Man in red shirt tuning the electric guitar
Alternate tunings can release your creative potential

Alternate tunings can add a certain flair to fingerstyle guitar songs. In this article we are going to explore the world of alternate tunings and how to use them.

What Are Alternate Tunings on the Guitar?

Alternate tunings are any tuning in guitar that differs from the intervals between the strings in standard tuning.  As I explain below, 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.

There are several types of alternate tunings in use in Fingerstyle guitar. Here are a few that you may come across:

  • 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)

The Intervals 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.

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

When we use alternate tunings, we will be modifying the intervals between the open strings on the guitar.

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.

Why Use Alernate Tunings in Fingerstyle Guitar?

Alternate tunings open up a world of possibilities on the guitar. 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

How to Tune Your Guitar in 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. This is because you have to manipulate the tuning pegs and significantly change the intervals between the strings.

Master Standard Tuning First

Before you dive into alternate tunings, it’s important first to master tuning your guitar in standard tuning. I recommend using an app for this.

Become comfortable in tuning each string to the correct note, and become aware of the difference between tightening the string (making the note sharper) and loosening the string (the note becomes flat).

Tuning the Guitar with an App

You can use a freely downloadable app for your smartphone to tune into alternate tunings. However this may require premium versions of the guitar app.

You can also use a guitar tuner that allows chromatic tuning to tune your guitar in an alternate tuning. You must know exactly which notes the strings are tuned to.

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

How to Alternate 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.

The Example of Drop D tuning

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".

Important: Only Tune Down (never tune up)

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 using a capo.

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.

Why not tune up?

If you are an expert at alternate tunings, you can most certainly tune the guitar strings in whichever direction you like.

The reason why I advocate tuning down is that this avoids the extra stress that a higher tuning (tighter strings) puts on your instrument.  It also prevents you from accidentally over tightening and snapping your strings.

Chords with Alternate Guitar Tunings

Alternate tunings on the guitar can give your instrument a really cool sound by using open strings.

However, when we tune our guitars in other alternate tunings, it 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.  

You must learn new chord shapes

In other words, chord shapes, like cowboy chords, won’t work in your alternate tuning. If you finger 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.

Open Tunings

A true open tuning occurs when you strum all the open strings and you get a chord. For example, a true open tuning such as “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.

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.

Here’s why Half Step Down tuning isn’t an alternate tuning.

In half step down tuning, the intervals between the open strings stay exactly the same as they do in standard tuning.

To visualize this, pretend that you are putting a capo on a given fret, say the first fret. Now, the whole guitar sounds higher by one half step, but you haven’t changed any of the intervals between the strings.

Put another way, we haven’t touched the tuning pegs to change the tuning of the guitar; we’ve raised each string by exactly the same interval. 

Guitar with a capo on the fret
Think of half step down like the guitar with a capo but in the opposite direction

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.

So, placing your capo on the first fret raises the whole guitar by one half step, where tuning the guitar a half step down lowers it by one half step.

Half Step Down tuning won't give you any new chord shapes

Moreover, you can play any song that uses half step down tuning using the exact same finger placement as in standard tuning.  Recall that one of the requirements of alternate tunings is to use brand new fingerings and chord shapes.

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