One thing that’s so great about the guitar is that it’s such a versatile instrument. First of all, you’ll see it used in so many different genres, even in the live bands of some mainstream pop stars who usually don’t implement actual instruments for their studio recordings. What’s more, you’ll see the same exact model with the same type of pickups and hardware used in anything from jazz to thrash metal (which is not unusual for some Gibson SGs).
Another aspect of this instrument that shows its versatility is all the different tunings that you can use. Predominantly a 6-string instrument, you’re free to do as you wish and alter the pitch of each individual string so that you could adapt and perform some pieces with ease. What’s more, different tunings might even inspire new songs. With all this in mind, we figured we could check out some of the best alternate tunings on the guitar and some of the songs that made them popular.
A rather unusual tuning that has no official name, it’s essentially the standard tuning with just the 6th string tuned down five semitones to B. This one became popular during the development of grunge and alternative rock, with Soundgarden recording some of their songs on “Badmotorfinger” album with this tuning, like “Rusty Cage.”
Another great example is Tool and their song “Prison Sex” from the “Undertow” album. Giving some dark tones with the 6th string dropped that low, bands like Nickelback and Alter Bridge also implement it in their music.
New standard tuning (CGDAEG)
While there is no particular song that made it popular, the new standard tuning (or the NST) is an interesting concept developed by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. It goes CGDAEG, or to be more precise C2-G2-D3-A3-E4-G4.
The idea here was to have all fifths with the minor third between the 1st and 2nd string. It draws inspiration from various string instruments that are usually tuned to fifths. This way, you not only get the winder range but also open up new possibilities for playing repertoire that would be complicated, or even impossible, in standard tuning.
The name for this tuning comes from the title of one of Lou Reed’s songs called “The Ostrich.” The proper name for it would be trivial tuning or repetitive tuning as the main idea here is to have all the strings tuned to the same note. Of course, the notes can be in three octaves and you can also use the same exact note for each string. But for this to work well, you’d need a special set of strings.
While it may seem weird (or maybe even pointless), there are many possibilities that open up with this kind of tuning. Especially if you’re into drone music.
Not that many songs that implement this tuning, but it became somewhat popular with Led Zeppelin‘s “Rain Song” from the band’s fifth album “Houses of the Holy.” This one features the major second interval between the first and the second string, making it somewhat weird to use.
Nick Drake tuning (CGCFCE)
Nick Drake, being an innovative artist that he was, really loved experimenting with different alternate tunings. He even came up with some of his own ideas which became known as “Nick Drake tunings.”
The most popular of these is CGCFCE which can be heard on two of his albums – “Bryter Layter” and “Pink Moon.” Songs like “Hazey Jane I” and “Hazey Jane II” are great examples.
Celtic tuning (DADGAD)
Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page is also one of the musicians always enjoyed taking an experimental approach with the guitar, something that was of crucial importance to the development of hard rock and heavy metal music. There were occasions when he used the so-called Celtic tuning, which is DADGAD. An example would be the song “White Summer” which he wrote during his time in The Yardbirds.
However, this tuning was used sometime before Page became a guitar hero. Inspired by music from different cultures, British folk musician Davey Graham began experimenting with different tunings. Soon, he came up with DADGAD which essentially builds a Dsus4 chord. He implemented this tuning in his renditions of traditional Celtic songs.
Open C (CGCGCE)
Open C, or CGCGCE, uses the basic three notes from the C major triad – C, G, and E. While the open C tuning has a few other popular variants, the CGCGCE comes as the most popular one in rock music. Many different guitar legends have been tuning to it over the years, including Justin Hayward of Moody Blues, Devin Townsend, John Butler, and (you’ve guessed it) Jimmy Page.
Here, we will present this tuning with John Butler’s “What You Want.”
Although the difference is just in one note compared to the regular open C tuning, the open C6 builds a major 6th chord, with the A note (open 5th string in this case) being this 6th interval. There are also a few other variants, some of which are used for lap steel guitars. But the CACGCE is a pretty useful one for conventional 6-strings.
While there are some Led Zeppelin songs with this tuning, we’ll put something else in here to make things more interesting. Otherwise, this article would basically be all about Jimmy Page. Anyway, here’s Mumford & Sons and their song “I Will Wait.”
Drop D (DADGBE)
Drop D has to be the most popular alternate tuning of all time. Well, at least in rock music. There were some classical guitar pieces with this tuning. One of them is J.S. Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin in D minor arranged for guitar by the almighty Andrés Segovia.
But let’s get back to modern music and the implementation of drop D tuning in rock. What makes it so useful is that a guitar player gets “easy access” to power chords on 6th and 5th strings where they simply use barre chords on the bottom D and A. The earliest examples of the use of drop D in rock music include the earliest rock innovators The Beatles on their song “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” Of course, there’s no way not to avoid Led Zeppelin and their song “Moby Dick.”
However, it was the alternative rock and alternative metal bands that began using it extensively. Thinking of drop D, “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine comes to mind, as well as their entire discography. The same could be said about Tool where almost all of their songs are in drop D.
Open G (DGDGBD)
The great thing about open tunings is that you can play a major chord just by pressing all the strings on the same fret. The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards is probably the best-known user of this tuning, although he’s been rocking out with only five strings for years now (GDGBD). It turns out you don’t need the 6th string to play so good. If we were to choose any of his open G songs, we’d go with “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.”
Although they might spark an idea for a new song, the alternate tunings serve their purpose and are here to help you achieve what would be difficult, if not impossible, in standard E or any of the lower or higher standard tunings.
In case you decide to try out one of the tunings above, bear in mind that there will be a lot of getting used to. It’s almost as if you’re completely switching to a different instrument. And that’s what’s so great about the guitar – there are so many possibilities that, even if you’re an experienced player, there’s always something new to learn.
Listen to the full playlist on Spotify below: