Learning to play the guitar can be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding hobbies, though stepping outside of the basic guitar realm can feel overwhelming.
This is especially true when it comes to alternative guitar tunings.
While you likely began playing with standard guitar tuning (EADGBE), there are several alternate tunings that can open up new possibilities for your playing.
In this guide, we’ll explore some of the best alternate guitar tunings that are excellent for absolute beginners.
What Is Alternate Tuning?
Alternate guitar tuning is tuning the pitches of the strings to any other tuning beyond the standard EADGBE.
As we’ll learn, standard tuning is the most commonly used tuning for guitarists, though alternate tunings can open up new playing styles and unique sounds. There are endless alternate tunings to experiment with, each of which comes with its own set of challenges and advantages.
Some alternate tunings are used consistently in specific styles of music. For example, in blues-style slide guitar playing, many guitarists use open G tuning. As we dive in and explore the many alternate tuning possibilities, I urge you to experiment with each one to open up new avenues of creative expression for your instrument.
Standard Guitar Tuning
The most commonly used tuning for guitars is standard tuning.
This tuning consists of six open strings tuned to EADGBE, moving from the lowest and thickest string to the highest and thinnest string.
Most popular music can be played with standard tuning, as it provides access to a wide range of cords that you can play with relative ease. You'll find this tuning used in several genres, including pop, folk, rock, and country.
Tuning Your Guitar Properly
Before you dive in and start experimenting with these alternate tunings, there are a few things I want you to keep in mind.
Number one, always use an electronic guitar tuner with playing around with alternate tunings or adjusting your guitar back to standard. Yes, having the ability to tune your guitar by ear is certainly a skill you should hone, especially if you know how to tune the strings using the other strings as a reference, though having an electronic tuner will make your tuning far more accurate.
When playing along with recorded songs or making recordings of your own, accuracy is key.
Number two, make sure that the strings you are using and your guitar can handle alternate tunings. Some guitars are set up with specific tension and strings so that they sound best in a given tuning.
For example, I have a Gibson Les Paul that was set up specifically to stay in standard tuning one step down (DGCF#AD). If I were to try to tune strings far up past the comfort point, I would like to deal with some intonation issues and possibly break some strings along the way.
Exercise caution when experimenting with alternate tunings, know the string gauges you are working with and what they are made for and know what will work with your guitar.
1. Drop D Tuning
One of the most common alternate tunings for guitar is Drop D tuning, much because it is one of the easiest to employ.
To get into Drop D tuning, simply to your low E string down a whole step so that the strings from top to bottom are DADGBE.
Several metal and alternative rock songs use Drop D tuning, some of the most popular include “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine and “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters.
The beauty of this tuning is that it makes it much easier to play power chords, as you can play them with one finger on the bottom three strings. This tuning also allows guitarists to play lower notes that would otherwise be impossible with standard tuning, which is one of the reasons you often hear it in heavier styles of music.
2. Open G Alternate Tuning
Open G tuning uses three altered strings:
- Tune the low E string a whole step down to D
- Tune the A string a whole step down to G
- Tune the high E string a whole step down to D
Once in this tuning, you can strum the open strings to hear a G major chord. This is the same tuning that you would find on a banjo, making it an excellent substitute for playing banjo tunes.
I often find myself using this alternate tuning for folk, blues, and bluegrass music.
One of my absolute favorite open G songs to play is “Death Letter” by Son House.
One of the great things about open G tuning is that you’ll get a major chord by simply barring the fretboard on the corresponding fret for the chord you're looking for.
3. Open D Tuning
You can think of open D tuning as an extension of open G tuning, as the notes make up one large D major chord.
The only difference between this tuning and open G is that you tune the G string a half step down to F# so that it reads (DADF#AD).
This alternate tuning is very popular with fingerstyle guitarists and can be heard in popular songs such as “The Cave” by Mumford and Sons or “Kamera” by Wilco.
It's also very popular in blues, country, and slide guitar playing, as you can barre one fret to play a major chord. You’ll find several acoustic guitarists using this tuning, as it often gives acoustic guitars a fuller and more resonant sound.
4. The "Nick Drake" Tuning
Nick Drake was a popular English singer-songwriter and acoustic guitar player who often used alternate tunings in his songs to create rich, warm, and resonant beds of accompaniment for his vocals to sit atop.
The tuning he used, which is an open C tuning, is often referred to as the Nick Drake tuning.
You can achieve the Nick Drake alternate tuning by tuning your guitar to an open C chord (CGCGCE).
