The most common tuning for the guitar is called standard tuning, with the strings tuned 6-E, 5-A, 4-D, 3-G, 2-B, 1-E. The majority of songs for guitar are written in this tuning. However, musicians will often experiment with other ways to tune the guitar in order to achieve sounds that aren’t easy to create in standard tuning.
1. All strings detuned. Some famous rock artists like Guns-N-Roses, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Jimi Hendrix like to tune all of the strings down a half step or lower. The reason musicians choose this tuning is because it allows the guitar to play a low Eb (E flat) chord that is not available in standard tuning.
When the strings are detuned by one half step, people will sometimes refer to this as Eb tuning. This name can be confusing because it sounds as if the guitar should play an Eb chord when the strings are strummed open. It is better to simply state that the guitar is tuned one half step flat from standard.
2. Drop tuning. Guitarists will sometimes detune just one string, allowing power chords to be played with one finger across one fret. This is done by tuning the sixth string from an E to a D, with the rest of the strings in standard tuning. This is called Drop D and makes for very simple rock guitar playing. “Everlong” by Foo Fighters and “Meant to Live” by Switchfoot are examples of modern rock in Drop D tuning. “Hey John, What’s Your Name Again?” by The Devil Wears Prada is a song in the screamo genre that is in Drop D.
The guitar can also be tuned to a Double Drop D tuning by detuning the first string to a D also. An example of this tuning is in the song “Blackwater” by The Doobie Brothers.
A hybrid version of drop tuning and detuning is used to achieve a very heavy, chunky guitar sound. To accomplish this, the guitar is detuned by a half step or more across all strings and the sixth string is then detuned another whole step further than the rest of the strings. The song “Shine” by Collective Soul is written in Drop C# tuning.
Bands like Skillet really like the heavy chunk that Drop C# it has.
Drop C is also a common tuning for heavy metal and heavier modern rock (all strings detuned a whole step from standard, sixth string detune two whole steps from standard). “Stare at the Sun” by Thrice is written in Drop C.
3. Open tuning. A more complex method of alternate tuning is to tune the strings in such a way that a chord is played when the strings are strummed open. Open E and Open D are common tunings of this type. Open tunings completely rearrange chord shapes and scale patterns and can be challenging for beginner and early intermediate guitarists. “She Talks to Angels” by The Black Crowes is an example of a song in Open E. Open tunings are used a lot by slide guitar players. Other instruments that use open tunings include banjo, dulcimer and cigar box guitar.
There are a few things to keep in mind about alternate tunings. Most artists who use alternate tunings will make accommodations with their guitars to handle them. Those who detune or use drop tunings will often use heavier gauge strings. When performing live, an artist will typically have different guitars set for different tunings to avoid retuning between songs. Guitars will sometimes have to be set up differently for alternate tunings because of the way the tension on the neck changes when the strings are adjusted.
It takes some time and practice to become comfortable with alternate tunings, but they offer a fun option for your guitar playing. If you get in a rut with the same old chords and licks, try playing in an alternate tuning for a while. The change of scenery will likely reenergize your creativity!