune it.

“Standard” tuning is the standard because it was discovered at some point in the guitar’s evolution that this particular arrangement of pitches not only suited the length of its strings, but allowed the player to easily transition between scales and chords. Up to that point, most stringed instruments in western music were tuned in fifths (Do, *, *, *, So, *, *, *,Re, *, *, *, La), whereas the guitar is mostly tuned in fourths (Do, *, *, Fa, *, *, Ti, *, *, Mi). However, in order to make the most of the six string design harmonically, it was decided that by employing one third interval, you could efficiently arrive back at the tonic (Do, *, *, Fa, *, *, Ti, *, *, Mi, *, So, *, *, Do).

On the fretboard, this can be demonstrated by fretting the 6th string on the fifth fret. When struck, it should now produce the same note as the open 5th string. Fret the 5th string on the 5th fret and it produces the same tone as the open fourth string. The same principle applies to the fretted 4th string, but the 3rd string must be fretted on the 4th fret to produce the same tone as the open 2nd string. To tune the open first string, you return to the fifth fret on the 2nd string. This nearly consistent interval series between the strings gave the instrument a semblance of symmetry. Composers and players adopted this as the norm and standard tuning was born.

The idiosyncrasy of standard tuning resulted in guitarists formulating different patterns, shapes, and scales that allowed one to more easily navigate the fretboard. This is both a blessing and a curse, as one could toil endlessly memorizing all these secret handshakes without ever playing any actual music. The CAGED sequence and pentatonic/modal boxes are a tremendous help, but it’s important to remember that their principal function is to allow the player to project some “order” onto the fretboard, not to dictate or confine your playing. That said, unlike a keyboard where all the notes, both harmonic and enharmonic, are laid beneath your fingers in a linear fashion that can be easily dissected and experimented with, the “right notes” on a guitar can feel like a tiny archipelago in a shark-infested sea!

Part 1 - DADGAD

After playing guitar in standard for many years, the familiar patterns that got me started were beginning to feel like a prison. I decided to sail out into the uncharted waters of DADGAD. This mysterious-sounding, deeply-forgiving (if you’re in D) tuning seamlessly shifts between major and minor moods, making it easy to wander around droning open strings and projecting simple melodies on top of exotic, easily-shaped chords. Simply strumming all the open strings together results in a DSus4 chord with no 3rd (the third being the defining feature in a major or minor triad). Some players, like Pierre Bensusan, have transposed very complex pieces into DADGAD, but it was its immediate accessibility and potential for songwriting that appealed to me. Suddenly the sharks were gone and I could sail about as I pleased!

I eventually discovered a handful of chord shapes that allowed me to play with other musicians (while making liberal use of a capo):

As simple as these shapes might seem, they actually give you quite a lot of options for experimentation. The beauty of DADGAD is the vast majority of the strings you see x’d out above actually work. I’ve omitted these notes for the sake of accessibility, but its just as easy if not easier to play a Bm7 or a C69 as it is one of these reductive examples. Pretty chords abound once you start exploring. Pick one of these shapes and introduce some of the surrounding open strings. Try moving one finger up or down a fret, then try moving a whole shape around. Most of it sounds great!

Part 2 - Open D

Just a half step away from DADGAD is a big, open D Major tuning known as open D (D,A,D,F#,A,D). It is thought to have originated in the mid 19th century in the American Midwest. A school teacher named Henry Worrall used it as the basis for his composition, “Sebastopol”, a strangely cheerey composition inspired by the bloody siege of the titular Russian naval base during the Crimean war.

It had become fashionable for high-class ladies to entertain guests with an instrument and Worrall found a position teaching guitar at the Ohio Female College. He published a method book called “Worrall’s Guitar School”, which was widely circulated. Over time, his tunes and tunings found their way into the American folk canon. Many blues guitarists adopted Open D for it’s utility when playing with a bottleneck slide. “Sebastopol” morphed into “Vastapol”, “Vestapol”, and other such corruptions, and became a synonym for the tuning itself. 

The beauty of open D is its redundancy and its symmetry. You really only need to memorize the notes on three strings. The outer strings (1st & 6th) are octaves, making it extremely easy to play melody lines while droning the bass. The 2nd and 5th strings are also octaves. Only the 3rd string is unique.

