Why limit your guitar playing by only using standard tuning?

If you’ve read my earlier posts about music theory, you’ve hopefully got the idea that I see music theory as providing a framework rather than a rigid set of rules – experimentation is vital.
For all of the guitar related music theory, everything has been in standard tuning. But a fundamental question arises – why do we limit ourselves to standard tuning so much?
It’s at this point I’d say that a chromatic tuner is a very worthwhile investment in any case and becomes especially useful for non-standard or altered tunings – you can retune to your heart’s content and it only takes about 20 seconds or so.
Altered tunings may be a lot more common than you think. One that you might have come across and not realised is where each of the strings is tuned down a semi-tone. This causes havoc when you play a song without realising the guitars have been detuned so your playing sounds nothing like what you’re listening to. Guns N’ Roses used this quite a lot on ‘Appetite for Destruction’ for instance.  So why do it?

  • If your guitar has a high action or heavy gauge strings, it does make bending easier and this was something Stevie Ray Vaughan often did for that very reason;
  • It can make it easier for the vocalist to keep within range;
  • The lower tension gives a different feel and a heavier or darker sound;
  • There’s also a suggestion it makes playing along on keyboards easier – you only need to use the black keys.

Another really common altered tuning is ‘Dropped D’.  This is where you detune the 6th string to a D. This gives a heavier sound and potentially allows you to play power chords with one finger.
Soundgarden used this a lot on their ‘Badmotorfinger’ album, in fact 6 of the 12 tracks use dropped D tuning.
Things start to get really interesting when you use open tunings.  These allow you to play a chord when you strum the open strings and allow you to use simple chord shapes to create some great progressions and unusual sounds.
To give you an idea, ‘Badmotorfinger’ is a good introduction to some of the possibilities,  ‘Face Pollution’ uses a double drop D tuning of D A D G B D; ‘Somewhere’ uses E E B B B E (another tuning used on the Superunknown album is the similar E E B B B B); ‘New Damage’ uses a G6 tuning of D G D G B E and ‘Mind Riot’ tunes all of the strings to E.
Some of these are quite extreme examples but I’ll focus on some of the more common open tunings in upcoming blog posts,