“I’d tune to the numbers in a date; I’d tune to a piece of music I liked on the radio; I’d tune to bird songs and the landscape I was sitting in… “ —Joni Mitchell.
Not every guitarist is as esoteric, or as talented, as Mitchell, who is as well-known for her alternative guitar tunings as for the beautiful, exotic ballads she wrote with them.
Still, Mitchell’s quote highlights the spirit of exploration and the joie de vivre that comes with alternative tunings.
Slide and blues guitarists will already be familiar with open tunings—in which a guitar’s strings are tuned to a major chord—but it’s worth all guitarists investigating at least a few of the more common alternates, if only to play the songs of Mitchell, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, John Fahey, Nick Drake, and other greats who have used them.
In the tunings shown, we have indicated the number of frets—or half-steps—you must tune each string down from its standard tuning note. Each fret on a guitar is a half-step, or semi-tone, apart (the first fret of the bottom E string on a standard tuned guitar is F, for instance). Therefore, there’s little chance you will break a string when re-tuning, and there should be no need to buy heavier gauge strings.
While open tuning is great for playing slide guitar, these alternative tunings can be used to reinvigorate familiar chord shapes and picking patterns, too.
Remember, if you retune your guitar, you are entering a whole new world that may take a little time to get used to. But, the investigation can be worth it.
Or, to paraphrase David Crosby, when you first tune that low E down to a D, you’ll be hooked, and “from that day on, you’re a lost soul.”
From standard tuning: 2 – 0 – 0 – 0 – 0 – 0
Used by David Crosby
A good tuning for rock as power chords can be fretted easily on the lower three strings. Play the low D and A open to accompany songs in the key of D.
From standard tuning: 2 – 0 – 0 – 0 – 0 – 2
Used by Neil Young
A cross between open G (DGDGBD) and Dropped D, you can use standard chord shapes on the middle four strings and play open G blue licks with the top three strings.
From standard tuning: 2 – 2 – 0 – 0 – 0 – 2
From standard tuning: 1 – 1 – 1 – 1 – 1 – 1
Used by Jimi Hendrix
Preferred for a number of reasons: to make bending strings easier, to accompany a saxophone, or to better suit a singer’s vocal range
From standard tuning: 2 – 0 – 0 – 0 – 2 – 2
Used by Jimmy Page/Led Zeppelin
Popularized by British folk pioneer Davey Graham, this is a good tuning for finger-style guitarists to explore interesting melodies accompanied by open strings.
From standard tuning: 0 – 0 – 0 – 1 – 0 – 0
Used by John Renbourn/Pentangle
Often employed by classical guitar composers, this is the tuning on which standard tuning is based. Another good one for finger-style guitarists to explore.