Let’s face it. Alternate tunings are a problem that isn’t going away. We guitarists work so hard for many years to learn a vocabulary of chords, scales and arpeggios in standard tuning. We agonize over our guitar’s intonation until we get it just right. And then at a certain point we learn just how much of the standard rock canon is played in alternate tunings. Just try to play Hendrix, Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses, Weezer, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Simon and Garfunkel, Stevie Ray Vaughan, or the Rolling Stones and you will find that nearly all the songs by these great artists are in some from of alternate tuning!
So what is alternate tuning? Alternate tuning means that one or more of the strings is tuned to something other than the notes designated as “Standard” tuning (E, A, D, G, B, E). The most common alternate tuning is called Eb (e-flat) tuning. In this tuning all the strings are tuned a 1/2 step down. So from the sixth to the first string it would go (Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Bb, Eb). This was the tuning that Hendrix used in nearly all his recordings.
How low can you go?
While Eb is that most prevalent “Dropped” tuning. Heavier bands (Deftones, Melvins, QOTSA, Korn) have been known to drop pretty far down to drop D or even drop C. I have heard of some band going even lower, though the trend for that nowadays is to buy a 7 or 8 string guitar. These special guitars, sometimes called a baritone guitar, are a sort of cross between the standard six string guitar and a bass guitar. The 8 string guitar adds almost a whole extra octave to the guitar’s lower register getting down as far as a low F!
There are a ton of reasons why guitarists use drop tunings. The drop in pitch makes open chords of the guitar sound lower and heavier. This is why the jangly open chords of GnR’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine” sound clear and pretty but also heavy. The drop makes the tension on the strings lower so that full-step bends are a lot easier. Drop tunings also effectively transpose songs written in open position down a 1/2 step or more to make it easier for male singers to hit the higher notes.
Why bother tuning your guitar to Eb tuning? Can’t we just play these Eb songs in standard tuning? Well, yes of course you can. Nobody is going to stop you. And it will sound… ok. But as soon as you drop your strings down into Eb and hear yourself play the song the way it actually sounds on the record there is no denying that our ears want to hear the song in the original key, the way we are used to hearing it on records.
Don’t Talk About It… DO IT!
That’s really what I wanted to write about in this post. I want to encourage all of you to not be lazy. If you like modern rock music, and want to be a good modern rock guitar player, get good at tuning your guitar not just in standard, but it the common alternating tunings: Eb, Open G, Open A, Open D, and Drop C. There will be some hurtles to jump in the beginning. But keep moving those tuning pegs around and you will figure it out. Ultimately you will sound better playing covers. Also, once you get confident enough to experiment with alternate tunings, there is no end to the creative songwriting possibilities.
There are also a few special considerations that I can tell you to watch out for when you deviate from standard tuning. The first thing you’ll notice is that you may need to change the gauge of your strings to suit a particular tuning. Especially if you are lowering the pitch of the strings a lot, you will need to go up to a heavier string gauge or else the tension will be so low that your strings will be flapping in the breeze. Try playing “No One Knows” (QOTSA’s big radio hit in drop C) with .009’s and it will sound and feel really awkward. Jump up to .011’s or even .012’s and you’ll start to see how it’s done.
Of course, if your are changing string gauge and tension, then your guitar’s intonation settings may also suffer. Ideally, you don’t just tune the guitar to the alternate tuning but you intonate it for that tuning as well, which can take a long time. A real good way around this is to have more than one guitar around. I keep one of my guitars set up one with heavier strings for dropped tunings and then one with lighter strings for standard tuning.
There are also a whole host of “open” tunings that you should play around with. Many of the Rolling Stones biggest hits are played in Open G tuning. You will generally be given the tuning at the top of the page if you are learning a song from a tab book. I want to encourage you not to be put off from learning songs that are in alternate tunings. Like most things in guitar, it will seem impossibly difficult at first. Then, if you just hang in there for a few practice sessions, you will find that you can easily re-tune your guitar and feel perfectly at home in any alternate tuning.
Good luck & Happy Practicing!