I’ll be playing guitar with Accidental Breakdown this friday night at Dunville’s in Westport. First set starts at 10:00pm. Come on by for some rootsy reggae & blues with serious groove.
One of the magical properties of the guitar is that you do not need to stay in standard tuning. In fact alternate tunings really change how the instrument sounds and reacts to your playing style.
First, let me point out that the guitar is a transposing instrument, it transposes up an octave. That means that guitar music is written an octave higher than it sounds. So, for all us guitarists that are used to playing a middle C (first ledger line below the staff) at the 3rd fret on the 5th string, know that the “real” middle C is 1st fret on the 2nd string (one octave higher). This is particularly important to understand if you try to tune to a piano.
Also note that in the examples below all tunings are given low to high (6th string to 1st string), with non-standard tuned strings in blue.
Okay so let’s start of with standard tuning. Low to high it’s: E A D G B E
This is tried and true. This is the sound that most people associate with a guitar, and where most guitarists start when learning.
One of the first alternate tunings I recommend trying is the “down a half step”, where each string is tuned down one half step, but is still basically standard tuning. This is referred to as Baroque Standard tuning or A415 Tuning, meaning the reference note A is set at 415 Hz, rather than the current accepted reference of 440 Hz.
This isn’t so much an ‘Alternate Tuning” as it is a tuning to a different reference point. In fact, you can start here and then use any of the other alternate tunings for an even deeper and sweeter sound.
Guys like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eddie Van Halen (to name a few) used this tuning exclusively. One of the advantages is the lower string tension all around, which sounds great on an acoustic in particular. The only downside to this tuning is when you play with other people tuned to standard pitch. You then have to transpose up a half-step all the time.
Tuning: Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb.
How to get there: lower all the strings by a half-step.
Now let’s hit a few favorite alternate tunings.
This is where it all starts, getting that low D in the mix seems to “open up” the guitar. This one is really good for key of D to add a new dimension to the arrangement.
Tuning: D A D G B E
How to get there: Simply lower the low E (6th) string by a whole step from E to D to get to this one.
Double Dropped D
Basically an extension of Dropped D, this takes the high E out of the mix and replaces it with another D. I’m luke warm on this tuning, I don’t think it adds much to the standard Dropped D, and certainly doesn’t achieve the magic of DADGAD (see next tuning). That being said, it’s worth a try. You may have more of a connection to it than I do.
Tuning: D A D G B D
How to get there: Lower the low E (6th) string a whole step from E to D and then lower the high E (1st) string a whole step from E to D.
D Modal or DADGAD
Introspective & deep are the words I use to describe this tuning. Because this tuning basically is a Dsus4 chord, you get a lot of ambiguous chord structures that lend themselves to that airy, thoughtful feel. Used a lot in Celtic music, I love to take a well known song and arrange it in DADGAD for a completely new take on the tune. This is also a great tuning for noodling. It’s so easy to find interesting sounds you almost fall into them. This is easily my favorite alternate tuning.
Tuning: D A D G A D
How to get there: Lower the low E (6th) string a whole step from E to D, lower the B (2nd) string a whole step from B to A and then lower the high E (1st) string a whole step from E to D.
Open D isn’t just for slide players. This is the logical place to go from DADGAD and offers a more major tonality based tuning. It’s really easy to get a good delta blues sound from here and works well for instrumental pieces. And, like DADGAD, this is great for noodling around. You’re bound to stumble upon something fun.
Tuning: D A D F# A D
How to get there: Lower the low E (6th) string a whole step from E to D, lower the G (third) string a half-step from G to F#, lower the B (2nd) string a whole step from B to A and then lower the high E (1st) string a whole step from E to D.
There seems to be a lot of confusion about when to use suspend vs. add (e.g. sus2 vs. add2) and when to use single or compound interval numbers (e.g. 2, 4, 6 or 9, 11, 13). Let me try to shed some light on this, especially for non-guitarists writing guitar parts.
Interval Naming & Chord Tensions
This one is pretty simple. If the chord is not a 7th chord, you always use the 1st octave interval names (2, 4, 6). If the chord is a 7th chord then you use the compound interval name (9, 11, 13).
So, if you write a C9: any guitarist worth their salt will play:
What is a suspended chord anyway?
A suspended chord, by definition, is a chord in which you replace the 3rd degree of the chord with the named interval. So a sus4 chord is a chord in which you replace the 3rd degree in the chord with the 4th degree. Likewise, a sus2 chord is a chord in which you replace the 3rd degree in the chord with the 2nd degree.
So, a D(sus4) is asking the guitarist to take a D major chord and replace the F# with a G (the 4th in the D scale) to make this chord:
Similarly writing D(sus2) would be asking the guitarist to take a D major chord and replace the F# with an E (the 2 in the D scale) to make this chord:
Because the sus4 chord is the most popular suspend chord, simply writing D(sus) would automatically imply a D(sus4) chord. You can leave the 4 off of a (sus4) chord designation. It is assumed to be 4 if no number is given.
Is it (add2) or (add9)?
Now, I often see this mistake in written music: there will be a C(sus2) written where it was really intended for the guitarist to play a C(add2). So, you may ask, what’s the difference?
As noted above, a suspended chord has no 3rd. You replace the 3rd degree with the suspended interval. An (add) chord simply adds an extra note to the chord without replacing any of the notes from the triad.
So, a Csus2 would be:
and a C(add2) would be:
Note, the suspended chord is still a triad (3 note chord: C, G, D, G – low to high. Note: there are 2 Gs in the chord. They only count as 1 note), while the (add2) chord is a 4 note chord (C, E, G, D – low to high).
And simply, it is always (add2) and never (add9). An (add9) chord would be indicating the presence of a 7th in the chord so a C(add9) is simply a C9:
See the difference?
So, if you come across an (add9) chord, just know it was meant to be an (add2) and go with it. If you are writing for guitar, please refrain from (add9) chords and use (add2). If you really want a Dominant9, just write C9 (or E9, or whatever).
When my students stumble over chord fingerings in a lessons I often fall back on a trick I learned while at Berklee College of Music. It’s a simple method for training your muscles to get into and out of a chord form smoothly and quickly.
You set a metronome on the slow side (54-60 bpm) and let it begin counting off the time. Now, since most chords are not played in a musical vacuum you will want to approach your trouble chord with another chord, preferably the one that precedes it in the piece you are playing. So, if you were struggling with an Emi7(b5), for instance, and the preceding chord was a G7 you would use those 2 chords for this exercise.
So, with your metronome happily clacking away get yourself ready for the approach chord (in our case the G7) and count off 4 beats to get you to your first measure. On beat 1 of that measure play the G7 chord, and then immediately release your fingers and use beats 2, 3 & 4 to set up the next chord (the Emi7(b5) in our example). On beat 1 of the next measure you will play that Emi7(b5) and then immediately release it, using beats 2, 3 & 4 to get back to your starting chord.
You would go back and forth between these chords, hitting them only on beat 1 of the measure and using beats 2, 3 & 4 to position your hand for the next chord. After a couple of minutes you will feel your hand finding its way without much effort. At this point bump up your tempo a notch or 2 and continue until it’s smooth at that tempo and keep going and bumping up the tempo until you are at the tempo you will actually be playing those chords.
If you aren’t using a metronome in your practice routine, here is one more reason to go buy one. The simply help you become a better musician.