Listening to someone play an untuned guitar is an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It’s truly cringy! One time, I was in a smokey little dive bar and the guy playing didn’t want to take the time to tune. He mentioned multiple times that he noticed his guitar was out of tune and was like, “Whatever, it’s rock-n-roll!” Ugh, not the kind of rock I listen to!
Tuning is one of those seemingly small details, but it sits at the core of your sound and performance. It’s common for new guitar players to forget to tune their guitar or simply think of it as “you’re either in tune or ya aren’t,” but there’s much more to it. By understanding tunings and using alternate tunings you can add variety and creativity to your playing.
In this blog, we’ll go over the universal E-standard tuning, plus some of my favorite alternate tunings for you to try. Before we start, let’s talk about what standard tuning is on guitar.
Standard Guitar Tuning (E-Standard)
Standard tuning is the tuning that pretty much all chords, tabs, and solos are assumed to be in unless otherwise noted. Because it is so common, this is the sound most guitarists are used to hearing, and probably the one you’ve heard the most in your favorite songs, too.
In standard, the strings are tuned from the low E (the thickest string) to the high E (the thinnest string) in this order: EADGBE. There are tons of fun mnemonic devices to memorize the order, including the classic “Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good Bye Eddie.”
If you’re still learning how to tune your guitar, check out our easy how-to video guide.
All the open string notes on your guitar technically belong to the key of “C,” but when all the guitar strings are strummed open, it doesn’t naturally make a chord. Instead, it’s tuned in a way that makes it easy to create other chords and play in a lot of different keys. This tuning was created a few hundred years ago based on specific intervals that work well for guitar hand placement and playability, which is why we still use it as the standard today.
Standard tuning is essential to know, but there are tons of different ways to tune a guitar to create new sounds and add diversity to your skillset. Get fancy! You don’t have to use standard tuning — cue alternate tunings!
What’s Alternate Guitar Tunings?
An alternate tuning is any tuning that is not EADGBE and enables you to play things that sound different on guitar. Usually, the finger placement will be different than it would in standard tuning, so they take a little time to adjust to when you’re beginning to use them.
Open C Tuning (CGCGCE)
If you’re willing to sacrifice some time, Open C tuning is the perfect tuning that will immediately make for some breathtaking sounds. In this tuning, strumming down the open strings creates a C chord. There are a few variations of open C tuning, but tuning your strings to “C G C G C E” is the most popular. This tuning sounds great on acoustic guitar, especially paired with fingerstyle playing. Artists like Coldplay, Bon Iver, Mumford and Sons, and Ben Howard all use this tuning.
Open G Tuning (DGDGBD)
This tuning has a very classic rock feel, and the most popular artist to use it is probably the Rolling Stones (I love this earlier lesson Marty Music did on this!). With open G, strumming down the open strings, you can play a G chord. It has a distinctly bluesy sound, and you can hear it in music from artists like the Black Crowes, Robert Johnson, and Joni Mitchell to name a few.
The key of D has the most options for alternate tunings which is fun because they all have a different overall vibe from one another. Let’s talk about the different D tuning options and where you could use them:
Drop D (DADGBE)
One of the simplest alternate tunings is Drop D, which takes the low E string down a whole step to D. This is one of the most popular alternate tunings because lowering the pitch of the lowest string creates a bluesy, rock, or grunge sound with only one string retune. Some artists who use this tuning include Nirvana, Metallica, Foo Fighters, Led Zeppelin, and country artists like Miranda Lambert, Jason Isbell, and Jake Owen.
By changing three strings now, you can play in DADGAD which has a beautiful, airy, and cheerful sound. It has roots in Celtic music and it’s popular with fingerstyle guitar, folk, and even rock music. In my opinion, if you play in DADGAD, you will automatically sound fancy and good at guitar even if you’re doing something simple! It can be major or minor, and some popular artists who’ve used this tuning include Ed Sheeran, Led Zeppelin (again), Phil Keaggy, and Nathaniel Murphy (this lesson with him is great).
EADGAD and EADGBD
These are my favorite tunings in the key of D. They have a bright, happy sound which makes playing in D sound a lot more full and bright. One song that comes to mind with EADGAD tuning is “We Were Us” by Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert (I love this tutorial). For this tuning, there are some cool tricks you can do to play melody lines, but for both this tuning and EADGBD, playing regular open chords in D will sound great when you leave the B and high E open.
Tips For Playing Alternate Guitar Tunings
Here are a few quick tips to get you started in playing alternate tunings. With a little bit of practice, you’ll get familiar with the different tuning options, and you’ll also get faster at tuning with each try.
Get a Tuner
A clip on tuner is a great place to start, which you can find in the Orangewood Accessory Kit. Some guitars even come with built-in tuners, like the Orangewood Melrose Live Collection. In a pinch, you might need to resort to a tuning app on your phone.
Check Your Tuner Settings
A lot of guitar tuners (especially clip-on tuners) have a guitar setting usually noted with a “G.” If you’re using this setting and trying to do one of the alternate tunings below, your tuner might start having a panic attack and not know what you’re doing. A “C” or chromatic tuner will be the best for different tunings.
Keep Tuning Time in Mind
A jam with your friends may not be the best time to decide to tune your guitar to open C tuning (unless telling awkward jokes to fill the silence is your thing). Some alternate tunings may just require one string to be retuned, while other tunings need every string to change.
Don’t Forget the Capo
If you want to play in an alternate tuning that’s key specific, but the song you’re playing is not in that key, capoing works great with alternate tunings (if you need a capo, the Orangewood Accessory Kit has one, too)! A capo is an easy way to get a unique sound while still having the song fit your voice.
While those are the most popular alternate tunings, there are so many more out there. It’s key to remember that, with guitar, there is no right or wrong. It’s fun to experiment around with your own alternate tunings or way of playing through them. I hope this blog gives you some ideas of which alternate tunings you might want to try out to expand your sound. If you want to learn more about how to use and play through each of these tunings, I have a more in-depth Alternate Tunings course here.
Haley is a guitar player, blogger, and guitar teacher based out of Nashville, TN. When she's not playing or writing, you can find her in line at her favorite breakfast taco shop, taking her dog hiking at the nearest waterfall, or binging Outer Banks with her hubby.