Alternate and Open Tunings.
There is a difference.
Open tunings: when you hit all open strings, they sound like an open chord.
For example: when you tune the A string up a whole step to B or down a whole step to G, you get the notes E G/B D G B E, which ads up to being an Em chord.
Alternate Tunings: you tune the open strings to notes that don’t necessarily add up to being a regular major or minor chord sound.
There are very few resources available that explain this difference between alternate and open tunings.
Moreover: very few guitarists or teachers are aware of the difference between those 2 main classifications that exist of guitar tunings (besides the standard tuning).
I totally accidentally and by sheer luck ended up “inventing” my own special alternate tuning one day.
My Accidental Alternate Tuning.
One day I picked up my guitar, not knowing that I had accidentally hit my whammy bar while my tremol-no was locked.
I had hit the bar hard enough for it to move a little bit. The bar had not returning back to its original, relaxed position because the tremol-no screws in the back were slightly tightened.
I was crazily surprised when I hit a chord.
It sounded unlike anything I had ever heard before.
I took my hand off the strings and hit the open strings, and heard something I though was an inspiring sound.
I plugged my guitar in my tuner to figure out what every string was tuned to and wrote down every note.
Here’s what I got, from bass to treble:
D A# D# G# A D
Have fun playing E shape bar chords with that tuning and be surprised by the amazing sounds you’ll get.
Another example of an alternate tuning, would be the tuning Stanley Jordan swears by.
Stanley Jordan tuning.
Stanley is one of my top 10 favorite guitarists.
He tunes his entire guitar up in 4ths. A very unusual tuning: I don’t know of any other guitarist who tunes his guitar this way.
E A D G C F
But then again: Stanley IS an incredibly unusual, special guitarist.
See here why:
Yes… he’s playing chords in 1 hand on 1 guitar, while playing the melody with his other hand on another guitar.
Here’s Stanley Jordan playing the Beatles song Eleanor Rigby. Amazing.
And An Example of An “Open Tuning”.
Here’s a song I wrote late last year with an open E7 tuning.
I am still working on it and still need to write a vocal melody for it.
Drop D Tuning.
This would be an alternate tuning.
It is probably the 2nd most widely used tuning besides standard tuning.
ALL metal and hard rock guitarists love the drop D tuning.
From Zakk Wylde, to Randy Rhoads, Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil (Outshined, Black Hole Sun…) to Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello (Killing In The Name…) or Foo Fighters in their song Everlong.
Eddie Van Halen even invented and patented a device, called the “Drop D Tuna”.
It allows guitarists who use Floyd Rose bridges, to tune their low E string down to a D with a simple flick of the switch.
I have it installed on my new custom Suhr guitar and it is amazing.
The reason why hard rock and metal guitarist love using it so much, is the heavier sound you get from the lower tuned bass string, AND the fact that you only need 1 finger anymore to play powerchords on the 3 lowest strings.
If you tune to drop D, and you bar your index over the 3 bass strings on the 3rd fret, you’re playing an F power chord.
Since you only need 1 finger anymore to play a power chord, you can play much faster metal parts on the bass strings.
But it’s not only the harder rock bands who like using the drop D tuning
The Beatles used it in Dear Prudence.
Neil Young wrote his song Ohio in drop D
Fleetwood Mac’s amazing song The Chain is in drop D
If you have not experimented with this tuning yet: go have fun with it right now. 🙂
Led Zeppelin’s song Kashmir is written using a DADGAD tuning.
While one could argue that any and every grouping of notes ads up to being a chord of some sort; the term “open tunings” typically refers to tunings to a regular major or minor chord (and their 7th chord versions).
The notes DADGAD are the notes in a Dsus4 chord. Sus chords are neither major nor minor.
As such: this tuning would prob be classified as an alternate tuning rather than an open tuning.
Many Celtic musicians and Celtic folk influenced guitarists heavily rely on this tuning.
If you want to dabble into creating some Celtic folk flavored music on your guitar: it seems like tuning your strings to DADGAD would be a good way to start.
For more examples of artists who like experimenting with open and alternate tunings, check:
Robert Fripp (from King Crimson),
Jimmy Page with Led Zeppelin,
Blues guitarists who use slide often like to use open tunings too.
Tuning to an open chord facilitates the use of a slide, as sympathetic vibrations of neighboring strings all produces notes that belong to the same chord.
The Rolling Stones: Keith Richards LOVES his open tunings. (Jumping Jack Flash, Honky Tonk Women, Street Fighting Man,…)
The Black Crowes
Soundgarden’s guitarist Kim Thayil (who also did fun things, like tuning all 6 strings to the same note) 🙂
Have fun experimenting with all the above.
Because all the notes move to different locations when you change the tuning of a string, it might take some patience before you come up with a guitar part you like for many of the above tunings.
However: once you “get inside the tuning”, and you get the hang of it, you will come up with amazingly cool sounds that you never would have been able to come up with in a standard EADGBE guitar tuning.
Have fun experimenting with the new colors you will discover.
Be on the look out for more blogs about really cool guitar, music and songwriting topics.
Meanwhile: by all means give me a rating below, and do tell me in the comments section below if you see things I missed, or if you have questions, or need further info about all this, or if you have any feedback. I believe everything can always be improved, and I gladly would implement your suggestions and ideas.
Your feedback will help improve this blog.