We’ve all been there. You’ve heard a great song, you look up the guitar tab, play the first couple of parts on your guitar… and it sounds all wrong.
That’s when you realise, it’s in an alternative guitar tuning and you’re thinking: What the hell is a DADGAD? How do I re-tune my guitar to a different tuning? Can I play other songs using this tuning?
Fret not, playing with an alternate tunings is straightforward once you’d had a bit of practice.
Make sure to pick a great song you already love that uses the new tuning. Tune your guitar using a digital tuner or app to get you started. Get comfortable with the new tuning by learning the song. Then practise re-tuning it back to standard and commit the transition to memory.
Can I just play this song without re-tuning my guitar?
In some cases, yes you can!
Take Iris by Goo Goo Dolls, an amazing power ballad with a lovely acoustic strumming guitar, great for impressing a date. Except when you look at the tab and see the strings are tuned as D D D D D B… No thanks.
But, sometimes a guitarist will have figured out the chords for standard tuning. Or it will be as simple as changing the key using a capo. Problem solved, but this doesn’t happen often.
This is because most popular guitar songs are played using a standard tuning E A D G B E. In fact, 3 out of 4 tabs on ultimate-guitar.com are in standard. This tuning was standardised by guitarists in the 16th Century and differs from the convention used by other stringed instruments such as violins and cellos.
It became the ‘standard’ because the tuning is both musically convenient and physically comfortable. This makes it easier for your fingers to transition across a wide number of chord shapes on the fretboard. As a result, almost all guitarists learn to play on a guitar that’s tuned to standard, and this works well for most songs.
But writing music using only the standard tuning limits what chord shapes you can play and the transitions you can make. For instance, the typical root note of chords in a regular tuning is E, restricting what chords you can play. And this limits your creative expression. So guitarists have spent decades trying out new tunings and writing amazing songs using them.
These are classics such as: Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes (tuned to E A E A C# E), Kashmir by Led Zeppelin (tuned to D A D G A D) and Yellow by Coldplay (tuned to E A B G B D#). Check out our playlist below to see more:
These songs are just waiting to be learned, so even if it does take you out of your comfort zone, it’s really worthwhile to learn how to re-tune your guitar.
How do I tune my guitar to an alternative guitar tuning?
1. Find a great song
The first thing you’re going to need to do is find a great song to learn that uses an alternative guitar tuning. Pick a song you’re really familiar with so it’ll be easier to learn. Use our playlist if you’re having trouble thinking of one.
2. Choose a tab with an alternate tuning
Find a guitar tab at a difficulty level that you’re comfortable with. Maybe choose an easier song to start with so you can get used to re-tuning the guitar first. Take note of the tuning mentioned in the guitar tab.
3. Use a digital tuner or app to help you tune your guitar
You’ll want to use a tool that lets you customize the tuning. If you’re looking online, we recommend the Fender guitar tuner or the Gieson tuner. Both have presets for any major chord and the most common tunings and are great for tuning by ear. Or, for advanced tunings, the Wicked Guitar Tuner lets you set any tuning.
The easiest way to stay in tune is to install the Guitar Scout add-on which will automatically find the right tuner and tuning for your tab with one click.
4. Play the song to check it sounds right
This is why it’s important to choose something you know well because you’ll instantly tell if it sounds off. Try playing along with the song on YouTube or Spotify. It’s easy to play along with YouTube videos or Spotify when using Guitar Scout.
If it sounds wrong, try setting your guitar back to standard, and try tuning it again. Tuning to a major chord should sound like that chord when you strum the strings. A common mistake is to tune a string to the wrong octave. It’s frustrating because it can be hard to get right the first time, so keep trying!
How can I get better at playing with alternative guitar tunings?
So you’ve managed to re-tune your guitar and learn a new song. Great! But now you have to tune it back to standard, or worse, to another alternative guitar tuning! Use these tips to get more comfortable with re-tuning the guitar and keeping your guitar in good shape.
5. Try to memorise how to tune your guitar back to standard tuning
Using tools to help you tune your guitar to an alternative tuning are great in the short term, but the best musicians know how to do it by ear and memory. Start by tuning to an alternative guitar tuning using a tool, and then tune it back to standard tuning by ear. Think about which strings are being tightened or loosened, and by how many steps on the fretboard, and note them down.
For example, when I re-tune to DADGAD from standard, I loosen the sixth string (low E string) by 2 steps, I tighten the G string by 1 step, and I loosen the high E string by 3 steps. Learning this by memory means I now feel comfortable playing any DADGAD song.
Make sure to practice tuning from standard to the alternative guitar tuning, and vice versa. Repeat to commit it to memory. When trying out lots of different tunings, it’s easier to re-tune back to standard tuning before tuning to the next alternative guitar tuning. Practice with different tunings, try tuning to each of the major chords.
6. Build up a portfolio of songs in an alternate tuning
The most frustrating thing about learning an alternative guitar tuning is that you need to keep re-tuning your guitar every time you want to play something else. Minimise this by learning several songs that use the same tuning.
You can find popular tabs with specific tunings on https://www.ultimate-guitar.com/explore (choose one of the tunings on the panel on the left hand side). Songs that use slide guitar are a great place to start as they often use an alternate tuning in a major chord so they can easily move the slide up and down the fretboard.
Or, while you’re listening to your favourite music, quickly check out the guitar tab to see what tuning they use using a tool like Guitar Scout. It’s often the case that a band that uses an alternative guitar tuning will have several songs using the same tuning.
Over time, you’ll build up a repertoire of songs you know using that tuning, making it less frustrating to re-tune your guitar and more rewarding for you as a guitar player. Guitar Scout can keep track of which songs you know on guitar and which tunings they use.
7. Make sure to take care of your strings when re-tuning your guitar
Guitar strings deteriorate over time and constantly tightening and loosening strings is one way to reduce their lifespan. It’s also common to accidentally tighten a string too much causing it to snap, so be careful. Changing the tension of a single string will also change the tension in the neck of the guitar, which might change the pitch of the other strings, so make sure to check the pitch of all strings after tuning.
Some tunings will sound better with a different set of strings. For instance, thicker strings (such as 12-56) give a chunkier sound for the Drop D and C Standard tunings typically used in heavy rock music (by lowering the pitch of the bass sixth string). Also the type of guitar you play (acoustic, classical, electric etc) may determine which types of string sound best and therefore which tunings are suitable for you.
Don’t let alternative guitar tunings hold you back from playing some amazing music on guitar. Using a different tuning on guitar can be tricky at first, but as with anything guitar related, with practice it can become second nature. Get started by learning songs from our playlist and make sure you’re never out of tune by using Guitar Scout.