Joni Mitchell, Led Zepplin, The Rolling Stones, Ben Howard….what do they all have in common? They like to twiddle the machine head of their headstock and change the sound of their strings.
There we have a description of alternative tuning. Boiled down to its most basic description, it’s taking the normal guitar tuning and changing it
But what are you twiddling the strings from and to you’d be right to ask, because by not asking that question all you’re left with is a poorly tuned guitar.
Which is still alternative tuning you could argue.
When you started learning guitar you were probably taught a pneumonic for how to remember the names of the strings. And if you haven’t been taught one, take note – Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good Bye eddie. Or Elephants And donkeys Grow Big ears. This is called standard tuning and the vast majority of songs are written in this tuning. I don’t know exactly why but I expect it’s something to do with the fact that other instruments such as pianos and trumpets have a natural tuning that can’t be changed. If I’m wrong and you know the real answer feel free to write in and tell me.
You may find having to check and re-adjust your tuning every time you pick your guitar up a nuisance, but allow me to try and convince you that the need to tune is actually a positive because by having to tune, it means you can tune. Open or alternative tuning means taking the normal tuning that you apply to each string and doing something different with it, to create a completely new sound. Besides a synth there aren’t many instruments out there that can be manipulated in minutes to create a new sound. But your strings can.
Part one of this blog focuses on one of two alternative tuning styles: open tuning. The other common one, drop tuning, will feature in part 2
Some musical theory to start. Trust me, it will come in handy when trying out open tunings for yourself.
A major chord is made up of 1,3 5 in the musical scale. For example the G major chord is made up of the notes G(1) B(3) and D(5). If you tune your strings so that all 6 are tuned either to a G, B or D note then you have yourself an open tuning. Open G in this example. The reason it’s called open tuning is because if you strum all 6 strings with all fingers of your fretting hand waving somewhere in the air you are creating the sound of the chord that the guitar is tuned to. In this case, if I’m tuned to open G and I hold no fingers of my fretting hand down, I’m creating a G chord
Any chord is made up of three notes and any guitar can be tuned to any chord.
Let’s play a game.
Think of a chord. Any chord.
Now ask yourself, can it be played in open tuning?
Then tell yourself, ‘Yes’. ‘Yes it can’.
That was a fun game
But the real fun comes in discovering open tunings. There are some very common open tunings such as G (favoured by the Rolling Stones), D (Keith Richards was a fan) and E and if you listen to the Joni Mitchell back catalogue you’re probably hearing tens, if not hundreds of different tunings.
I love playing around with open tunings when composing my own music as it gives me a sense of freedom that I don’t get with standard tuning. With open tuning I often have no idea what notes or chords I’m playing, as most of the time I’m just experimenting with sounds, and what sounds nice to my tiny ears. And that’s okay, because that’s what song composition is. It’s finding a nice, and ideally unique sound. And because open tuning isn’t common, naturally the sounds you produce will be unique.
Give it a try with open D. Tune your bottom E down to a D, keep your A and D as they are, drop your G to an F#, your B down to an A and your e down to a d. Give it a strum. Do you get the sweetest sound in the world? If so, you have yourself an open tuning.
Now try making other sounds by strumming all 6 strings and fretting just one note at a time on any string along the fretboard. Find the positions that sound sweet. Now add in another finger to the fretting hand. Explore. Go mad. Create sounds seldom heard and fall in love with open tuning the way I have.