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These 7 alternate guitar tunings will break you out of a playing rut

In the guitar playing community, the topic of alternate tunings will come up and it’s never failed to grab my attention and for good reason.

Alternate tunings can break you out of a playing rut almost instantly due to their beefy low end and lush cascading open strings (depending on which tuning you use) as well as fingerings that live outside the safety of our tried and true standard tuning. It all adds up to a shift in perspective that often leads to exciting music.

In this article, I’m going to diverge from the good ol’ EADGBE to explore the sonic richness and creative possibilities of alternate tunings. Let’s dig in.

Behind the insights

Aaron Cloutier - author and contributor at Higher Hz

I’m a producer, composer, multi-instrumentalist, and music educator with over 15 years of experience in the music industry.

As a guitar player raised on metal, I’ve never been one to shy away from a drop D, drop C, or grab my seven-string and toy around with the massive drop A tuning.

I’m gonna get into some of those in a little bit, but first, let’s talk about why it’s a good idea to know about alternate tunings in the first place, shall we?

What are alternate tunings?

Good question right? While we’re on the subject, alternate to what exactly?

Well, in case you’re new to the world of guitar playing, the typical way a guitar is tuned is by using what is known as “standard tuning.”

From low to high, (the 6th or thickest string all the way to the 1st or thinnest string) each are tuned as followed: E, A, D, G, B, E.

This is the tuning that most of us started out on and is a great way for learning all of your essential chord and scale shapes.

experimenting with alternate guitar tunings
Image: Dean Drobot

If however, you feel like you’ve hit a creative wall with your playing or writing, exploring the harmonic complexities of alternate tunings can quickly inspire you to think outside the box (no pun intended) and find new and exciting creative possibilities.

That doesn’t really answer the question though, does it? Alright, so in a nutshell, an alternate tuning is basically anything that diverges from the traditional EADGBE layout found in standard tuning.

Here are seven alternate tunings you’d definitely enjoy exploring:

1. Open G

I’m assuming that most if not all of you hardcore Joni Mitchell fans out there are well acquainted with this one with songs like “Nathan La Franeer,” “Little Green” and others from the folk deity’s catalog.

Or perhaps you’re a classic rock fan who remembers when you heard the hip swiveling “Start Me Up” (The Rolling Stones) or the trance-inducing “Dancing Days” (Led Zeppelin) for the first time.

Indeed! That feeling of vastness and even slight exoticism found in these two respective songs’ signature riffs are all courtesy of the mighty open G.

I may be preaching to the choir for some of you right now but if you are among the uninitiated, let’s discuss.

To attain the utmost heights of epic sonic grandeur that is the mighty open G, you’ll need to tune all of your strings down a whole step except for the G and B strings. You can leave those as is. Low to high, the end result looks like this: DGDGBD.

This tuning is famous for its lush open sound as well as its ease of playability both in its low string tension and convenient fret – hand fingering patterns.

How convenient? So convenient that you don’t even need to use your fret hand to make music if you don’t feel like it. By strumming all of the open strings in this tuning, you are literally playing a massive G major chord, hence the name “open G.”

Subsequently, if you bar your index finger across all six strings, you can play a major chord at any given fret.

Because of its ease of use, open G can be a great introduction for young beginners just starting out on the instrument.

If you’ve got a little one at home, string up a fiddle with this tuning and jam along with them by playing G Ionian based melodies while they bash away at that big assed open G chord. I challenge anybody not to have fun doing that.

Due to its design, the open G tuning offers a very unique chord voicing structure. The intervallic spelling of the one-fret all-strings barred chord is labeled as fifth, root, fifth, root, third and fifth.

The sub-root fifth located at the 6th (aka low E string) adds a noticeable tonal heft to the already idiosyncratic sound that this tuning produces. I see plenty of opportunities to explore new musical terrain regardless of your technical ability.

2. Open C

Famously referred to as the “Chris Cornell tuning,” open C was used quite a bit by the late singer-songwriter on songs such as Soundgarden’s “Burden in my Hand” and “Pretty Noose.”

