The Essential Alternate Tunings of 8 Groundbreaking Guitarists

Joni Mitchell (1976). Photo by: Michael Ochs / Getty Images.

I was reading Keith Richards' fantastic autobiography Life recently and was struck by a particular passage wherein he describes the newfound energy that open G tuning brought to his playing. I immediately tuned my guitar to open G and spent the next hour trying to nail "Brown Sugar" and "Can't You Hear me Knocking."

Open tunings aren't exactly new territory in my playing, but I still felt that same sense of liberation and discovery that Keith describes. Anyone who's ever dabbled in a non-standard tuning knows the blessed ignorance it can bring. It heightens your senses, ignites your creativity, and removes the familiar shackles that often come with standard tunings.

In celebration of the liberating effects of alternate tunings, I thought we'd spend some time today exploring the tunings that define the work of a handful of landmark players.

Of course, this list is far from exhaustive, and alternate and open tunings are as old as the guitar itself. A whole generation of blues musicians relied on open tunings in their sliding and picking, and their style paved the way for most other genres of popular music over the past century.

That said, this quick roundup offers what I hope is an intriguing spread of different styles that inspires you to try out some new tunings for yourself. Clip-on your trusty reverb tuner, and let us know how it goes it the comments.

Keith Richards — Open G

x G D G B D

We'll start with Keith himself and his famous open G. While the honorable Mr. Richards has played in many tunings — including the open D and E he copped from Don Everly — it's open G that people think of when they think of Keith and the riffs of the Rolling Stones.

Keith credits Ry Cooder for showing him this tuning and cites a generation of blues players who made the leap from banjo to guitar, bringing banjo tuning along with them. In removing the low E-string from the guitar altogether, Keith's famous Tele, Micawber, is essentially tuned as a standard banjo. Even as the Stones became less and less of a straight blues band at the end of the '60s, Keith's chords and structures kept a firm link to the core blues tradition.

As Keith describes on page 243 of Life:

"The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitar is that you've only got three notes — the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart. It's tuned GDGBD. Certain strings run through the whole song, so you get a drone going all the time, and because it's electric they reverberate. Only three notes, but because of these different octaves, it fills the whole gap between bass and top notes with sounds. It gives you this beautiful resonance and ring. I found working with open tunings that there's a million places you don't need to put your fingers. The notes are there already. You can leave certain strings wide open. It's finding the space in between that makes open tunings work. If you're working the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it, which actually you're not playing.. It's there. It defies logic….It's called the drone note. Or at least that's what I call it."

Keith goes on to describe how much this approach reinvigorated his playing, as if he was learning a new instrument. It's a feeling and experience shared by many guitarists who embrace a new tuning, as we'll see below.

Joni Mitchell — Open D

D A D F# A D

Any Joni Mitchell devotee will balk at the idea of defining Joni's songwriting with just one tuning. Indeed, the massively influential singer-songwriter has worked in no fewer than 51 tunings over the years, frequently shifting keys with a capo. Over the course of her career, Joni has also changed the performance keys on a number of songs, so the exact tuning and capo placements are not always consistent.

If you're looking to wade into Joni's musical waters, open D is an essential first step. Often, you see the same Joni songs transcribed in open E, as it's the same tuning one step down, and just requires different capo placement.

With this basic tuning, you can play the original parts for many of Joni's early hits, including "Both Sides Now" (capo 4), "Big Yellow Taxi," and "Chelsea Morning" (both capo 2).

Like Keith above, Joni cites her embrace of new tunings as unlocking her songwriting. "Once I got the open tunings for some reason, I began to get the harmonic sophistication that I heard that my musical fountain inside was excited by," she said in a 1986 interview. "Once I got some interesting chords to play with, my writing began to come.”

An article on her own website explains her experience further:

"You're twiddling and you find the tuning. Now the left hand has to learn where the chords are, because it's a whole new ballpark, right? So you're groping around, looking for where the chords are, using very simple shapes. Put it in a tuning and you've got four chords immediately— open, barre five, barre seven, and your higher octave, like half fingering on the 12th. Then you've got to find where your minors are and where the interesting colors are — that's the exciting part."

