I’m about to unleash just a wee bit of #daditude on you kiddies right now, so bear with me. I’m a member of a number of Facebook groups for guitar, which are kind of like forums, but instead of being organized by specific topic, it’s just a clusterfuck of posts about whatever, vaguely related to one broad theme. The advantage is that stuff kind of just pops up in my feed, and sometimes it’s something I have an opinion about and/or like, or even better – something relevant to the site that I can bring to you guys.
But the stupid noob questions that get asked on some of these are mind-bogglingly dumb. I was a beginner once – we all were, and many of you still are. It’s impossible to learn if you don’t ask questions, but it’s more impossible-er if you don’t ask the right questions. I am PERPETUALLY seeing this shit:
“I just got a new (insert brand here) X number of strings guitar. What should I tune it to?”
“Best tuning for 8 string guitar?”
“Wat tunning 4 djent?”
No context, no clues at all, just looking for some kind of authority to tell them what to do.
I’m not really that old, but holy SHIT what is wrong with kids these days? Why did you buy a guitar if you have no idea what you want to do with it? I’m left feeling like they bought a guitar that they saw somebody on a forum or YouTube video playing, and then they just got the same one with no further intention than hero worship. If they had more than that, they definitely would not be asking this question. But they’re just beginners you big meanie! you shout into the screen, cursing the name of Old Man Xavier. However, I feel inclined to point out that the very last thing a beginner should be worrying about is ALTERNATE tunings.
If you bought your guitar with a solid intention, like to actually become a guitarist, for reasons of joining/starting a band or solo project, then you might actually have a reason to worry about the wide world of guitar tunings beyond E standard.
Also a pet peeve of mine:
“I tune to drop Ab, can you recommend some songs to learn that use this tuning?”
So… you don’t actually have music you like, you just identify yourself with a certain tuning and that’s the only stipulation you have for the music you want to play? How about you pick a song that you actually like and then fucking tune your guitar they way the artist did?
Now that we’ve gotten that travesty of a rant out of the way, let’s take a look at the possibilities and reasoning behind some tunings.
First off, we must set a standard – what is a standard tuning? For our purposes, a standard tuning is one that is tuned in intervals of a perfect fourth from the lowest strings to the second-to-last interval, which is a major third, then another fourth for the last interval. So the typical E standard six string tuning (E A D G B E) fits this description, as would an 8-string guitar with all strings tuned down two whole steps (D G C F Bb Eb G C). This allows us to differentiate between standard, drop tuning (which we will get into in a bit) and an alternate tuning (which I will define as neither standard nor drop). I typically denote the tuning by the lowest string – A Standard, Drop F, etc.
Now let’s take a look at this systematically – if you can properly answer these questions, you will be on the right path to choosing the tuning that’s right for you. And if you can’t, then at least you have a good place to start.
1. Does your band have singing?
No, I don’t mean do you have a vocalist. I mean, does someone in your band sing pitched sounds? If you only have a screamer, growler, barker, grunter, or squealer (or Yoko Ono), great – this will make your selection a bit easier. I like all manner of metal vocalizations, so I’m certainly not belittling you if you do – only that your choice of tuning will matter somewhat less, as your guitar can be tuned any of a number of ways, but a person’s singing range is a more or less permanently fixed thing.
If you have selected the no clean singing option (or play instrumental music), you may skip to item number 3.
Otherwise, proceed directly to number 2!
2. What is your singer’s range?
The next step is figuring out what your singer’s optimal range is. This might be the toughest step of all, especially considering that many singers have strong parts of their voice in different ranges, i.e. a nice low tone for creepy verses and a wailing high scream tone for balls-out choruses, like Chris Cornell. Some singers know their strongest key, and can just tell you. But either way, if you can find out your singer’s highest COMFORTABLE chest note, then go down about a whole step, I find this to be an excellent starting place.
This works because if you set your lowest open string to that note, it puts the tonic of that key near the top of their range, and gives them a major second on top to work with as well. I hope to God that you’re not going to play every single song in the key of the lowest open string, but since this is metal, that is a pretty common occurrence, and once again, this is just a starting point for you. At the very least, you’re positioning yourself to make your life a great deal easier, and avoiding some potential arrangement nightmares.
Just consider this – guitarists can play any song in any key. Singers cannot.
3. What style of music do you play?
DADGAD tuning is a great tuning
is a statement that makes zero sense without some context.
What is it good for? Celtic folk music, mostly. So if you asked me, “What should I tune to…. for my Celtic folk band?”, then this would be my first suggestion. See? Context is important – maybe the most important!
If you want the most versatility, I personally find standard to be the best bang for your tuning dollar. Drop and alternate tunings offer a lot of possibilities for sounds you can’t get in standard, but the format is also very limiting in terms of scope. The standard guitar tuning was developed for a reason. A tuning of mostly fourths means that all the most popular chords are within a four or five fret reach, and three-note-per-string scales are easily within your grasp. Barre chords of various kinds fit nicely under your hands without any weird stretches.
If you play music with a lot of breakdowns, then some kind of drop tuning might be for you. What’s a drop tuning? The internet will likely fight about this, but I’m gonna tell you the absolute truth right here and now – a drop tuning is when you tune the lowest string on your guitar down a whole step below standard. So if you’re in D Standard (DGCFAD) and you tune your lowest string to a C, that would give you Drop C. This makes the interval between the lowest two strings a perfect fifth, which allows for one finger (or no finger) power chords on that set of strings. It also opens some interesting possibilities for different chord shapes you can’t otherwise reach.
There are some that say lower tunings make for heavier music. Here are two videos to help you further contemplate whether you agree or not:
If your music does not have clean singing of any kind, then the tuning will partially depend on the flavor you’re after. In Rob’s video above you can hear the same heavy riff played in several different tunings. If you don’t have perfect pitch, then presumably the only difference you will hear is that they get progressively lower, and have different tonal qualities. If you don’t think that any one sounds better than another, then maybe just stick with E standard tuning.
The style generally dictates the type of tuning, but there are exceptions – there are always exceptions. Acle Kahney of Tesseract uses a 7 string version of DADGAD (Bb F Bb Eb F Bb Eb) to play metal, and Devin Townsend uses open C major tuning (C G C G C E), neither of which is a typical metal tuning – but they certainly use them comfortably, wouldn’t you say?
4. Do you read music, or improvise a lot?
If you play jazz, pop, country, or any style of music where you need to be reading charts or sheet music regularly, standard tuning is king. Transposing while sight reading is about as easy as changing a tire while driving. If you can do it, you are a far better musician than I.
Standard tuning is like a common language – it can be a lot easier to communicate when everyone is on the same page. Sure, you can translate (transpose), but if you’re in constantly changing musical situations, play with lots of different bands and kinds of instruments, and want to be as flexible as possible, learning to play in standard can be ideal. Also, learning from a teacher in general is going to be a lot easier, since finding one that plays in your specific tuning is going to be nigh on impossible.
The main issue with truly alternate tunings (basically anything beyond what I’ve mentioned here) is that because there isn’t much (or sometimes any) precedence of music written for them, so it’s up to you to be creative enough to find a use for them. I think that, in fact, the opposite should be true – you should use a different tuning out of necessity, because something about the way the guitar is usually tuned just doesn’t work for you, and in order to achieve your creative goals, to make the music in your head a reality, you have to go outside of the prescribed boundaries.
I don’t think there’s any shame in using an alternate tuning OR using a standard tuning – like everything else in music, it’s what you make with it that people will remember.
So now, armed with this information, if you feel like really exploring ALL your options, I recommend this list, which includes the tunings of many popular metal bands and artists of various genres. Vaya con dios.