Alternate Tuning Guide

by William A. Sethares

New tunings inspire new musical thoughts. Alternate tunings let you play voicings and slide between chord forms that would normally be impossible. They give access to nonstandard open strings. Playing familiar fingerings on an unfamiliar fretboard is exciting - you never know exactly what to expect. And working out familiar riffs on an unfamiliar fretboard often suggests new sound patterns and variations. This guide helps you explore alternative ways of making music. And now there is an interactive version of the alternate tuning guide!.

If you're wondering why you might want to play in alternate tunings, click here.

The Alternate Tuning Guide shows you how to slip your guitar into all the popular alternate tunings, shows you how to finger open and bar chords, how to play representative scales, and graphically displays the notes as they appear on the fretboard. The strengths and limitations of each tuning are discussed, helping you to get the most from your musical explorations. The Alternate Tuning Guide is divided into four main sections, corresponding to the four main types of alternate tunings: open, instrumental, regular, and "special."

Explore these alternate musical universes with the Alternate Tuning Guides friendly chord and scale charts. What are you waiting for... retune that guitar now.

How to Use the Alternate Tuning Guide

The Circle of Notes
Transposing Chords
An Example in Open G
Combining Chords
Using Octaves
The Four Tricks
The Stuff Chords are Made Of
How to Build Chords and Scales
What About Other Tunings?
Table of Chord Intervals
Cross Index of Tunings
Table of Scale Intervals
Alphabetical List by Tuning

Open Tunings

In the open tunings, the six strings are tuned to form a simple chord. This makes it easy to play unusual chordal combinations and interesting tonal clusters by utilizing "drone" and "sustained" strings. Bottleneck slide and harmonics are wonderful in open tunings, because you can play full six string chords. And you can play bar chords with only one finger!

Open C C G C G C E
Open D D A D F# A D
Modal D D A D G A D
Open D Minor D A D F A D
Open G D G D G B D
Modal G D G D G C D
Open G Minor D G D G A# D
Open A E A C# E A E

Instrumental Tunings

The instrumental tunings are based on the tunings of modern and historical instruments such as the mandolin (augmented for six string play), the charango, the cittern, the oud, and numerous others. Players of these instruments may find the tuning and chord charts useful, but guitarists will find some truly wonderful "alternate" ways to tune.

Balalaika E A D E E A
Charango X G C E A E
Cittern (1) C F C G C D
Cittern (2) C G C G C G
Dobro G B D G B D
Lefty E B G D A E
Overtone C E G A# C D
Pentatonic A C D E G A

Regular Tunings

In the regular tunings, the strings are tuned uniformly up the fretboard. This allows chord forms to be moved up and down the fretboard like a normal bar chord, and also sideways across the fretboard. Learn a handful of chord forms in a regular tuning, and you'll know hundreds of chords! Ole Kirkeby is very enthusiastic about the major third tuning, and Ralph Patt's jazz web page has a great collection of tuning charts for it.

Minor Third C D# F# A C D#
Major Third C E G# C E G#
All Fourths E A D G C F
Aug Fourths C F# C F# C F#
Mandoguitar C G D A E B
Minor Sixth C G# E C G# E
Major Sixth C A F# D# C A

Special Tunings

The special tunings are a miscellaneous collection of tunings most of which were created and/or popularized in recent years by various singers and songwriters

Admiral C G D G B C
Buzzard C F C G A# F
Drop D D A D G B E
Face C G D G A D
Four & Twenty D A D D A D
Hot Type A B E F# A D
Layover D A C G C E
Magic Farmer C F C G A E
Pelican D A D E A D
Processional D G D F A A#
Slow Motion D G D F C D
Spirit C# A C# G# A E
Tarboulton C A# C F A# F
Toulouse E C D F A D
Triqueen D G D F# A B

You can download the full Alternate Tuning Guide with pdf friendly bookmarks and all (about 2 Mbytes).

Looking for truly wild tunings? What about a guitar which is fretted for 19-tone equal temperament?

...or come to my home page for more information.