Joni even uses her own tuning notation system based on the relative pitch of a string to the string below it. It works by indicating the tuning of a string based on where that note falls on the string directly above it. So, for instance, standard tuning would be E55545. Open D would be notated as D75435.

John Fahey — Open C


Fahey was another student of the blues and a devout follower of Charley Patton, among others. His music used the lexicon, mechanisms, and tunings of American vernacular music as a divining rod to a new blended style that would be referred to "American Primitive Guitar."

Like Joni, Fahey explored a vast array of tunings in his career, and this embrace of new approaches provided the backbone for this whole school of playing. If you have to choose one essential Fahey tuning, look for his particular open C, tuned low to high as CGCGCE.

This tuning can be heard on quintessential Fahey tracks lie "Sunflower River Blues" and "Funeral Song for Mississippi John Hurt" among many others. If you venture over to the John Fahey website, there's an interesting page of notes left for a friend where he details the appeal of this tuning in his playing.

Listening to Fahey's discography, this tuning and others invited a syncopation to his picking patterns in which moving formations and leads on the upper strings are backed by rolling, rocking rhythms. The sound is pure and elemental, extracting massive compositions from a single instrument. It's what American Primitivism is all about and is a rewarding style for any burgeoning picker to explore.

Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth

G G D D D# D#

Perhaps even more than Joni, trying to summarize the music of Sonic Youth with just one tuning is an exercise in noisy futility. The pioneering art rock outfit took advantage of countless unconventional and angular tunings through their run, frequently blending multiple dissonant tunings from different guitarists within one track.

While Sonic Youth were influenced by punk, the New York '80s avant garde, and the exploratory compositions of Stockhausen and Cage, according to Michael Azerrad's seminal indie rock history, Our Band Could Be Your Life, the band found just as much tuning inspiration from the likes of CSNY, Hot Tuna, Joni Mitchell, and traditional folk and blues. Azerrad quotes Thurston Moore as saying, "It's just that when you're playing in standard tuning all the time, you're sounding pretty...standard."

Bandmate Lee Ranaldo shares a similar view: "When you tuned a guitar a new way you were a beginner all over again and you could discover all sorts of new things...It allowed us to throw out a whole broad body of knowledge about how to play the guitar."

The sheer multiplicity of tunings that Sonic Youth used caused all sorts of logistical hurdles for the band. They used cheap guitars that could only function in certain detuned ways and famously used drumsticks and screwdrivers on their guitars to achieve even more adventurous sounds and effects.

Whereas many of Sonic Youth's tunings came and went during their career, the example tuning mentioned here was a mainstay for decades. It can be heard on tracks like "Stereo Sanctity" from Sonic Nurse and "Orange Rolls" from Dirty and throughout the early Kill Yr. Idols EP.

A word of warning: this and other Sonic Youth tunings may not be achievable on a regularly stringed guitar and may require a different set of gauges. There is a fantastic resource on the Sonic Youth website that details many of their tunings, and you can likely find one to your liking scrolling through there a bit.

Curtis Mayfield - "Black Key" Tuning

x G D G B D

With his Fender in hand, Curtis Mayfield helped architect a heightened soul and funk sound in the 1970s. He released the endlessly influential soundtrack for the film Super Fly in 1972, following years as the guitarist, co-lead vocalist, and de facto musical leader of the acclaimed Chicago soul band, The Impressions.

Mayfield was a brilliant arranger and amalgamator of genres. His sparse guitar work with The Impressions and on his solo records served as a perfect accent to lush string arrangements and proud Latin-influenced horns and percussion.

His varied musical stew was topped with evocative, socially conscious lyrics set to stunning melodies and sophisticated vocal deliveries. He directly influenced generations of soul and funk players, and his tracks have been sampled by the Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and other hip-hop stars.

Through all of this, Mayfield played his guitar in open F#. The tuning was apparently meant to match the black keys of a piano, which Mayfield stuck to when first teaching himself how to play.

