Man in red shirt tuning the electric guitar
Alternate tunings require you to change the intervals between the strings from fourths to something else.

Not sure how to change your guitar from standard tuning to an alternate tuning? This article shows you how to do that, as well as some common tunings you may come across in fingerstyle guitar.

There are many common alternate tunings for fingerstyle guitar, such as Open D, DADGAD and Open E tuning. With alternate tunings, you can:

  • Use different chord shapes with more open strings
  • Play in different or unusual keys without a capo
  • Play harmonics that aren't present in standard tunings

The Best Alternate Tunings for Fingerstyle Guitar

Here are some good alternate tunings for fingerstyle guitar:

  • Drop D tuning (D-A-D-G-B-E)
  • DADGAD tuning (D-A-D-G-A-D) 
  • Open G tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D)
  • Drop C Open tuning (C-G-D-G-A-D)
  • Open E tuning (E-G#-B-E-B-E)

How Do Alternate Tunings Work?

Alternate tunings are any tuning in guitar that differs from the intervals between the strings in standard tuning. In standard guitar tuning, the strings are tuned to the following pitches, starting from the thickest string (lowest pitch) to the thinnest string (highest pitch): E, A, D, G, B, and E.

Switching any one of those strings to a different note puts you in an alternate tuning. For example, in Drop D tuning, we drop the lowest string from E to D. This increases the interval between the two lowest strings from a perfect fourth to a perfect fifth.

The intervals, or the distances between the notes of the individual strings, starting from the thickest string (lowest pitch) to the thinnest string (highest pitch), are as follows:

  • From E to A: perfect fourth
  • From A to D: perfect fourth
  • From D to G: perfect fourth
  • From G to B: major third
  • B to E: perfect fourth

Half-step or whole-step down tunings aren't true alternate tunings, because the guitar can be brought up to standard tuning simply by using a capo.

Guitar with a capo on the fret
Half step down tuning is like using a capo, except going in reverse. Tuning all the strings a half step down involves lowering the guitar strings by the exact same interval, while keeping the intervals between the strings exactly the same

Beautiful Guitar Tunings for Fingerstyle Guitar

The most beautiful alternate tunings for fingerstyle guitar are open tunings. This occurs when you strum all the open strings and you get a chord. For example, the open Low E tuning that Sungha Jung uses in his song On Cloud Nine gives you an E Major chord.

DADGAD tuning is a logical tuning to use after mastering Drop D tuning. It is almost, but not quite, an open tuning. There are many beautiful fingerstyle songs you can play using this tuning, especially using the techniques that you learn in Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now!

You can play very easy chords using DADGAD tuning all across the guitar neck. However, playing open strings on the guitar in this tuning doesn't give you a major or minor chord.

How to Tune Your Guitar Into An Alternate Tuning

There are two main ways that you can change your guitar into an alternate tuning:

  • Using an app (paid version) or a guitar tuner
  • Entirely by ear

For easy alternate tunings where you only have to tune one string, you can tune your guitar by ear. For more complex alternate tunings I recommend using an app.

Method #1: Tuning the Guitar With An App

You can use a freely downloadable app for your smartphone to tune into alternate tunings. Some premium versions of the app have presets with alternate tunings that you can use.

You can also use a guitar tuner that allows chromatic tuning to tune your guitar in an alternate tuning. Decide which pitches you want to use for your alternate tuning, and change one string at a time.

Guitar tuner showing the note "E"
Use a chromatic guitar tuner to enter your alternate tuning.

Method #2: Tune By Ear

Most alternate tunings involve changing other strings to match the note of an open string on the guitar. We can therefore use the acoustic phenomenon known as beats to tune by ear.

The method of listening for beats involves playing two strings simultaneously: an open string and the string that we would like to change to the same note as the open string.

Tuning Your Guitar to Drop D by Ear

For example, let's say you want to tune the sixth string down to D. 

This means you will change the sixth string from E down to D and simultaneously pluck the fourth string. As you approach the correct note, you will hear a pulsating sound called "beats".

These beats will get slower and finally disappear as you approach the note D on the sixth string.

Does Changing Into Alternate Tuning Break The Strings?

Assuming you didn't over-tighten the string, if your guitar string breaks while changing the tuning, it was probably worn out to begin with. I always recommend changing your guitar strings to a new set in this situation.

However, if a brand new string snaps while changing to an alternate tuning, you may have over-tightened the string. Be aware of the difference between tightening the string (making the note sharper) and loosening the string (the note becomes flat). If you tighten or tune up to a note far higher than what the string is meant for, it can snap or worse, damage your guitar.

I always advocate tuning down to your alternate tuning and not tuning up. This means never tightening any of the strings beyond their normal tension in standard tuning unless strictly necessary. In the instances where you need to tune up, I recommend tuning to a lower alternate tuning, then using a capo to bring the guitar up to the tuning that you require.

Girl tuning the first string of a guitar
Take extra care when tuning the first string of the guitar. Excess tension can cause the string to snap.

How High Can You Tune a Guitar String Before It Breaks?

The limit to how high you can tune a string before it snaps depends on the thickness and the age of the string. The smaller strings, such as the first or second, probably won't make it higher than a couple semitones before failing. However, newer or especially thicker strings can be tuned far beyond the note that they are rated for. 

This is why I always advocate for tuning down when using alternate tunings. This prevents the extra stress that a higher tuning, i.e. tighter strings, puts on your instrument.  It also prevents you from accidentally over tightening and snapping your strings.

How To Play Fingerstyle Guitar In An Alternate Guitar Tunings

When we tune our guitars in other alternate tunings, we can play new chords, often by fretting one or two notes. However 3it will be impossible for us to use the same fingering to play the notes on our guitar in an alternate tuning for our song composed for standard tuning. 

In other words, chord shapes, like cowboy chords, won’t work in your alternate tuning. If you play a standard chord, it will sound totally off in your alternate tuning.

On the other hand, other really cool and awesome sounding chord shapes will emerge in your alternate tuning. Thankfully, these chords can often be easier to play.

Songs by Sungha Jung that Use Alternate Tunings

Some of the songs by Sungha Jung that use alternate tunings include:

  • Irony
  • On Cloud Nine
  • Sprint
  • Felicity

For more help in learning these songs, check out my playlist on YouTube. And for more tips on playing fingerstyle guitar, sign up to my course Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now!