Alternate Tunings for Guitar

A big part of Perpetual Motion’s sound comes from my use of alternate guitar tunings. For those of you unfamiliar with them, let me explain. In standard tuning, the strings are tuned to the notes E A D G B E, low to high. In alternate tunings any combination of one to all six strings can be tuned to different pitches. These tunings can be classified into two basic categories: open and non-open. Open tunings form a chord when the strings are played open (no fretted notes), whereas non-open tunings do not. The reason alternate tunings have become popular with many guitarists is that they allow you to play chords that are not possible in standard tuning. For me, this is an integral part of my compositional style. Playing a chord voicing that I have never used before usually inspires me to write a new song, and discovering new tunings always leads to finding some very interesting and unique sounding chords.

I got my start playing in alternate tunings while studying guitar with Steve Mesple’ in Louisville, Colorado. Steve taught me many of the common tunings such as Dropped D (DADGBE), D Modal (DADGBD), Open G (DGDGBD), Open D (DADF#AD) and DADGAD. I have used these and many variations on most of Perpetual Motion’s songs. To hear some examples, click on the song titles following the tuning name:

Dropped D: Ready, Willing and Able

Open G: In the Mode

Open D: Joy To The World

DADGAD: Dreamcatcher

Open G and Open D are commonly used by slide players; listen to Duane Allman or Bonnie Raitt for some terrific slide work. Dropped D is the simplest alternate tuning and used on many fingerstyle songs like The Beatles‘ “Dear Prudence” and Jorma Kaukonen’s “Embryonic Journey”. By taking these common tunings and changing one or two strings, or adding a capo, I have a seemingly endless variety to choose from. Some of my favorite variations are DADEAD, DADF#AC# and DGDGAD.

For guitatists who want to learn how to get into various tunings, here is a diagram showing how to go from standard tuning to the most common alternate tunings and several variations:

Learning songs that other guitarists have composed in different tunings also inspires new ideas for me. Chet Atkins, Alex deGrassi, Michael Hedges, Laurence Juber, Leo Kottke and Stephen Stills are a few of the many guitarists known for their use of alternate tunings, and bands such as The Doobie Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin and Queen, among many others, have used them.

Retuning my guitar opened up a new world of musical ideas that I am still exploring. Lately, however, I have rediscovered a tuning that I had neglected for a long time: good old Standard Tuning!

Thanks for Listening!

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