Acoustic Guitar: Exploring Alternate Tunings

Alternate tunings can open a whole new world of playing for the guitarist. This article talks about alternate tunings and gives some examples of popular open tunings.

After a while, playing the same old chord progressions can get boring, even for the most die-hard guitarists. It sometimes can seem like you've hit a wall with your playing and writing - you've done everything you can possibly do with the notes at your disposal. If this is the case, then exploring alternate tunings might be a good option. Alternate tunings can open up a whole new world for the acoustic guitarist. And although there are an infinite number of alternate tunings at your disposal, there are a few that are used most frequently by guitarists.

Before exploring alternate tunings, it is important to understand how the guitar is set-up. In standard tuning, the six strings are each tuned to a different note - E-A-D-G-B-E, from low to high. This means that when you pluck the open first string (the high string), you will hear an E note. When you pluck the open second string, an A note. And so on. The notes on the guitar are divided up by frets, with each fret representing what is known as a "step" or "half-step." These correspond to the keys on a piano - the white keys representing whole notes, and the black keys representing half-notes.

If you think of the frets as the keys on the piano, the guitar becomes rather simple. For example, on the second string, we have already established that the open note is a B. On the piano, this would correspond to the white key directly to the right of the cluster of two black keys. Note that on the piano, the next key to the right is another white key. This is a C note. Likewise, on the guitar, the next fret (the first) represents a C note. Back to the piano - the next key to the right of the C note is a black key. This is a C#. Likewise, on the guitar, the second fret of the B string represents a C# note. The next key on the piano is a white key - a D - and on the guitar, the third fret of the B string is a D note. This pattern holds true for all the strings and frets of the guitar. Take some time to learn how the notes and frets correspond to one another before attempting to explore alternate tunings.

Once you understand how the notes work on the guitar, you are ready to start playing with them to find alternate tunings. There are a few popular alternate tunings that guitarists have relied on over the years. One of the most popular is known as "open-G" tuning. It is called this because once you tune your guitar in this way, strumming the strings without fretting any notes will produce a G chord. In order to tune your guitar to open-G, you must first tune down the high-E string to D. You can do this by sounding a D-note on the B string and then matching the high string to that frequency. In the same way, tune down the fifth string to a G note, and tune down the sixth string to a D note. The strings should be tuned as follows: D-G-D-G-B-D. Strum the open string. It should ring out like a G-chord. Many slide guitarists use this tuning, as do a lot of fingerstyle guitarists. For example, Bob Dylan's classic song, "I Was Young When I Left Home," is played in this tuning.

Another popular open tuning is open-D. To achieve this tuning, tune down the first string to a D-note, the second to an A, the third to an F#, and the sixth to a D. The strings should be tuned like this: D-A-D-F#-A-D. This tuning provides a bright and lively air to your playing. A third tuning that many guitarists employ is open-C, which is tuned C-G-C-G-C-E. In fact, there are open tunings for every chord, minor chord, diminished chord, and any other type of arrangement you can think of.

For the most part, you can figure out how to tune to open chords by figuring out what notes are in the chord and then adjusting your strings. One very important piece of advice is to try and tune downward whenever possible. Tuning up on a string adds a great deal of stress on both the string and the neck, and can cause damage to the guitar. The easiest thing to do, if a song calls for a tuning that would require you to tune up on strings, is to tune to a lower chord and then use a capo to change the key. For example, open-E tuning might be the most popular open tuning of them all. However, tuning the fourth and fifth strings up two frets can create a great deal of strain on the instrument. Instead, tune down to an open-D, and then use a capo on the second fret to achieve the key of E. If you absolutely must tune up, try and go no higher than two or at the most three frets for any strings.

Alternate tunings can be a great way to jumpstart your playing if you feel like you've hit a plateau. Just make sure to understand how the notes work on the fretboard, and remember to try and tune downward whenever possible. If you keep this in mind, you can wander through this new world for the rest of your career.

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