Standard vs Alternate Guitar Tuning: What’s Best For Your Songwriting?
One of the best things about your guitar is that it is a flexible and versatile instrument.
While the vast majority of guitarists, either amateur or pro, use what we call a standard tuning (where the strings are tuned following the pattern E — A — D — G — B — E), many others enjoy experimenting with alternate tunings.
If you are a songwriter and a guitarist, chances are you sometimes ask yourself: what tuning shall my next song be in?
It is indeed a crucial decision, as adopting a different guitar tuning can result in a completely different sonic environment for your song.
As a fan of Joni Mitchell’s music and the blues and folk genres, I have encountered many different guitar tunings along the way and I have often asked myself that very same question.
Today, I’d like to reply to this question: what guitar tuning is best for your songwriting?
Let’s start with a little introduction, in case you are not very familiar with alternate tunings.
What are alternate tunings?
In a nutshell, we are using an alternate tuning each time we change the pitch of at least one of our guitar strings.
Even the simplest alternate tunings, like a drop D, where we only change the pitch of a single string, can sound very different from our regular standard tuning, often suggesting a more complex musical palette.
There are a huge number of alternate tunings that are proven to work. Joni Mitchell alone used more than fifty-two throughout her career. This can make things a bit confusing, especially for beginner guitarists, but to simplify this complex topic we can rely on some classifications.
Let’s start with the most common types of alternate tunings, often used by songwriters in different genres.
Open tunings allow us to create specific chords without having to use the frets. In other words, by plucking the open strings, we obtain a specific chord.
These tunings are widely used in blues, folk, and rock songs. The most common ones are the open E, the open D, the open G, and the open A.
In the first case, our strings are tuned to create an E major chord, so the pitches will be E — B — E — G# — B.
In the second case, the strings will be tuned with the pattern D — A — D — F# — A — D, creating a D major chord.
In the third case, we will tune our guitar following the pattern D — G — D — G — B — D, creating a G major chord with a D as a bass note.
Last but not least, the open A tuning follows the pattern E — A — E — A — C# — E, creating an A major chord with an E as a bass note.
These examples are all major but bear in mind we can also have minor open tunings, often used in old blues standards.
A lot of popular songs were written and recorded with open-tuned guitars. Once again, going through Joni Mitchell’s repertoire could be a great idea if you are serious about using these tunings. Other artists too, however, employed open tunings in a brilliant way. Some examples include Simple Twist Of Fate, by Bob Dylan; Jumpin’ Jack Flash, by The Rolling Stones; and Crossroads, by Robert Johnson.
Dropped or lowered tunings are another popular category, often employed by rock artists, especially in grunge and heavy metal. We have a dropped tuning whenever we lower the pitch of our bottom string, which should be an E in standard tuning. The most common way to do that is lowering that note to a D, creating what we call a drop D tuning.
Some examples of songs written and recorded using this tuning include All Apologies, by Nirvana; and Black Hole Sun, by Soundgarden.
Modal tunings are particularly interesting because they allow us to create suspended chords. For example, the D — A — D — G — A — D tuning results in a Dsus4 chord. Playing in that tuning can inspire some pretty interesting chord progressions and melodic ideas. For example, Kashmir, by Led Zeppelin, was written in that tuning.
There are way more classifications and guitar tunings we could explore, but these three categories are the easiest to start with and also the most popular ones in many folk, rock, and blues sub-genres.
The pros and cons of standard and alternate tunings
Now, to reply to my initial question, we have to ponder the pros and cons of both standard and alternate tunings.
Obviously, standard tuning is widely used among guitarists. This means you will probably find more educational material focused on it. You will also have more chances to be understood by fellow musicians if you speak the “standard language”, rather than working with less known tunings. Moreover, we usually study the scales and the chords over a standard-tuned guitar, at least in most guitar classes.
However, the standard tuning can result in quite a limited sound palette. Or I should rather say: it is way harder to create interesting, often unheard sonic solutions with a standard-tuned guitar. With the right alternate tuning, on the other hand, it could be as easy as playing a very complex chord with just one finger.
This is the biggest pro of alternate tunings: they allow us to play complicated and sometimes even weird chords without struggling with our fingers. This is why Joni Mitchell employed alternate tunings in the first place, as her experience with polio as a child affected her hands.
With alternate tunings, you could even create progressions you wouldn’t think of in a standard tuning environment.
Three effective ways to use alternate tunings in your songwriting
Let’s quickly see what an alternate tuning can offer you, that our regular standard tuning cannot.
First of all, with open and modal tunings, it is way easier to employ a sort of drone effect and experiment with that in your songwriting. In other words, you can sustain a specific note or cluster throughout your entire song, no matter the progression or key changes that may occur. This can result in some genius songwriting solutions.
Secondly, you can take advantage of the unresolved suspensions easily created with modal tunings to write songs that communicate a sense of inquiry or uncertainty, or doubt. While you could totally do that with some very regular chords played over a standard-tuned guitar, the use of modal tunings will help you find the perfect sound for the message you want to communicate.
Lastly, alternate tunings, and open tunings especially, often allow us to play around with parallel chord shapes. Since the relation between strings is usually more symmetrical in these kinds of tunings, we can slide from one chord to the other, without changing the position of our fingers, finding new, interesting sounds in the process.
So, what’s best for your songwriting?
As you may have anticipated since the beginning of this article, there is no univocal way to answer this question. As it often happens in music, the answer is that it depends.
What are your goals as a songwriter? What do you want to communicate through your next song? How comfortable are you with the idea of re-learning your instrument from scratch?
If your goal is to create different sonic environments, even in the simplest song forms, then alternate tunings are for you. If your next song wants to communicate nuanced and complex emotions or messages, hardly expressed by the most regular and “mainstream” chords, then alternate tunings are for you. If you are comfortable knowing that studying alternate tunings requires a whole new approach to the guitar, then alternate tunings are for you.
Most of all, experimenting with new tunings can be a very fun process that could even boost your inspiration and help you beat any creator’s block you may experience.