The Best of All Possible Tunings is...
Updated: Dec 19, 2019
By "altered tuning" I do not mean merely dropping standard tuning down a half-step or more; I mean a tuning wherein the intervals between strings are different than standard.
Generally speaking, altered tunings are designed to solve a specific problem. For instance, Drop-D:
The Drop-D tuning (D A D G B E) solves the problem of not having a low D when playing in the key of D. But it creates other problems; all chords that include the 6th-string have to be re-fingered; the note on the 6th string has to be raised a whole-step to compensate for the fact that it's been lowered a whole-step from E (normally the lowest note on the guitar) to D.
Because of this, many bar chords and extended chords that require a 6-string spread become impossible. On the other hand, a simple Power Chord becomes easier than it already is; only a single finger is required:
Move this shape in Drop-D tuning around on the neck and you will hear shades of heavier Alternative Rock music a la Nirvana and Foo Fighters.
The Open-G tuning (D G D G B D) is designed to make playing a major chord possible with a bottleneck slide. With the exception of a few triad shapes, that's about all one can do with it chord-wise. Any kind of extended &/or altered chords, with or without the slide, are impossible.
Keith Richards has gotten a lot of mileage out of these two chord shapes in Open-G:
Mess around with these 2 shapes in with an Open-G tuning and you'll quickly realize that it's the key to many Stones tunes like Start Me Up, Brown Sugar, Honky Tonk Women and many others.
As I said in Slip Sliding Away, there are several altered tunings used among slide players. Most of them are a major chord of some kind. All these tunings facilitate easier chord playing. However, each of these tunings impose severe limitations on the types of chords that are possible. Consequently slide playing primarily serves a soloing function. I'm far too interested in being able to play sophisticated chords to be happy with that limitation.
In Altered States - Unique Voicings I told of how I discovered Alex de Grassi's "Slow Circle" and was blown away by how it sounded. There were 4 different altered tunings used; not a single track was in standard tuning. I spent several years experimenting with the altered tunings used on that album.
Those tunings were:
1) E B E F# B E
2) E B E G A D
3) E B E G# B D#
4) E B E F# B D
I've told the story elsewhere of how and why I abandoned the de Grassi tunings and figured out how to get the same type of sound in standard tuning.
A couple of other tunings I've messed with are Drop C tuning (C G C F A D) and Drop B (B F# B E G# C#). I could write an entire blog on all these tunings - and others - but that's not the point. The point is I have years of experience with exploring altered tunings and so my conclusions are not hasty, biased judgments.
I came to the position that the altered tuning approach was not good (for me - obviously they've been good for de Grassi, Keith Richards and others) because it negated the years of study and work I had done to understand the instrument and master the neck - besides the thousands of dollars spent on the learning process. Change the tuning and I was back to hunt-and-peck, hunt-and-peck, learning by trial-and-error.
But that's not the only reason I punted them. I became convinced that standard tuning is the best.
In the middle eighties I saw Stanley Jordan on the Tonight Show. His two-handed tapping technique is amazing (I admit my jaw was hanging open the first time I saw him), and he was expanding the boundaries of the instrument in some ways, but I immediately saw the limitation. My booking agent at the time asked me what I thought about him and I said,
"The technique is very impressive; he sounds like two traditional jazz guitarists playing together, but he's limited to 3-note, open or close-voiced 7th chords in his left hand. Any extensions &/or alterations have to be stated or implied by the lines in his right hand. He can only go in one of two directions; start adding strings to the guitar, or start playing two guitars at the same time."
As an aside; I think that the two-handed tapping technique eliminates a lot of the inflective potential that makes the guitar such a wonderfully expressive instrument.
A few years later I saw Stanley Jordan on David Letterman and he was playing two guitars at the same time. However, he hadn't really expanded the content of what he was doing; he was merely using 2 guitars so he could get a different sound with each hand. His left hand was still playing basic 7th chords only and the right hand was tapping single note lines, occasionally dyads (2 notes at the same time, sometimes called, "double-stops").
