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.