While he and his bandmates often played with the syncopated funk rhythms of the '70s, his strummed patterns were actually quite varied. He could lay into a Strat during a key instrumental build or provide a light touch for a more subdued vocal section. And yet, for all his musical talent, he was supposedly so tied to his idiosyncratic open F# that he was virtually unable to play a normally tuned guitar.

Robert Fripp — New Standard Tuning


Robert Fripp of King Crimson's "New Standard Tuning" is a topic we've covered before, and you can watch the video below for a thorough overview of how it works and sounds.

To summarize, "New Standard Tuning" or NST sought to move the guitar more in the direction of a violin or cello as part of Fripp's career-spanning work to bring modern classical motifs and arrangements to a rock framework. The strings are tuned in fifths except the high E-string, which is tuned to G instead of a high B.

This tuning widens the range of the guitar, and like the Sonic Youth tuning mentioned above, you should proceed with caution before tuning your normal guitar in this manner. Once you do have your strings arrayed just right, you'll find a unique and engaging tuning with deep harmonic richness at every fret. As a bonus, you can practice your mandolin and violin scales at the same time.

Fripp himself was such a believer in this method that he's offered courses through a program called Guitar Craft and though its successor, Guitar Circles, which has directly instructed around 3,000 NST converters to date.

Nick Drake — CGCFCE


Nick Drake died young with little commercial success in his own lifetime. Yet after years of steady rediscovery, his music has become a central touchstone for countless fans spellbound by his gentle voice, stunning composition, and perhaps surprisingly intricate guitar work.

Retrospectively, Drake's story is usually told as a tale of consuming depression and increasing isolation. He did not offer many interviews and no known video footage of his playing exists. But based on the accounts and details we do know, he seemed obsessed with playing his guitar and exploring its depths, and this immersion brought an embrace of different tunings.

On the haunting "Cello Song" from his debut record, Five Leaves Left, for instance, Drake detuned his G-string just one half step to F#. It's a subtle change but one that allows for the beautiful picking pattern that carries the song.

While his first two records are stocked with additional instrumentation (arguably to the songs' detriment in some case), his third and final album, Pink Moon, is just Drake and a guitar. The album's title track remains one of Drake's most famous recordings and is built around a CGCFCE tuning. The tuning was also employed on Drake favorites, like "Hazey Jane I" and "Place to Be."

Strum this tuning open, and you get a Cadd4. It's an instant Nick Drake voicing, and simply barring and picking a few a few extra notes with your ring finger will get you into his open style.

Skip James — Open D Minor


Like almost everything else in 20th century popular music, it all comes back to the blues. It goes without saying that exploring the specific tunings and techniques of Delta and other schools of blues could be an entire article, if not an entire book. Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, and all the giants of the genre used various opening tunings, and none of the artists mentioned above would have created the music they did without this mighty legacy behind them.

With all that said, the use of open D or E minor in the '20s and '30s was particularly popular in Bentonia, Mississippi — a town that lies just outside the Delta proper. Some have referred to the "Bentonia School" as a distinct strain of the blues, though there remains some debate as to the actual taxonomic divisions here.

A number of different players from this time and place made it to wax using these tunings, but Skip James remains the most famous of the bunch. His minor open tuning combined with his haunting falsetto to create some of the most hypnotic recordings of the era. Robert Johnson also recorded in this tuning and is said to have been influenced by James' songwriting and approach.

If you try this tuning out, you'll find that while minor when played open or barred, it's easy to achieve rich major chords as well. A chord shape like a normal first-position Cmaj7 at different points of the fretboard yields lush dividends that James frequently employed.

Skip James was one of the original blues players who lived to see the folk music revival of the 1960s and a renewed interest in his work. As such, there are a few wonderful videos on YouTube from TV appearances he made later in his life. These videos, like the one below, are essential viewing for a lesson on how to play in Skip's preferred tuning or really for anyone who just wants to hear a devastatingly gorgeous blues performance.

What other tunings inspire you? Let us know in the comments.

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