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The Frettie Journal
A collection of interviews, updates, tips and resources for songwriters.

Sounds Garden 1: Alternate Tunings For Guitarists

All, Tips & Resources by The Frettie Team on May 12, 2014

Since we already started a series dedicated to helping lyricists expand their range and avoid writer’s block, we thought it would only be right to start a series to help out with the musical side of things. So we’re happy to introduce Sounds Garden, a series of posts to help you think of ways to give your music a fresh edge.

For the first Sounds Garden post let’s take a look at alternate tunings for guitarists.

Some people can be pretty reluctant to break away from the standard E-A-D-G-B-E method of tuning guitars. In fairness this is understandable given that this method of tuning has been the norm for over 300 years.

Still it never hurts to break out of your comfort zone. Alternate tunings can provide an incredible amount of new sounds and possibilities for different chord progressions whether you are a beginner or a seasoned pro.

For newbies quite a few of your favorite songs may have been written in tunings that differ from the standard. Many popular rock, metal, blues, jazz and folk musicians utilize an array of different tunings so a knowledge of some of these tunings can help you learn more songs and get a deeper understanding of how certain musicians get that special sound.

For more advanced players and songwriters alternate tunings can be the key to a different sound world that really isn’t possible if you are just using the regular method of tuning. Also, it can be a great way to make your sound and your songs stick out from the competition.

The world of alternate tunings is about as big as you want it to be and can leave a lot of creative room for you to develop your own favorite selection of tunings. Here are a few of the most common ones to get you started:

Drop D (DADGBE): Drop D could be the most popularly used alternate tuning amongst rock and metal players thanks largely to its ubiquity in the Seattle grunge scene of the early 90’s. It also helps that it is a very easy tuning to arrive at. All you have to do is tune the low E string down a tone to D to give off a very deep sound. Take a listen to Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” and Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” as examples of this tuning’s power when it comes to big rock riffs.

Open D (DADF#AD): Open D isn’t too difficult to play or to tune to and it also gives off a great sound. In this open tuning you can produce different major chords simply by barring all the strings of a particular fret, so for example if you bar all the strings of the third fret you will get an F major chord. This makes it a tuning well suited to slide players. To arrive at this tuning simply tune the lowest string to D, tune the 3rd string down a semitone to F#, tune your 2nd string down to A and tune your 1st string down a tone to D. Listen to Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”, or “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills, Nash to get an idea.

Open C (CGCGCE): Open C may not be so common but it still gives off a rich full sound. To get this tuning you will first have to re-tune your 6th string down four semi-tones to C. Then tune the 5th string down a step to G and the 4th string to C just like your 6th. Finally re-tune the 2nd string up a semi-tone to C. Give “Friends” by Led Zeppelin and John Fahey’s “Sunflower River Blues” a listen to hear what is possible in this tuning.

Open G (DGDGBD): Open G is a tuning which is always associated with Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, who himself inherited it from the Delta Blues tradition. This tuning is also popular with slide players as it is another example of a tuning that allows you to create different chords simply by barring an entire fret. To re-tune to Open G you must first of all tune the 6th string down a step to D. Then tune the 5th string down a step to G and the first string down a step to D. There really are so many Rolling Stones songs written in this tuning, try “Honky Tonk Women” and “Start Me Up” to get going. Or if you’re not a Rolling Stones fan then George Thorogood’s “Bad To The Bone” is another great song that uses this tuning.

D Modal: Finally we come to D Modal which is more commonly referred to simply as “DAD-GAD” after the notes that make it up. DAD GAD is a hugely popular tuning with folk players and features heavily in Celtic folk music as well as in North African and Arabian music. Tune your 6th string down a step to D. Then tune your 2nd string down a step to A and finally tune your 1st string down to D. Simon and Garfunkel used this tuning on “Scarborough Fair” while 60’s English folkie Davey Graham also used it extensively for example on “She Moved Through The Fair”.

There is ton of information on the web to help you get started with alternate tunings. Here’s a video that takes a closer look at Drop D and DADGAD tunings, and another that takes a more in depth look at how to arrive at alternate tunings, though a bit of knowledge on musical theory might be necessary to make the most of this one.

Remember the world of alternate tunings is wide and weird; don’t be afraid to take full advantage of this chance to change up your style.

Until next time....

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