Fun with Alternate Tunings

I saw something surfing online last night that reminded me maybe it would be cool to make a sticky thing for open tunings. After all, its a popular (if sometimes slightly complicated) topic and the manipulation of various strings on the guitar to various different pitches from the standard concert tuning has resulted in soooooo much quality music. So to whit, here’s a short primer with some background info.

I already touched on the subject of open tunings in the Keith Richards posts and if you are interested in what he did you can read here and here. I did NOT touch on the subject in the Jimmy Page posts even though I certainly could have. Page used many tunings over the years with great success. Some, like the completely twisted tuning for When the Levee Breaks (EACFAC) were probably his invention. Some like the infamous CIA (Celtic-Indian-Arabic) modal tuning (DADGAD) were not. Below is Davey Graham, a British guitarist who was an extremely huge influence on Page playing this tuning in a folk setting in the early 60s. Davey, in addition to being a great folk player also did well with jazz and “world music” before anyone thought of calling it that.

What led me to consider a post on tunings was a visit last night to the Joni Mitchell website. She has a whole section devoted to guitar transcriptions and over her very long, incredibly successful career used an estimate 50 +/- different tunings she basically just made up. She even has an archivist who has kept track of them for her. However, there is a system involved and if you are interested in the theory behind the tunings you can view that here. As you may or may not know, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were completely enthralled with Joni Mitchell and may or may not have been influenced by some of her early 70s recordings. Jimmy didn’t use quite as many tunings as Joni, but he did have several interesting ones and I’ve listed them below. All of the tuning numbers are low-to-high and from the studio recordings. Some were changed live, Dancin’ Days was probably recorded with a guitar in standard and another in open G. After the list there is a nice version of a very pleasant and easy That’s the Way from Earl’s Court in 1975. Tune to open G and have fun!

Open G (DGDGBD)
That’s the Way
Going to California
Black Country Woman
Dancin’ Days*

Open C (CGCEGC)
Hats Off to Roy Harper

CIA (DADGAD)
Kashmir
White Summer
Black Mountain Side

Drop D (DADGBE)
Moby Dick
Ten Years Gone

Open A (EAEAC#E)
In My Time of Dying

“Page C” (CACGCE)
Poor Tom
Friends
Bron-Yr-Aur

“Page C 2” (CFCFAF)
Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp

“Page D” (DGCGCD)
The Rain Song

“Page Slide 1” (EFCFAE)
Jennings Farm Blues

“Page Slide 2” (EACFAC)
When the Levee Breaks

“Page Slide 3” (EADGBD)
Traveling Riverside Blues

Of course many other guitarists have used altered tunings throughout their careers. Sonic Youth have an online primer that details the tunings for what looks to be everything in their catalog! Quite the list of outrageous stuff! Many hard rock bands made use of the Drop D tuning including Pantera, Van Halen and Soundgarden. Speaking of Soundgarden, they had some really far-out tunings on the Superunknown and Down on the Upside albums. I was a fan of the EEBBBB tuning that is used on The Day I Tried to Live and My Wave. Burden in My Hand is a great example of a hard rock approach to an Open C tuning (which originally would’ve been used for acoustic bottleneck back in the day). In this post I detailed the C tuning metal players from Tony Iommi to Matt Pike favor and I will once again refer you to the Wiki page on guitar tunings, because it’s a good resource.

As I mentioned in the Keith Richards post linked above, altered tunings can really expand your sound, but they can also be a huge pain in the neck too, especially in a live situation. If you are in the position of being able to haul multiple guitars around then you can tune as many as you want to whatever you want. You certainly can’t be trying to adjust to dramatically different tunings between songs. If it’s just a matter of dropping the E string, you’ll be ok, but even going from standard to open G and then back to standard is a bit dodgy. I’ve found that doing so stretches out the strings in a way that makes the tuning sound weird and they go “dead” faster too. Ideally you should have a guitar for a certain tuning and set up the guitar to the various tension the tuning produces. An open A tuning, for example, puts much more stress on the guitar than the open G because the D, G and B strings all have to be raised a pitch. Generally, I’ve found that acoustic guitars especially have an easier time and a warmer tone if the strings are detuned into an altered tuning rather than being raised, but that certainly isn’t a rule. There is a lot of trial and error involved with this approach to guitar playing so just go nuts! We’ll end with the late, great Michael Hedges who was also an altered tuning aficionado. His catalog of songs with open/altered tunings is also quite extensive and there is a database here should you be looking for something.

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