|Playing the Guitar: Alternate Tunings|
What's with alternate tunings? Why do guitarists use different tunings for different songs. How do they figure them out and then find the chords? Do you play differently using different tunings?
There are 3 main reasons to retune your guitar: 1) to change the timbre of chords, 2) to make fingerings easier, 3) to get a modal sound. Here's a quick guide of helpful facts and links.
Standard tuning for guitar is E-A-D-G-B-E. The interval between the strings is a 4th, except for the interval between G-Bwhich is a major 3rd. You know this as soon as you learn how to tune your guitar - going up to the fifth fret on any string (2 whole steps and a half step) gets you to the same pitch as the next string, except from G-B which you tune by using the 4th fret (2 whole steps). Who decided on this tuning and why? Go ask Dan, the Guitar Guide.
The tuning determines what the chords look like and how they'll sound. If you know, for instance, that a G major chord is G-B-D, you can see that strings 2-4 (counting down from the high E on the right) are already in the chord just as they are - so you don't have to put any fingers down [Note: notes in a chord can be in any order, but usually the lowest note is the tonic]. By adding fingers on the other strings, what you get is: G-B-D-G-B-G [open strings bolded]. You can also see that for an E chord (E-G#-B), strings 1,2 and 6 are already in the chord and can remain open. When you add fingers, what you are actually getting is: E-B-E-G#-B-E. You'll notice that in the G, the mid-range strings are open, while in the E chord, the bass and treble strings are open. One reason each of the chords has a distinct tone or flavor (timbre) is that an open string tends to "ring" more than a fingered one. The ringing of open strings - especially in the bass - makes chords sound bigger, fatter. If you think about a D chord (D-A-D-F#) you'll see that with one open string and no bass strings at all, it's going to sound small and thin compared to either an E chord or a G chord.
RETUNING FOR TIMRE/TONE
"Dropped D" tuning. The simplest common alternate tuning is simply to drop the low E to a D. Now you can play a D chord with all 6 strings: D-A-D-A-D-F#. Those bottom bass strings are ringing like crazy and a low D rings even bigger and fatter than a low E. Suddenly your simple D chord really rocks.
You can now see that if you want a chord to really ring, you could do the following: tune the low and high E strings down to D and the A string down to G. Now you've got: D-G-D-G-B-D - or open G tuning. Similarly, if you tuned the E strings to D, the G string down to F# and the B string down to A, you'd get a D chord: D-A-D-F#-A-D.This is open D tuning.When you strum these open chords, the guitar rings like crazy. Lay the ring finger of your fretting hand lightly over the strings at the 12th, 7th or 5th fret and you can strum these angelic chords made from harmonics.
Of course, now that you've retuned the guitar, your other chords have different fingerings. In Dropped D, for instance, if you want to play an E chord, you have to add a finger to the low D string at the 2nd fret to get it back up to E. And when you get around to your G chord, you have to get a finger up to the 5th fret - then of course you're not going to get all the rest of the fingers down - but leave the high E open, skip the A string and voila, you have a great G6 chord.*
One point before we go further: retuning the guitar almost always involves tuning strings DOWN. This is because if you try to tune them up, the increased tension will break them. At most, you can raise a string a half or whole step. After that, watch out.
*A neat alternative to dropping the E string is to use a capo across the top 5 strings at the second fret, leaving the low E open. This works great with a clamp capo like the Kyser. Now you can play the "G" normally (it's actually an A now) as well as all barred chords and still have that low bass note for your "D" chord (actually E now) when you need it.
RETUNING FOR EASIER FINGERING
One thing you'll notice with the Open G and D tunings is that a simple bar across all the strings now produces another major chord. To play blues/rock progressions (I-IV-V [see upcoming series on chord progressions]), simply move the bar to the 5th fret, then the 7th fret. Anyone with long enough fingers can do this.
Also notice that you can get some neat chords with only a few fingers. In open D, for instance, a finger on the 5th string/2nd fret and 3rd string/1st fret gets you D-B-D-G-A-D - a G9 chord.
Here's a link to a page that features an online application that automatically
shows you how to play any chord in any tuning (the six most popular are offered
Alternate Tunings Engine
And here's another alternate
tunings site: Next page > modal tunings: things get a
little strange > Page 1, 2
Alternate Tuning Wizards
Next page > modal tunings: things get a little strange > Page 1, 2