Over the years, standard tuning has become, well, standard. Guitars developed from previous instruments such as lutes and citterns, with all manner of strange combinations of notes, but eventually a set of notes that suited the new fretted guitar and its strings became accepted as standard, somewhere around the beginning of the 19th century.
Nothing much has changed over the last 200 years, in the classical world at least. Folk musicians in the 1950s and '60s however began to play around with whole new ways of tuning those six strings and the latest breed of nu-metal guitarists are continuing that trend, until you are just as likely today to hear a song played in DADGAD or drop D.
In fact, the Guitar Craft (aka New Standard) school of thought has replaced the familiar EADGBE with a tuning more similar to that found on mandolin or violin.
Using an alternate tuning gives you access to a whole new range of sounds and combinations of notes that standard tuning either cannot access (I challenge you to play a low D on the E string without re-tuning!) or which would demand the dextrous skills of the average contortionist to achieve. Artists like Joni Mitchell may have taken things a little too far- every single song of hers seems to utilise a different tuning, but it sure sounds good, even if emulating her songs in the original version gets to be a challenge.
Alternate tunings often involve tuning the guitar down so you can play deeper notes, or sometimes higher to get a wider range. Putting the strings on your guitar at higher tension can put strain on the neck so do be aware of the risks in the more obscure tunings. You may need to experiment with different string gauges to access the tuning you need successfully on a long-term basis. Trying a few out for size is unlikely to lead to problems however.
A Creative Approach
New tunings mean all the notes are in different places and chords have all moved into strange configurations, How do you play your songs like this?
Simple answer - don't. Moving into a different tuning opens up a whole now world of musical possibilities and the best approach is just to fool around with the open strings to get an idea of how things sound, then add in notes by fretting strings one at a time and seeing what combinations sound good. Don't worry about what the chord might be called, just note down which frets are being played so you can play the same shapes again and see where the music takes you.
Try picking out your favourite tunes and seeing how well they fit on the strings. Now add in extra notes in harmony - you probably wouldn't pick those harmonies out in standard tuning, but I bet they sound good! Can you fit in a chord around those notes? How do the ringing open strings sound there? Try adding in some arpeggios to that, build up the sound and add some texture. Just listen to what you've come up with!
A friend recently retuned his guitar to something exotic and was disappointed: he reworked his 3 standard songs into the new tuning, found where all the new chord shapes would be and set to playing - but he wasn't too impressed. Well no, he wouldn't be. The beauty of a different tuning is the way it lets you wander into whole new areas of music and harmony. Simply fitting what you know into the new arrangement of things negates the whole point (although I rather admire his skill in having been able to do so). Think outside the box. Relax, have fun, and see what your fingers come up with. I can guarantee a pleasant surprise.
Open D & Open E
Gene Strummer gives a good introduction to the tuning in his Open D lesson, whilst the great Richie Havens (who was the opening act at Woodstock) has an intriguing article outlining his unique thumb-style of playing in Open D online here.
Open D sounds great for fingerstyle playing too, with a rich and shimmering tone. And if you want the bright tones of open E without putting stress on your guitar neck, just add a capo at the second fret! The relevant notes are DADF#AD, which you'll notice is only one note away from DADGAD.
Once you feel more familiar with DADGAD be sure and try this lovely, easy to play version of Silent Night by Eltjo Haselhoff.
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