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I’ve loved messing about with guitar tunings since I first heard someone play Brown Sugar (The Rolling Stones) with the correct tuning and being floored by how much better it sounded than my hack standard tuning version. Since then I’ve messed about with them a lot and I’m always surprised at so many people being afraid of changing the tuning of the guitar, or thinking it’s really hard. It can be real hard if you make it so, but it’s such a fun thing to explore and can be a lot easier than most people think, so I hoped you might like to come on a little journey with me.
A couple of things before we get going: don’t try altered tuning on a guitar with a floating vibrato. It’s a massive headache. Secondly, if you retune a lot, or have old (or rubbish) strings, you might break one. But it’s not the end of the world, and if they were old you probably should have changed them anyway. Also, if you tune a lot of strings up or down and dramatically change the string tension, it’s possible you might bend the neck and need to adjust your truss rod. But in the 30 years I’ve been retuning it’s never been a major issue and only worth doing if you plan on leaving a guitar in a particular tuning.
The easiest start to altered tunings is dropping the thickest string down a tone to the note D. You can use the open D string (fourth string) as a reference and slowly tune down the sixth string until they sound the same note, but an octave apart. This is called drop D tuning and means that you can now play all the strings with your open D chord and it sounds fat! It’s quite a simple tuning and only affected
one string. That’s important, for a few reasons: first, any chord you want to play that doesn’t use the thickest string remains the same. And, secondly, if there is a note on the thickest string then you just need to move that note up a tone (two frets). So in Drop D all the usual chords that just use the first to fifth strings (like D, C, Am, etc) are all the same. If you want to play a G (or F) you need to figure out how to move the sixth string note up while playing the rest. There’s no wrong answer, but lots of right answers. Here’s two… and the super simple powerchord! G (frets low to high: 5 x0 0 0 3) F (frets low to high: 3 x 3 2 1 x) F#5 (frets low to high: 2 2 2 xx x) If you want to solo in drop D it’s no problem, nothing changes, just avoid the sixth string! Go have some fun, then come back.
Double drop D
Now let’s tune the first string (thinnest string) down a tone (to D) as well. Now you’re in double drop D, a very common folk and blues tuning. The first thing you should try is playing all your usual chords in the new tuning and listen. There are some super tasty chords living here and you don’t need to do a thing. There is also some magic, so go and find it. If you want to play other chords you need to just move the note on the first string up a tone. It’s not that hard and it’s actually quite fun - but make sure you experiment and listen because it’s not always about ‘knowing’ what you’re doing. At this stage we’re just making some cool sounds and enjoying it.
I’m sure you can figure out most chords on your own but here’s a few ways you’d play some common open chords in double drop D and a few super nice shapes to explore. You’ll find some problems (like Open C shape) but look for magic where you can’t find an easy answer (like playing Cadd9 instead). G (frets low to high: 5 x0 0 0 5) F (frets low to high: 3 x3 2 1 3) A (frets low to high: x 0 2 2 2 2) Cadd9 (frets low to high: x 3 2 0 1 0) F6/9 (frets low to high: 3 x 3 0 1 0) Asus2/4 (frets low to high: x 0 2 2 0 0)
It’s a lot of fun exploring chords, but soloing still shouldn’t be a problem – either stay off the outside strings, or remember that notes you are used to playing on the outside strings are now located two frets higher. Playing a Blues in double drop D is quite fun and will force you out of playing the tired old vocabulary that falls under your fingers easily, and maybe take you to some fun places.
If you fancy checking out how some of the greats use double drop D, you might like to learn Song For George by Eric Johnson, Harvest Moon or Natural Beauty by Neil Young. For drop D, great examples include Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girls, Killing In The Name by Rage Against The Machine, or Monkey Wrench by the Foo Fighters!
Next instalment we’ll get into dropping the fifth string down to a G note and finding ourselves in open G tuning, which is another fascinating one to explore. Until then, grab your peg, give it a twist and enjoy yourself!
Below: Some new Drop D shapes for three familiar chords
Justin says it’s rewarding and fun to try new tunings