The standard E A D G B E tuning of the six-string guitar is one that evolved over time. There has been no alternative guitar tuning devised that provides such a broad and workable compromise between easy chording structures and viable single note scales. The keyword is compromise. The very act of tuning a guitar is a compromise. The sad fact is that a guitar can never be tuned so all chords in all keys will be perfectly in tune, no matter who made it or how much it cost. It’s the nature of the beast and can only be blamed on the laws of physics.
Standard tuning is not symmetrical. The B and G strings on the guitar are separated by a four semitone interval whereas other pairs of adjacent guitar strings are separated by five semitones. But it would be more difficult overall to play guitar were this not the case. You may not be the genius that devises a guitar tuning that’s a better compromise, however, there are tunings that are a lot of fun to play with that fulfill a specific tonal or harmonic purpose better than standard tuning. Here are a few of the most useful alternate guitar tunings.
Dropped D Tuning
Drop the bottom E string of your guitar down to a D. Play a D chord. What a lovely booming sound it is when all six guitar strings are played. This is an often-used tuning in various styles of music. Of course, you will have to alter your chord and scale shapes to accommodate the change but that’s a small price to pay. Try dropping your top E string down as well. It sounds even fuller and more exotic. You’ll find that some chords sound fine even without changing the shape as the droning D sounds give everything a distinct and quite groovy flavor.
Open D Tuning
Leave the E strings on your guitar in their dropped state and drop your B string down to A and your G string to F#. You’ll hear when you’re in tune and it might take a bit of tweaking of the machine heads of your guitar to make this a pleasing open D sound. Look ma, no hands. It will sound better if you do employ your left hand however and there are some really easy chord shapes and harmonic structures to be found in this tuning. One finger barred across the strings at the fifth fret will get you started. But don’t stop there – they’re everywhere. Nice sounding chords that are just that little bit different I mean.
Open G Tuning
Let’s imagine we have our guitar with the Es dropped to D but other strings as in standard tuning. Now drop the A string to a G. The guitar is now tuned to an open G chord. You’ll find a lot of similarities to the open D. Chord structures are just shifted over by one string. This is the tuning Keth Richards of the Rolling Stones uses a lot. Keith actually discards the bottom string and plays a five-string guitar. Why? Well, that D is not the root note of the open G chord so he feels he gets a more solid sound by getting rid of it altogether. And who are we to protest?
Now this one’s not a different tuning as such but it’s a little trick so often employed by producers and guitarists in Nashville that it’s been named after the place. The basics are to string up a guitar with just the high strings of a 12 string set (it’s sometimes referred to as high strung for this reason, so am I come to think of it but that’s for a different reason). So E and B are the same as ever, but the remaining strings are an octave higher than normal guitar strings. This gives a beautiful shimmering sound when strummed, ideal for sprinkling some fairy dust on your track. There are many more tunings to explore but this is enough to give you a taste of the wide world of alternate tunings.