This unique tuning is well-suited to fingerstyle playing with its rich and resonant tonal quality, creating a distinct harmonic palette for songwriting. You'll often hear it in folk and acoustic genres.
A few of Nick Drake’s most popular songs with open C tuning include “Road” and “Cello Song.”
5. P4 Alternate Guitar tuning
P4 alternate guitar tuning, sometimes referred to as "perfect fourth" tuning, is a popular alternative guitar tuning wherein each string is tuned to the perfect fourth interval (EADGCF). The only exception is the major third interval between the second and third strings.
Compared to standard tuning, this tuning creates a consistent and symmetrical pattern across the fretboard, making it much easier to play complex scales and chord voicings.
It's one of the many popular alternate guitar tunings in the jazz and avant-garde music world. Guitarists will often use this tuning with extended range guitars, such as those with seven or eight strings, as it provides a bit more versatility and range.
6. "Drop B" Tuning
While there are plenty of drop tunings, so much so that I could probably draft a whole article on them, drop B tuning deserves a special mentioning just because of how HEAVY it can be.
This tuning (BEADF#B) works great on baritone guitars and can deliver an unbelievably rich and heavy tone when employed correctly.
While many refer to it as "Drop B" tuning, I think it's more accurate to refer to it as B standard, as you retain all the same chord shapes in standard.
7. Bruce Palmer Modal
The Bruce Palmer modal tuning, otherwise known as "E Modal" tuning, is a unique method of tuning for open chord voicings. The guitar uses a EEEEBE, tuning that is representative of two tone drone tuning.
This style of tuning is very popular for blues, country, and folk music, and one of the most popular alternate tunings for finding new ways to voice chords.
8. New Standard Tuning
New standard tuning, otherwise known as NST tuning, is an alternate guitar tuning that was developed by the founder of the legendary progressive rock band King Crimson, Robert Fripp.
This tuning differs from standard tuning in that the guitar is tuned to the following pitches, from the low E string to the high e string: CGDAEG.
If you're interested in exploring melodic and harmonic possibilities that aren't possible with regular tuning, or you're looking to explore unique chord progressions outside of traditional chord structures, this is a super fun tuning to experiment with.
It's become an incredibly popular tuning in the experimental and avant-garde community, and is often used by guitarists like Steve Vai, Trey Gunn, and Adrian Belew.
9. Open F9 aka ‘American Football' Tuning
If you're a fan of emo music, American Football tuning is a must-try.
This tuning became closely associated with American Football, the emo and indie rock band from Urbana, Illinois, who garnered a cult following in the late 1990s.
In American Football tuning, the guitar is tuned, from lowest to highest, like this: DADGCF.
Compared to standard, you tune the guitar down one whole-step with the top two strings tuned up a whole-step and a half-step respectively. Listen to American Football's music, and you'll ear the intricate chord voicings and guitar work that this particular tuning was very conducive to.
Many emo and alternative rock bands outside of American Football have made use of this tuning to create more melancholy and introspective backdrops for their songs, though it can be used in just about any genre.
Note that this is one of the few alternate guitar tunings that may require some guitar adjustments, as tuning the strings up can create more tension.
10. Open 6 Tuning
Open 6 tuning is one of my absolute favorite open tunings, and it looks a little something like this: FACGCE.
The low E and b string are tuned up a half-step, and the D string is tuned down a whole step. It's a great tuning for open chords and has been used religiously in folk and acoustic styles of music with acts like John Martyn, David Crosby, and Nick Drake.
Similar to American Football tuning, this tuning may require some adjustments to you guitar, especially since you'll be tuning the low E string up.
11. Open G6 Tuning
Open G6 tuning is very similar to Open 6 tuning, except the guitar is tuned as follows: GABDEG.
The E strings are tuned 1.5 steps up, the D strings is tuned 1.5 steps down, and the B string is tuned 2.5 steps up. You'll definitely need to make some adjustments to your guitar to use this tuning, or use an e string for where your B string would typically sit.
This tuning is great for playing slide, and has been used by a wide range of musicians, such as the Rolling Stones (most of Keith's classic riffs) and Sonic Youth on their hit, "Teenage Riot."
Tuned to Perfection
Who knew that six strings could offer so many possibilities?
Alternate guitar tunings offer unique ways to explore creative possibilities. By experimenting with the guitar tunings above, you can find new ways to play and compose your own music.
From the rock and roll riffs of Keith Richard and the Rolling Stones to the introspective and melancholy sounds of Nick Drage, alternate guitar tunings offer dimension and distinction in the way guitarist's play. We hope that these alternate tunings open up new doors for your playing.
Have fun and keep shredding!