It’s just a D major chord spelled out across all the open strings. Major chords are created by combining the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of a major scale, so Open D could also be viewed as 1,5,1,3,5,1. It’s also worth noting that the intervallic structure of “Open E” is the same as Open D, so all the fingering remains the sames. Just tune all the strings up a whole step.

When devising chords for an Open Major tuning, it’s helpful to first locate all the triads implied by the major scale itself. In this case: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D can be divided into:

I/DMaj=D,F#,A (just play all the open strings, or barre the 12th fret)

ii/Em=E,G,B

iii/F#m=F#,A,C#

IV/GMaj=G,B,D

V/AMaj)=A,C#,E

vi/Bmin)=B,D,F#

viio/C#dim)=C#,E,G

There are also a handful of useful, ascending/descending shapes in Open D that may already sound familiar to you. They’ve been employed in countess compositions:

Part 3 - Open G

Open G, or “Spanish” tuning also spread via the aforementioned Midwestern school teacher, Henry Worrall. This tuning was employed for his, “Spanish Fandango”. You might have already guessed that all the strings played open produce a big G chord, but it’s a different inversion than open D or E. It actually gives dominance to the V of the G chord, the D: DGDGBD.

Some find this particular arrangement non-intuitive because you no longer have the tonic, or I (G), on the outermost strings. In fact, Keith Richards famously removes his low 6th string when using this tuning so that his rhythmic right hand can count on the lowest note being a G. Interestingly, GDGBD is the standard tuning for a banjo!

That said, all six strings can be mastered with enough practice. You simply have to train your right hand to treat the 5th string as your “resting place”/bass note and avoid lingering too long on the 6th string. It’s similar to the way one would pick an open A chord in standard tuning. You can even get a nice I-V(low)-I bass line going!

Here are some useful shapes in Open G (notice the fingering similarities to open D/E)

It’s also worth reiterating that open G and open D/E tunings are very popular among slide guitar players. Robert Johnson wrote many of his tunes in open G. Bukka White (incidentally, BB King’s uncle), played in D and G. Duane Allman and Derek Trucks like open E.

The Hawaiian slack key tradition also makes use of various open major and major 7th tunings. A slack key guitar ensemble may even employ multiple tunings simultaneously to create a l

ush, sonic landscape. It is said that the native bards of the Big Island developed these tunings independently to make the guitars left by Portuguese and Spanish cattle ranchers sound “sweeter”. Being a culture deeply rooted in the natural world, open G is called “Taro Patch”, and many slack key virtuosos strive to capture the staggering beauty around them within the shiver of their six strings. The Hawaiian music craze of the 1920s undoubtedly played a role in the proliferation of open tunings, as well. The aforementioned Bukka White, for example, played a National Style O with an iconic palm tree etching on the back. 

Part 4 - Open C

I first encountered this tuning when learning American Primitivist guitarist, John Fahey’s, “Sunflower River Blues”. It is a wonderfully wide-open tuning with a deep low bass note. It has subsequently become my favorite tuning for slide.

From standard, you tune your 6th string down to a C (2 whole steps), your 5th string down to a G (1 whole step), your 4th string down to a C (1 whole step), but your 3rd and 1st strings remain the same (G and E, respectively) and your 2nd string goes up to a C (½ step): CGCGCE. This tuning is unique in the it goes both up and down. The highs get higher and the lows get lower. It is quite expansive.

Having the tonic on the low 6th string is quite nice, but having the E (the third of the C major chord:CEG) on the 1st string takes some getting used to. Once you’ve adapted, however, this configuration proves ideal for carrying melody lines with a slide.

Here are some chord shapes for open C tuning:

Conclusion

Bear in mind that any of the open major tunings can be rendered minor by simply flatting the third (DADFAD, DGDA#CD, CGCGCD#). You can also find some interesting harmonies in Major7 tunings, such as CGCGBE. There are nearly limitless possibilities for exploration!

Being a musician is all about communicating the sounds in your head, and as a guitarist, you’re eventually going to run into a piece or idea that requires you to branch out from standard tuning. Alternative tunings helped me understand and explore music through the unique lens of my instrument. Hopefully this brief introduction will motivate you to start cranking those gears. I recommend finding an alternative tuning that speaks to you and transposing a simple tune into it. Enjoy!