I made up an alternate guitar tuning and I use it a lot. This is the nitty gritty, provocative, tell-all, behind the music story about that tuning.
One of the first lessons in the long, ugly self-education process of teaching yourself to play guitar is how to tune your instrument. When you’re learning something new you’re bound to make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes lead to new discoveries.
My early mistakes while trying to wrangle my guitar into tune accidentally opened the door to exploring alternate or alternative tunings. After realizing that EADGBE or “standard” tuning is not the only way to tune a guitar, I intentionally began playing around with tunings, discovering things like DADGBD (Double Drop D) and EADF♯BE.
Since then, I’ve read about Nick Drake, who some consider to be the godfather of alternate tunings, and learned that you can’t really play Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin tunes faithfully or easily in standard tuning.
Armed with that knowledge and even more curiosity, I’ve added to my repertoire more tunings like DACGAD, CGAGCE, DGDGBD, DADDAD, and even DDDGDD (thanks to Ben Albright). But perhaps the most interesting tuning I’ve discovered is one I made up.
One day I was thinking about how the B string in standard tuning stands alone. Standard tuning is based on intervals of fourths (or 2½ steps), so the pitch for each string can be found by fretting the next lower pitched string at the fifth fret. For example, fretting the low E string at the fifth fret sounds the note A, which is the note of the next higher string. And the A string can be fretted at the fifth fret to give a D. This works for all of the strings on the guitar except the B string. To find the pitch of the B string the G string must be fretted on the fourth fret, which produces a major third.
This break in the pattern bothered me. Sure, standard tuning is a solid, time-tested system with many good reasons for why it is the way it is, but I wondered what would happen if I used the fourth fret to tune all the way across.
What came out of that little experiment is a weird tuning that I often use: FAC♯FAA. I call it my two-step tuning, not because it’s good for songs with a two step feel, but because each string is two steps higher than the previous string.
Like standard tuning, I allowed one string to be an exception to the rule. If I had continued the pattern across, the high E should have been another C♯, but it proved difficult to make chord shapes this way. I thought I’d drop the string to A instead. This created a nice unison effect, but the string was too loose and easily fell out of tune. So I replaced the high E string with a string of the same gauge as the B string. And taa-daa! A new tuning!
But sadly, I could’t write much of anything with it.
An open strum produced an augmented triad, an interesting, but somewhat unsettling chord (take a major chord and sharp the fifth i.e. C-E-G♯). Plucking each string in succession revealed a tritonic scale of major thirds, which is not a scale Western ears (mine included) are accustomed to hearing in musical contexts. When all the notes of a scale are equidistant to each other, it becomes very difficult to determine the key. The scale is the same no matter where you start. John Coltrane used this peculiar aspect of major thirds to create a disorienting progression of chords now known as Coltrane changes.
None of the familiar chord shapes and scale patterns of standard tuning carried over to this new tuning either. My brain was flummoxed by its’ own invention. Having created something interesting, but not knowing what to do with it, I set it aside.
Sometime later I worked a summer as a truck driver for a fireworks company. I decided to take my guitar on the road with me to see if I could crack this tuning’s code. My truck route took me near where my friend Brian Fetter lived. Instead of sitting in a hotel, I was able to hang out with him for the evening. It was at his apartment that this tuning produced its’ first tune, a song called “If Ever In Doubt.”
For a long time, that was the only song that I could find in that tuning. I often referred to it as my “If Ever In Doubt” tuning. Over time the tuning and I became more comfortable with each other. A handful of songs have come to life through it. My latest album All Is Sideways features several of these songs (including the title track).
Reasons to Try Alternate Tunings
- Create unique vibes standard tuning can’t make
- Drone-like effects with open strings
- Strange chords can be played with easier fingerings
- Forces you to think about the sound and not resort the familiarity of what you know and muscle memory