I recently began to coach a local songwriter on a weekly basis, and he has inadvertently re-introduced me to open tunings on the guitar. He writes some interesting songs, and part of what makes them interesting is his penchant for all kinds of alternate tunings that cause lots of broken strings, but plenty of fascinating compositions! Obviously, this post will apply more to those of you who write on guitar :-).
If you’ve never heard of open or alternate tunings, I’ll give you a bit of a run down first. Most of you know that when a guitar is in “standard” tuning, the notes from the 6th string down are E, A, D, G, B and E. The first tuning I will explain is “alternate standard”, which, in most cases, means tuning each string down 1/2 a step or more. The first time I came across this was with the band Nirvana, although I’m sure there were those who did it earlier than they did. Nirvana’s guitars were almost always tuned down 1/2 step, making their songs sound deeper. They were a pain to figure out unless you had your guitar in this alternate standard tuning. This has become a common tuning for a number of bands, mostly in the rock, metal or alternative genre.
Open tunings are a retuning of a guitar to a chord. One of the more common open tunings is to a D chord, where the strings are tuned as followed: 6th becomes D, 5th stays as A, 4th stays as D, 3rd is tuned down to F#, 2nd string is tuned down to A and the first string is tuned down to D. Listing them together, they are D,A,D,F#,A,D. If you look up a D chord, these are those notes contained within that chord.
Blues guitar players back in the 1920’s started using open tunings for a couple of reasons. First of all, because the strings are normally tuned DOWN in an open tuning, that relieved some stress on the strings which made them last longer! So there was definitely an economic benefit. The other benefit was that they could play a lead bit on top of the chord, almost giving the sound of two guitars. Bonnie Raitt is a modern day blues guitarist who uses this technique, and there are many others. Since the old blues music gave birth to many more contemporary styles like rock and folk, these musicians often carried on the tradition of open tunings in their songwriting. Folk music songwriters in the 1960’s wrote a lot of songs using open tunings.
There is one last style of tuning called “alternate tuning” where you are not tuning to the notes of a chord, but adjusting a string or two in order to create a different effect. The most common is called the “drop D” tuning, where the 6th or E string is tuned down to a D. Many people prefer this tuning when they are playing a song in D because they can include the 6th string as a bass D which gives the chord a much fuller sound than simply playing the last four strings. An extended version of this is the “double drop D”, where the 1st E string is ALSO tuned down to D. As an example of a song in double drop D tuning is the Doobie Brothers “Black Water”, but there are many songs written in double drop D tuning.
If you’ve never tried open or alternate tunings before, this might open a big door for you in your songwriting! Don’t be intimidated with the idea, and start small, like a drop D tuning. You have to adjust your finger positions to accommodate certain chords; for instance, a G chord now has to have the 6th string fretted on the 5th fret. But play around with the sound and I’m sure you’ll be inspired.
It’s always handy to have a tuner to get you back into your standard tuning once you’ve played around a bit. Also, my songwriter student has an Apple app on his iPhone called G&H Alternate Tunings that not only gives him the names of the alternate tuning notes, but has a little meter that helps him to tune to it! Ain’t technology something? I don’t have an iPhone so I can’t use it myself, but he’s right into it.
If you get any further than a drop D tuning on your own, here are some other open tunings to try, listed from the 6th string to the 1st:
D-A-D-G-A-D (close to an open D, except for the 3rd string which is a G instead of an F#)
E-B-E-G♯-B-E (open E)
D-A-E-G-C-E (one I’ve discovered recently, used by Joni Mitchell in the song Edith and the Kingpin)
E-A-E-A-C-E (this gives you a A minor chord, whereas the others above are major chords)
When you first start experimenting with open or alternate tuning, it may seem as if your guitar has become a whole new instrument and you have become almost a complete beginner! But you never know what it might bring you in terms of new song ideas.