"Songwriting and the Creative Process"
An Internet Tutorial

Lesson 14. Alternative and Non-Standard Guitar Tunings


By adopting one or another of these non-standard tunings, the guitar can take on a whole new character. A little experimentation can create some interesting effects.

The most common altered tuning is the "Dropped D Tuning" The notes on the guitar would be: D A D G B E. For this tuning, start in standard tuning, then lower the 6th string one whole step from E to D. This tuning is most often used for playing in the key of D. Its strength is that the bass "D" string makes the tonic D chord very strong.

Remember that since the sixth string is tuned down two frets, the fingering for any chord using that string must be adjusted "up" two frets, so a "G" chord, for instance would need the bass string to be fretted at the fifth fret instead of the third fret where it would normally be. Players in "dropped D" usually play a "G" chord with the third and fourth fingers of the left hand fretting the "G" on the sixth string at the fifth fret and the "D" on the fifth string at the fifth fret and letting the second string be the only "B" in the chord.

Some "open chord" tunings, named for the chord that the strings are tuned to are easier to play since a straight bar across all six strings is a major chord no matter where is is fretted. This has been employed by many singers who have a limited ability with the guitar as well as many expert slide or bottleneck players. It's a little harder to get minor chords in an open chord tuning although some players like Richie Havens have found ingenious ways of doing that.

for open G Tuning: D G D G B D, start in standard tuning. Lower both the 1st and 6th strings one whole step from E to D. then lower the 5th string one whole step from A to G. For open D tuning: D A D F# A D. start in standard tuning, lower both the 1st and 6th strings one whole step from E to D. Lower the 2nd string one whole step from B to A, and lower the 3rd string one half step from G to F#.

One of the most useful and prevalent tunings is a modified D tuning (often called "dadgad"): D A D G A D. For this tuning, start with an open D tuning. Raise the 3rd string one half step from F# to G. If you fret the third string any where along its length the melody on this string will be accompanied by all D and A notes droning along like a mountain dulcimer or bagpipes.

Another version of the modified D tuning you might want to try is D A D G C D. Yet another variation is D A D G A B. For another modified G tuning; D G D G A D, start with an open G tuning. Lower the 2nd string one whole step from B to A. Another variation on modified G is D G D G C D.

For a modified A tuning try; E A C# E A E. Start in normal guitar tuning. Lower the 2nd string one whole step from B to A. Lower the 3rd string a minor third from G to E, and lower the 4th string a half step from D to C#.

For an open C tuning: C G C G C E, start in standard tuning. Lower the 6th string 2 whole steps from E to C. Lower the 5th string one whole step from A to G. Lower the 4th string one whole step from D to C, and raise the 2nd string one half step from B to C.

Experiment with your own special tunings. Some are more adapted to slide and bottleneck playing. Some need another guitar part. You will notice that some tunings are more versatile and some are only good for one song since everything played in that tuning tends to sound like the same song.

Try playing in cross keys, that is, play in C in a G tuning, or A in a D tuning, etc. You will discover by going further up the neck, these tunings help you to find different inversions or voicings of the chords in combination with the open strings.

You can even try different gauges of strings. The Nashville or hi-strung guitar uses the strings that would remain from a twelve string set if you removed the six regular strings of a normal six string set. That is, they are the octave higher strings of the bass E, A, D, G, and then regular gauge B and high E.

The octave G makes it sound very much like a twelve string and yet the sound is more transparent without all the deep bass. This makes a great rhythm guitar or second rhythm guitar sound and is heard on many recordings.

This course is based on materials from the book, "Songwriting and the Creative Process" by Steve Gillette. Published by Sing Out! Press. Used by permission.

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