Learn how to tune to 9 popular alternate tunings, as well as songs to play in each.
By Ben Nemeroff
When you first start playing guitar, you’ll likely start learning to play chords and scales in standard tuning. Standard tuning is the most commonly used tuning that has your guitar strings tuned (from lowest to highest) to E, A, D, G, B, E. Although standard tuning is, well, the standard for most guitarists to learn and play, alternate tunings open up a whole new world of sound.
Alternate tunings involve tuning your guitar in different ways than standard tuning, which can make it easier to play certain riffs or power chords in the open position or with just one finger on the fretboard. Alternate tunings can also change how chords sound, often making them sound fuller and more open. Some players use open tunings to get a heavier guitar sound, while others might use them to help with techniques such as slide guitar or finger picking.
There are a variety of established alternative guitar tunings that have been used by musicians through the years, helping to define the sound of different genres. Learning to tune your guitar with alternate tunings can help you learn to play new songs, change the mood and tone of songs you already know, and pick up tricks from famous guitarists who have used these tunings to create memorable sounds. Plus, alternate tunings are a great way to expand your creativity and look at the guitar in a whole new way.
Check out this episode of Fender Play LIVE! where Fender Play Instructors Scott and Sebastien show you how to unlock your creativity with alternate tunings. Plus, there's some tuning tips that will help keep your guitar in tune as you adjust the the string tension. You can also keep reading below for breakdowns of commonly-used alternate tunings.
On Fender Play there is a variety of lesson on alternate tunings like Open E, Open G, and drop tunings. Learn how to play six alternate tunings and ten songs that use them with the Alternate Tuning Collection for guitar in Fender Play.
To properly tune your guitar to an alternate tuning, it’s important to take it step by step and string by string. To safely tune your guitar, it’s important to be mindful of string tension when you’re altering a string to a higher or lower pitch, if an alternate tuning calls for it.
To reduce the risk of a string snapping when tuning up, slowly turn your first tuning peg a quarter turn each time. Then, continue to pluck your string as you slowly turn your peg until your string hits the correct pitch. From there, move onto your next string.
Tuning one string at a time allows you to use adjacent strings to find the pitch of the string you’re tuning and be sure you’ve tuned it to the right note. You can also use the Fender Online guitar tuner to help you tune your guitar to the correct notes. Use either the Electric Guitar Online Guitar Tuner or the Acoustic Guitar Online Tuner. Or download the app for your phone.
Additionally, some lower tunings (such as Drop A, Drop B, and Drop C alternate tunings) require you to lower all six of your strings by at least a full step or more. Lowering your strings can make them looser, causing them to rattle against your fretboard or to create a buzzing sound. If you experiment with these types of lower tunings and want to stick with them on a more permanent basis, you may want to consider heavier gauge strings or taking your guitar to a luthier to set up your guitar properly for these tunings.
Now that you’ve learned how to properly tune your guitar, let’s learn some of the most popular alternate tunings and some of the songs and genres where you can hear -- and play -- them. Let’s get started.
Get acquainted with nine of the most commonly used alternate tunings for guitar. Depending on your genre of preference, you may gravitate towards wanting to try one or a few of these popular alternate tunings.
Drop D tuning is one of the easiest alternate tunings to learn. It changes the pitch of just one string, adjusting the tone of your low E string by a full step, taking it down to a D: D-A-D-G-B-E
You can hear Drop D tuning used in many metal and alternative rock songs, including “Outshined” by Soundgarden, “Everlong” by Foo Fighters, “No More Tears” by Ozzy Osbourne, “Killing In The Name” by Rage Against The Machine, and “All Apologies” by Nirvana.
In Open D tuning, your guitar will ring out with an open D chord when you strum all six of your open strings. Open D tuning changes the tuning of all but two of the six strings on guitar. From lowest to highest, your strings will be tuned as follows: D-A-D-F#-A-D
Folk, blues, and rock have used Open D tuning. Listen for it in such songs as “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell and “The Cave” by Mumford and Sons.
Drop C tuning gets its name because this tuning calls for you to “drop” your low E string down to C. However, unlike Drop D tuning, which only requires you to lower one string, Drop C tuning requires that you lower all six strings of your guitar: C-G-C-F-A-D
Drop C is similar to Drop D tuning in that the chords and fingerings are identical, although they sound lower and have a more bottom-heavy sound. You can hear Drop C tuning in a variety of genres, but it’s most commonly used in metal and hard rock. Some songs that use Drop C tuning include “My Curse” by Killswitch Engage, “Happy Song” by Bring Me the Horizon, and “Confined” by As I Lay Dying.
