Open and Alternate Tunings: What They Are and Why Page, Iommi, Grohl, and Slash All Use Them
The real magic of open or alternate tunings is that they put melodic runs within easy reach, for certain types of fingerstyle playing in particular, by putting open strings within the key or scale of the song in question, and also make slide (bottleneck) playing much easier by creating chords that can be played on all open strings together or on any barred fret.
Alternate tunings can be as simple as changing one string, as in the very popular “Dropped D,” in which the low E string is tuned down to a D to provide an easy power chord on the three lowest strings, or a big, ringing first-position D chord with an open bottom D. Plenty of players have also altered their tuning by merely dropping the entirety of standard tuning down a half step, which can provide a fatter, meaner, more growling sound for some rock and blues styles. This is known in some circles as “Jimi Hendrix tuning” because Hendrix frequently used this technique, and Slash delivered the hot, slinky riffs for “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and other Guns N’ Roses songs on a Les Paul tuned down a half-step. To get even darker, players have gone down a full-step, or more, like Tony Iommi’s powerful and influential work with Black Sabbath.
More radical alternate tunings, and tuning down in particular, have probably garnered the most attention recently because of the metal players who have been using them to achieve ultra-heavy sounds. This isn’t just a phenomenon of the thrash-metal, black-metal, and death-metal movements, however. Players have been dropping their tunings way down for years to create a more menacing vibe. Tony Iommi conjured pure sonic darkness back in the ’60s by tuning his SG down three semitones to C# (C#F#BEG#C#), and it also turns up at the hands of later bands like Metallica, Pantera, and Slayer. Metallica, in fact, have wrenched those tuners just about every which way, slipping into G#C#F#BD#G# for “Invisible Kid,” and CGCFAG for much of the St. Anger CD, among others. Plenty of rock players also thicken up Dropped D by dropping the whole shebang down a whole step, then dropping the erstwhile D down further to C, which results in CGCFAD.
The slightly more laid-back, but also occasionally heavy, plaid-shirted crowd up in Seattle also made good use of alternate tunings. Kim Thayil, lead guitarist with Soundgarden, used the odd CGCGGE for “Burden In My Hand,” “Pretty Noose,” and some others on the album Down On The Upside, and uses the simpler Dropped D elsewhere, which was frequently utilized by fellow Seattle legend Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Likewise, former Nirvana drummer-turned-Foo-Fighters-frontman Dave Grohl has made good use of Dropped D, heard on early Foos hits “Monkey Wrench” and “Everlong,” and has also devised the occasional custom alternate tuning to suit his songwriting requirements.
Beyond the rock, metal, and blues arenas, alternate tunings have also helped plenty of pop, jazz, indie, alternative, and country players stand out from the crowd. Late guitar legend Chet Atkins knew the power of alternate tunings well, and you can hear a number of them on his classic 1973 release Chet Atkins Alone. Or, to hear how alternate tunings can be applied to a more contemporary breed of Americana, check out Son Volt’s 1998 release Wide Swing Tremolo, on which Jay Farrar downtunes to a whole boatload of odd, self-concocted alternative voicings on a Les Paul Special or a range of acoustics. Tunings on “Driving The View” (CGCGCD) and “Carry You Down” (DGDGBC), to name but two, help to create heavy, droning resonances that are very different from those achieved by the downtuning metal players, but are equally effective.
“Open” tunings are probably most familiar as used by blues players, and slide players in particular. Some legendary non-slide players used odd and original tunings that they devised themselves, perhaps none quite so obtuse as that of Albert King, a left hander who played his right-handed 1958 Gibson Flying V upside down, tuned CFCFAD. You can hear how these unusual intervals are bent to King’s minimalist yet extremely expressive pentatonic-based riffing on classic cuts like “Born Under A Bad Sign” and “Don’t Throw Your Love On Me So Strong.” Texas blues legend Albert Collins used a very unusual F-minor triad tuning (FCFAbCF), which he altered further with the use of a capo, usually at the ninth fret but sometimes at the seventh or fifth.
The great blues-rock slide players, however, are largely associated with more familiar open tunings: Derek Trucks tunes his SG to Open E, while plenty of others—including ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons (an open-tuning aficionado)—use the same intervals a whole step down to achieve Open D. Another classic, Open G, is popular with both slide and non-slide players. Open G—and Open A, the same tuning, but a whole step up—can be heard in the blues of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker. George Thorogood had a big hit in the late 1970s with his rendition of Hank Williams’ "Move It On Over," played with a gnarly slide tone in Open G on his Gibson ES-125TDC thinline hollowbody.
Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, for one, is a big fan of Open G, which gives him access to those driving country-blues bends and ringing open notes in "Brown Sugar," for example. Not to mention, the rich chord-based melody of Open G rings through almost all of Richards’ playing on Exile on Main Street, acclaimed as the greatest rock album of all time. The rich possibilities of open tunings can also be heard in artists as varied as Bob Dylan on Blood on the Tracks, which uses Open E, as well as Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes, Paul Westerberg of the Replacements, Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls, and many other players. Meanwhile, back in slidesville, Jimmy Page did a lot of his slide work with Led Zeppelin in Open G, while he used the alternate tuning DADGAD, popular with a lot of British folk guitarists of the ’60s and ’70s, for much of his acoustic playing.
Try these open tunings, and you’ll soon find you can slide right into standard chord changes with a full rich tone, while also accessing melodic single-note scales with ease for fills and breaks. And beyond all the “standard alternate tunings,” if you will, are the myriad possibilities of the radical and unusual tunings out there just waiting to be discovered. It’s your guitar, your music—whatever tuning works for you is entirely valid, so explore freely and see what doors you can open.
To view chord charts for some of the most popular open and alternate tunings, click here.
Listen to clips of some of the most famous songs to use open or alternate tunings. You may just be surprised.
Photo Credit for Tony Iommi Photo: Dean Fardell