I discovered that Stanley Jordan tuned his guitar in straight 4ths (E A D G C F). "That makes total sense" I thought to myself, "It simplifies all the patterns he has to use because of his two-handed tapping approach. It renders much of what can be played in standard tuning with standard technique impossible, but Stanley doesn't play that way so it doesn't matter."
Keep in mind that in standard tuning, the guitar is tuned in 4ths except from the 3rd to the 2nd string, which is a major 3rd. So there's an inconsistency in the tuning.
This inconsistency greatly increases the quantity of content one has to learn. For instance, with a root position 7th chord, which takes a 4-string spread, you have to have 3 different shapes depending on which string group you're on:
If you tune in straight 4ths, you have the same chord shape on all 3 string groups:
Multiply the above by 5; 5 types of basic 7th chords in standard tuning requires 15 different shapes. In straight 4ths tuning it requires 5 shapes.
The same would hold true for scales. In standard tuning, notice the discrepancy in the patterns. A shift occurs when going from the 3rd to the 2nd string. Because the 2 patterns start on different root strings, the shift occurs at a different point in the scale, therefore you have to learn two patterns for one scale:
When tuned in straight 4ths, there is no difference in the patterns:
Stanley Jordan maintains that tuning in straight 4ths "simplifies the fingerboard, making it logical."
Well then, why is the stupid standard tuning "standard"?
Ah...let me tell you why standard tuning isn't stupid - and why it's standard. And I don't have to talk about fancy extended altered jazz chords to prove it. Let's take a simple minor bar chord. In standard tuning you need 2 shapes:
With a straight 4ths tuning, only one basic shape is necessary. Good luck trying to finger it:
The problems created when chording with a straight 4ths tuning are myriad. Think about a 1st position E:
In standard tuning, the first 2 strings are open. When tuned in straight 4ths, those 2 notes need to be lowered a half-step; it's impossible to lower a note on an open string a half-step. Those two strings cannot be included in an open E chord.
How many 1st position chords use the 1st &/or 2nd strings open? A huge percentage of them. Any chord that uses the 1st &/or 2nd string open in standard tuning becomes impossible with a straight-4ths tuning.
Try playing any 1st position chord and lower the notes on the 1st and 2nd string a half-step; that's how you would have to finger the chord in a straight-4ths tuning. Ditto for any chord anywhere; lower the first two strings a half-step and that's how you would have to finger it.
The only time the straight 4ths tuning is superior is if you happen to play like Stanley Jordan. The chords he plays with his left hand are basic 7th chords, and because they are on the lower 4 strings they are the same as standard tuning. He generally doesn't play chords on the upper strings so the major 3rd interval between the 3rd and 2nd string is unnecessary. Tuning the interval from the 3rd to the 2nd string to a 4th means that all the linear patterns he plays with his right hand are simplified and symmetrical...not simple, still pretty complicated, but simplified.
Turns out the major 3rd interval from the 3rd string to the 2nd string - the "inconsistency," the "discrepancy" in the tuning - is actually a stroke of genius! Without it, many (most) of the most commonly used chords would be impossible to play.
That is the realization gained from my messing with the straight 4ths tuning (inspired by Stanley Jordan) and which cut the final cord to my interest in altered tunings.
Standard tuning is what it is because it's the most functional. Yes, it has its limitations, but other tunings have proven to be evolutionary dead-ends. They exist in specialized environments but aren't very adaptable to anything outside their limited function.
Other than Drop-D, which I use on 3 or 4 tunes, I don't use any altered tunings. I will teach Open-G to students who are interested in the Rolling Stones or Stones-derived bands, but that's it.
Occasionally I'll have a student bring in something that uses an esoteric altered tuning. I have very little patience with it. I don't even try to figure it out; I just get online and look it up. Usually the tuning works for that one song and that's it.
Darwinism prevails; survival of the fittest and most adaptable.
Standard tuning is the top of the food chain.
P.S. I wrote many tunes during my altered tuning stage, most of which are lost forever. Even if I wanted, I couldn't remember them. Here is one of the exceptions - Tehachapi. It has been preserved due to being included on my Sound Tracks album. I can't remember for sure but I would guess this is a Drop-C tuning.
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