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Open Tunings vs. Alternative Tunings… What is the difference?

During your studies of the guitar, you have probably heard of “Alternative ” or “Open” tunings. In this article I will demonstrate to you something more to this “alternative” world. This demonstration is a creative way to discover new possibilities on the instrument and the sounds that someone can create. Every time we change tunings, we have a new world to discover.

All the guitars in the world start by being tuned in standard tuning (EADGBE) making it the most common of all tunings. Every variation of this tuning is an alternative tuning. One of the easier alternative tunings is Drop D (DADGBE) in which the lowest string is tuned down (“dropped”) a whole step from E to D. With this tuning we obtain a deeper and darker sound. But if we tune down the first string from E to D we obtain the Double Drop D tuning (DADGBD) which is another alternative tuning.

If we take the fifth string and drop it down from A to G, we obtain an open tuning called Open G (DGDGBD). With these examples provided we can now see the main difference between open and alternative tunings. When tuned to an open tuning the open strings form a chord. If the chord is major or minor, we have an open tuning (like Open G tuning for example). In this case, we have an open tuning because the open strings form a G Major chord. If the chord is not major or minor, we have an alternate tuning. For convention, every variation of standard tuning is an alternative tuning, so the open tunings are one typology of alternative tunings.

One of the most popular alternative tunings is DADGAD, widely used by many fingerstyle guitarists including Pierre Bensusan, Michael Hedges and Eric Roche for example. This is a variation of D Major open tuning (DADF#AD), because if we use G and not F# we obtain a Dsus4 chord, commonly named DADGAD. The “DADGAD case” is interesting because many books and methods were written about this tuning. This is unusual because generally open tunings do not have any written methods. For example, if you take your guitar and tune one string you obtain an alternative tuning. Maybe you can find some songs with this tuning, and you can study how the composer used that tuning, but it’s rare that you will find a method to learn how to use this tuning with scales and chords. That is not the case for DADGAD because this is one of the most popular tunings on the steel string acoustic guitar.

I think that the approach to open and alternative tunings should be as creative as possible. Every time you change the tuning of your guitar, you have the possibility of discovering a new world of sounds, chords and scales. On the other hand, when you play in standard tuning you have developed the fingering and shaping of scales, chords and the notes on the fretboard. This can limit your creativity as you cannot accomplish specific sounds or techniques without changing the tuning. With this being said, I don’t discourage you to study chords and scales in standard tuning, because it’s fundamental for your music education. What I do encourage is that you experiment with open tunings.

I had the honor of meeting Jon Gomm in Turin (Italy), an English guitar player and songwriter that became world renowned because of his incredible technique and compositions, using open tunings. When I had met Jon, he told me a story about his first college-band when he was young. He was the lead-guitarist, and his friend was playing the rhythm parts. One day, his friend came to the band room with a new song. He doesn’t know what chords he was playing: but it sounds good!

What we do with alternative tunings is quite similar to Jon’s story because we don’t know exactly what we are playing but go by our ear on whether or not it sounds consonant. When we use open and alternative tunings, we take total inspiration from specifically the new sounds, fingerings, positions, scale forms and music!

Tags: tunings; DADGAD; open; alternative; chords

Simone Dani is an italian fingerstyle guitarist, check him out on:



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