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By Casey van Wensem
At some point in the 16th century, guitarists agreed that the standard tuning for a six-string guitar is EADGBE. While most stringed instruments at the time were (and still are) tuned in fifths, tuning the guitar mainly in fourths, with the exception of one major third between the G and B strings, provided the easiest fingering options for both chords and scales.
Five centuries later, we’ve kept the same standard tuning for guitars in the Western world. But just because something is standard doesn’t mean you should stick with it all the time. Imagine if you wore the same outfit every day or had the same haircut your whole life.
There are literally hundreds of ways to tune a guitar, but not all tunings sound as musical as others. So, if you’re new to alternate tunings, here are five tried-and-true acoustic guitar tunings to get you started.
Open G tuning is easy — all you need to do is detune the sixth, fifth, and first strings by a whole step. This tuning is great for rhythm or slide guitar playing in major keys. With a G major chord as your root, you can play major chords by simply barring all of the strings at the same fret with a single finger or a slide.
Delta blues pioneer Robert Johnson was a fan of open tunings and used Open G for his famous “Walking Blues.” Later, this tuning found its way into plenty of blues-rock songs through the likes of Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones.
Open G isn’t all about the blues, however. Artists from Iron & Wine to Coldplay to Queens of the Stone Age have been known to use this tuning, too.
Open D is another major chord tuning and another popular choice among Delta blues guitarists. This tuning was also a favorite of Bob Dylan, who used it to great effect in songs like “Oxford Town” and “A Simple Twist of Fate.” Although, since his capo was placed on the second fret in “Fate,” it’s technically in Open E.
Unlike Open G, where the root of the G major chord is located on the open fifth string, the low D in Open D tuning is conveniently located on the open sixth string. Because of this, the low D string can be easily used for bass lines. It also sounds great if you just leave it open and let it ring out as you strum.
Tune each string down a full step from Open D, and you’re in Open C. Bring the fifth string up to an A, however, and you’re in C6 tuning. If you let all the strings ring out in this tuning, you’ll get a jazzy C6 chord, but fret the fifth string at the third fret and you’re back to a nice, big, Open C.
Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons is a well-known C6 user. You can hear the droning nature of this tuning on songs like “I Will Wait” and “Little Lion Man.”
To get the most out of this tuning, it may be worth switching to a heavier set of strings, at least for the wound strings. The low C can get pretty floppy if you’re using a light string gauge.
Modal D / Dsus4
This tuning has many names, but most people refer to it simply as “DADGAD.” While it’s close to Open D, the G on the third string turns the open chord in this tuning into a Dsus4. This means there’s no major or minor third to dictate the harmonic direction of your playing. Rather, DADGAD is what’s known as a “modal” tuning.
Guitarist and songwriter Christina Apostolopoulos explains a bit more about this tuning in the video below, courtesy of her DADGAD edition of Soundfly’s free course series Alternate Tunings for the Creative Guitarist.
This modal nature has made DADGAD a favorite of folk guitarists, especially those interested in non-Western music styles. DADGAD was originally popularized in the 1960s by British folk guitarist Davey Graham, who reportedly discovered the tuning while traveling in Morocco. Later, Jimmy Page used DADGAD as his “CIA” tuning for songs with Celtic, Indian, and Arabian influences.
Because this tuning isn’t based on a major chord, it’s not naturally ready for strumming open chords. However, for fingerpicking and more melodic playing, DADGAD opens up a whole new world of possibilities.
“Nick Drake” Tuning
Nick Drake was a particularly inventive user of alternate tunings, and CGCFCE was one of his favorites. This tuning can be heard on several songs on his albums Pink Moon and Bryter Layter, including “Place to Be” and “Hazey Jane I & II.”
More recently, Kristian Matsson (The Tallest Man on Earth) used this tuning for songs like “Field of Birds” and “Burden of Tomorrow.”
Drake’s tuning doesn’t really translate into a proper chord, but if you break down the open strings, you get a C major chord with an added fourth. This means that you can use a lot of open strings, but you also can’t rely on familiar fingerings to play typical chords.
Instead, playing in CGCFCE really gets you out of your comfort zone and helps you discover new and interesting note combinations.
Well done! Those are all of our essential tunings for today.
Alternate tunings can be especially useful and sound particularly lovely on the acoustic guitar. Some of these tunings give you easier access to melodies and bass lines, while others are great for just strumming hard and letting the open strings ring out. Even if you’re playing a simple chord progression like G-C-D, playing in an alternate tuning will help you discover new voicings and will breathe life into worn-out chords.
It can be a challenge to re-learn chords in their new positions with each alternate tuning you use, but sometimes, that’s the beauty of these new arrangements. Once you’re out of your standard-tuning comfort zone, you’ll be surprised at what new ideas you can come up with.
Leave standard behind and explore alternate guitar tunings with Soundfly’s popular series of bite-sized courses, Alternate Tunings for the Creative Guitarist!
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Casey van Wensem is a freelance composer, musician, and writer living in Kelowna, B.C., Canada. You can hear his musical work at birdscompanionmusic.com and read his written work at caseyvanwensemwriting.com.