It should be noted however, that the standard open C and the “Chris Cornell open C” are not quite the same despite showing similarities.

Your standard open C tuning would be (low to high) C, G, C, G, C, E as shown in the Led Zeppelin classic “Friends” (taken from the album Led Zeppelin III).

To tune your guitar to open C, beginning from standard, tune your 6th string down two whole steps, your 5th and 4th strings down a whole step, your 2nd string down a half step, and leave your 3rd and 1st strings alone.

This Chris Cornell version takes the original but thickens things up in the top end by dropping the second string down from C to G. The end result being (low to high) C, G, C, G, G, E.

The paring of the 3rd and 2nd strings both tuned to G creates this otherworldly and wholly satisfying chorusing effect if played open or at the same fret simultaneously.

In addition to Led Zeppelin’s aforementioned “Friends,” the traditional open C tuning has also been used by artists the likes of William Ackerman (“Townshend Shuffle”) and John Fahey (“Requiem for Mississippi John Hurt”).

It is also used by prog/ambient/metal demigod Devin Townsend throughout a large majority of his work (The Devin Townsend Project, Strapping Young Lad, Casualties of Cool).

At any rate, each of these variations on the open C tuning are absolutely worth experimenting with. I don’t doubt for a second that one if not all of these will open up some exciting new soundscapes for you to explore.


Arguably, one of the most famous of the alternate guitar tunings, DADGAD, originally evolved from Celtic folk music and was later adopted and subsequently made popular by a variety of rock, metal, and alternative guitar players.

The first use of this tuning in contemporary music can be traced back to British folk guitarist Davey Graham. Legend has it that Graham found inspiration in DADGAD during his time in Morocco after witnessing an oud player working this tuning’s magic.

To get to DADGAD from standard tuning, make sure to tune the 6th and the 1st string down to D. From there, grab that 2nd string and drop it down to A.

The two main defining characteristics of DADGAD sonically speaking would be its signature ethereal sound along with the unresolved tension within the chords which gives DADGAD voicings an enchanting, and at times, even haunting sound.

What allows this to be possible is the use of three open D strings resonating in three different octaves. What this means is if you play only the open strings with your guitar tuned this way, you will in essence be playing a Dsus4 chord which has a lot of built in suspense in the way that the chord is structured.

4. Drop D

Though historically speaking, this tuning (on guitar) can be traced back as early as the late 60’s as listeners will recognize its low rumbling heft on The Beatles classics like “Dear Prudence” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, along with Led Zeppelin’s 1969 contribution “Moby Dick,” drop D tuning’s rise to fame really came to the forefront within the genres of hard rock and heavy metal particularly in the 90’s and onward.

Some great examples to check out that come to mind as far as metal goes would be “Primal Concrete Sledge” and “Medicine Man” (Pantera), or for something more current, check out the entirety of “New American Gospel,” As the Palaces Burn,” and “Ashes of the Wake” from Lamb of God.

One of the most convenient features of drop D tuning is the fact that all you need to get it is simply lower your 6th string down a whole step. That’s it!

The end result is a low and thick open sound played on the 6th 5th and 4th strings that is quite satisfying and sure to encourage inadvertent sour-faced (in a good way!) expressions as you chunk away.

Tuning to drop D by ear is also very easy to do. If you play the natural harmonic on the 12th fret of the 6th string and the open 4th string at the same time, you adjust the pitch of the 6th string to match the D note one octave down. Easy-peasy.

The droning effect of the 6th and 5th string with the sparkly quality of the higher strings creates some of the most exotic sounds you can produce with a guitar, in terms of harmonic content. Because of this reason, it is no wonder that it’s become a go-to for bands like the aforementioned Lamb of God.

Now if you’re more of a rock type looking for some additional examples of more current uses of this tuning, be sure to check out modern classics like “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters, and the hypnotic “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden.