Open G tuning requires guitarists to tune their strings to the notes that make up a G chord: G, B, and D. To play Open G tuning, you’d adjust your strings (from lowest to highest) as follows: D-G-D-G-B-D
Blues, folk, and classic rock players often use Open G. One of the most notable open G payers is Keith Richards, who used it in a ton of classic Rolling Stones riffs such as "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" and "Street Fighting Man". Check out below as Andrew Martin of Palaye Royale and Matt Lake play "Street Fighting Man" on an episode of Fender Play Live:
You can also hear open G tuning on such songs as “Little Green” and “Nathan LaFraneer” by Joni Mitchell, “Walkin’ Blues” by Muddy Waters (and, later, several other guitarists inspired by Waters’ bluesy tone), Led Zeppelin’s “Goin’ to California,” and “Hard to Handle” by The Black Crowes.
Perhaps one of the most innovative users of alternate tunings is Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore. Thurston is known for pushing the limits of sound possibilities from the guitar (particularly the Jazzmaster), and alternate tunings have played a major role in his ability to create distinctly unique music. It was not unusual for him to tune his guitar by ear to a new tuning that he'd never played in before, and he'd often tune multiple strings to the same note to get a drone-like sound. Thurston truly embodies the concept of using alternate tunings to push your creativity!
In this classic clip from Fender Play LIVE, host & guitarist Nick Reinhart of Tera Melos sits down with Thurston to discusses all things alternate tuning including his influences, style and how he creates Sonic Youth's signature sound using alternate tunings.
Check out the full episode here.
Strumming open strings in Open C tuning gives you the sound of a big, meaty C chord. Since Open C tuning requires you to tune your strings down several steps, your strings may rattle since they have more slack than they would in standard tuning. Tune your strings (from lowest to highest) as such: C-G-C-G-C-E
Open C can be heard across a diverse swath of genres, from folk to rock to indie alternative. You can hear Open C tuning on such songs as “Friends” by Led Zeppelin, “A Thousand Days Before” by Soundgarden, “King of Spain” by The Tallest Man on Earth, and “The Fear” by Ben Howard.
Drop B Tuning takes the sound of your guitar to a darker, heavier place. Drop B tunes your low E string down by two-and-a-half steps, and alters the sound of your other five strings to be one-and-a-half steps lower than standard tuning: B-Gb-B-E-Ab-Db
The ultra-low Drop B tuning lends itself perfectly to darker genres of music, such as metal and its heavier varieties, such as doom and sludge. You can hear Drop B tuning on such metal masterpieces as “Duality” by Slipknot and “Whispers in the Dark” by Skillet, as well as in songs by a litany of metal bands including Tool, Pentagram, Disturbed, and Sevendust.
Open E tuning is a slight variation on standard tuning that alters the sound of three of your six guitar strings. This tuning allows you to form an E major chord when you strum your guitar in an open position. From your lowest string to your highest, you’d tune your strings like this to get Open E tuning: E-B-E-G#-B-E
The versatile Open E tuning can be heard in a number of genres -- most notably blues, folk, and rock. Blues master Bo Diddley used Open E tuning on his self-titled song called (what else but) “Bo Diddley.” Keith Richards also preferred this tuning, using Open E on Rolling Stones classics like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Gimme Shelter,” while folk innovator Bob Dylan used the tuning on every song on his iconic Blood on the Tracks album.
Check out Andrew Martin and Matt Lake playing through "Jumpin' Jack Flash" on an episode of Fender Play Live:
Drop A tuning involves tuning all strings down a 4th and then turning down your low E string down by one additional step: A-E-A-D-F#-B
If you listen to a lot of hard rock and heavy metal, chances are, you’ll recognize several songs that make use of Drop A tuning. “Citizen Erased” by Muse, “Psychosocial” by Slipknot,” and “Gravity’s Union” by Coheed and Cambria were all recorded using Drop A tuning.
Learning to play guitar takes time, practice, and patience. Learning alternate tuning is a fundamental building block in your guitar education -- and gives you the tools you need to learn to play songs and create new sounds of your own. Try your hand at these alternate tunings and unlock a full full library of songs and lessons with a free trial of Fender Play today.