For beginning guitarists, alternate tunings are an impregnable enigma.
An impregnable wha…? you ask. Exactly. That’s my point.
Beginners don’t understand alternate tunings, much less how they work or why anyone would ever want to use one. (For a quick, easy answer to the last one, just listen to any Joni Mitchell song and you’ll understand—she used over 40 alternate tunings over her career to create her own totally unique, exquisite sound.) But the truth is that they can actually be easy for beginners to learn and use—even easier than standard tuning.
The Problems with Sticking to Standard Tuning
One of the biggest hurdles when you’re just starting out is getting your fingers used to the pressure they feel when they’re pressing a string to the fingerboard. It takes a lot of pressure to make a single note, let alone a whole chord. Throw in the awkward finger positions for different chords and you start to doubt whether the whole effort is even worth it. Believe me, I’ve been there: getting your fingers to make that first C chord is like getting football players to do ballet.The painstaking, thorough care required to make sure each finger is in the right place on the right fret and the right string and not two strings but just one string … can be so cumbersome that by the time you’ve finally managed to figure it all out and you’re ready to strum – you can’t feel your fingertips anymore.
Why Alternate Tunings Are Better for Beginners
Finger pressure is inevitable, but alternate tunings can provide a shortcut around the awkward positions. While some alternate tunings are decidedly not for beginners, many of the ‘open’ tunings are even easier than picking a bad guitar pun (I know, I know – I couldn’t help myself). All you have to do to make a chord in any open tuning is put one finger down (I’d suggest your index finger) along a single fret across all six strings.*
‘All you have to do to make a chord in any open tuning is put one finger down along a single fret across all six strings.’
This type of chord is commonly referred to as a ‘barre’ chord, since your finger is ‘barring’ multiple strings along the same fret. You can move this same position anywhere up and down the fingerboard to make a chord.
And there you have it: instead of a different hand position for each unique chord, you can learn this one position and play any major chord. It’s that simple. (If barring all six strings proves too difficult, you can start with barring just two or three and strumming only the strings that you’ve barred.)
*If you know a thing or two about music theory and you care about your chord inversions, then you will only want to barre the bottom five strings (1–5) in open G and open A tunings for the best-sounding chords. But it’s not necessary.
TIP: Once your index finger gets used to the pressure, try using your middle or ring fingers instead. Switching your fingering will make it easier to change chords if the frets you need are far apart, for instance if you’re jumping from a 5th-fret barre chord to a 10th-fret barre chord.
What Songs Can I Play in Open Tunings?
Open tunings are best applied when learning simple songs that are comprised of a few major chords. For beginners, this is most of what you’ll be playing for a while anyways, at least until you get good enough to use 7th chords, chord inversions, and all that jazz.
‘Open tunings are best applied when learning simple songs that are comprised of a few major chords.’
Three-chord songs work best, like ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’, ‘Louie Louie’, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, ‘Desolation Row’, ‘Summertime Blues’, ‘Twist and Shout’, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, ‘Fortunate Son’, etc. Basically, if the song is comprised entirely of major chords, it can be played in an open tuning. (Minor chords can also be played in open tunings but require a different hand position).
Once you choose your song, all you have to do is find out the chords the song requires—’You Shook Me All Night Long’ uses G major, C major, and D major, for example—and then locate those chords along the fingerboard in whichever open tuning you’re in.
How to Find Chords in Alternate Tunings
Let’s say you want to play AC/DC’s ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’. A quick Internet search for guitar tabs will reveal that the song uses the chords G, C, and D. In open G tuning, you’ll find these chords are the open, 5th-fret barre, and 7th-fret barre chords, respectively.
How did I know that? I counted the frets. Here are the chords of the first seven frets in open G …
The open chord is a G
1st-fret barre chord is G#
2nd-fret barre chord is A
3rd-fret barre chord is A#
4th-fret barre chord is B
5th-fret barre chord is C
6th-fret barre chord is C#
7th-fret barre chord is D, etc.
This part requires a little (basic) knowledge of music theory, but it’s really not too difficult; it’s just counting notes. If need be, Google is a great resource for finding barre chords in a certain tuning.
(A quick Google search for ‘C chord in open G tuning guitar’ returned a chart from this website showing both the C and D barre chords in open G. Remember to search for the barre versions of your chords, as any chord will have multiple positions in a given tuning).
While all this makes playing the chords easier, it’s not effortless. When you’re new, ‘play’ equates with ‘pain’. But with barre chords you at least can quickly acclimate your fingers to the pressure of the strings without having to deal with tricky chord positions. It’s also the quickest, easiest way to get to the point where you can string enough chords together to play a song, which is kind of the whole point, right?
Here are a few of my favourite open tunings:
Open G (D G D G B D)
Open C (C G C G C E)
Open D (D A D F# A D)
Open A (E A C# E A E)
By Cody Robinson
Cody is a professional singer, songwriter, performer, and recording artist. His instruments include bass, trumpet, drums, harmonica, piano, and most especially guitar. In his spare time he travels, brands businesses, and makes lists of his many accomplishments.
Cody is a student at the University of Utah under his own self-created degree, Music Business and Technology, and recently returned from four months living in Kathmandu, Nepal providing humanitarian aid to the victims of the recent earthquake.
Watch a short video about his work in Nepal here.