Responsible for arguably one of the most beautiful guitar compositions of all time, the the highly acclaimed “The Rain Song” by Led Zeppelin was plucked from the ethereal plain and brought down to earth with the help of the mighty DGCGCD.

To achieve DGCGCD status, tune your 6th, 5th, 4th, and 1st strings down a whole step. From there, tune your 2nd string up one half step and leave your 3rd string be.

Jimmy Page’s chord choices used thorough out the piece are in a word, otherworldly. The combination of open string drones, unisons, and octaves, along with gorgeous parallel movable shapes make “The Rain Song” a truly moving experience.

If you are interested in highly creative chord voicings and advanced songwriting, I strongly suggest that you take a look at Mr. Page’s work in DGCGCD and explore the myriad possibilities that this tuning can offer.

The unresolved quality that the open positions bring to these chords is a refreshing way you can add some spice into to your songwriting.

6. Drop B

Though this tuning comes in a couple of different forms, the one I will be talking about today involves a similar tuning approach to the ever popular drop D in that we’ll only be dealing once again with the 6th (low E) string.

To achieve drop B from standard tuning, simply drop that low E down two and a half steps while leaving the remaining strings alone. What you are left with is a darker and heavier sound without sacrificing all that nice top end courtesy of the higher strings. Low to high, B, A, D, G, B, E.

What makes drop B unique is the ability to play what I like to call “octave power chords” on the 6th and 5th strings simply by holding a traditional power chord shape.

What’s different this time around is that because of this tuning, you’re playing the same note on two strings in both a lower and higher octave which creates a nice thick (and somehow weirdly hollow at the same time) sound.

The first time that my ears came in contact with drop B was on the song “Rusty Cage” from the mighty Soundgarden (huge shocker right?) and truly makes itself known towards the end of the track where things switch to a half time feel and that swampy riff starts smacking you upside the head. Awesome!

Another incarnation of this tuning can be found on the absolutely crushing “March of the Fire Ants” by progressive metal veterans Mastodon, albeit in a slightly different way in that they take drop B tuning and tune every string down an additional whole step resulting in low to high A, G, C, F, A, D (or drop A if you want to get technical).

The main riff played at the beginning and end of “Fire Ants” really showcases the crushingly heavy nature of this tuning and I can’t recommend checking out this band enough on this riff alone.

7. Seven-string drop A

I wanted to save this one for last as I can speak from personal experience on this particular tuning more than I can find popular examples of the use of it.

That being said, I’ve enjoyed many eureka moments while playing around with the flexibility of this tuning’s low and high end.

To achieve this form of drop A, you will either need to own a seven-string guitar or simply string a six-string guitar like one (excluding of course the high E string which would normally be found at the top).

To refresh our memory on what standard tuning looks like for a seven-string guitar, here it is, low to high: B, E, A, D, G, B, E.

If you’re working with a seven-string guitar, all you need to do is drop the seventh or “B” string down a whole step while leaving the remaining strings alone to achieve drop A. The end result being low to high: A, E, A, D, G, B, E.

If you’re on a tradition six-string guitar, first let’s mimic what is normally found on a seven-string guitar (excluding the seven string guitar’s 1st string). Six-string guitar low to high: B, E, A, D, G, B.

From there, tune the 6th string down three and a half steps while leaving the remaining strings alone.

No matter what version of this you use, what you are left with is an even darker and heavier version of drop D in essence but with an increased range in pitch and tone.

If I’m ever in a rut, I’ll quickly throw my seven-string into this form of drop A and usually start cranking out slippery prog tinged riffs in no time. Try it out if you haven’t already!

In closing

The world of alternate tunings can be a breath of fresh air to anyone who feels like they’ve hit a wall with the inner trappings of EADGBE and are looking for something to help break out of a sense of creative stagnation.

If you’re brand-new to this world however, may I suggest starting with something simple like drop D or drop B and working your way up from there.

If you’ve got the time and the curiosity, a whole new world of creative possibilities will open up for you and you’re playing with any one of the following tunings from this list. Enjoy!