ALTERNATIVE TUNINGS

Probably the second most asked about technique I use is alternative tunings, or "open tunings". Open tunings frighten a lot of people - "I've spent so much time learning chords in standard tuning-- now I have to learn them again?!" Well, not exactly. Usually in alternate tunings, guitar players tend to take advantage of the very cool sound of the open strings. When a chord is played, it's usually on just two or three strings, and the other strings ring open.

It's pretty rare that someone gets as fluent in a single alternative tuning as most guitarists get in standard tuning, the few exceptions being Stanley Jordan (exclusively EADGCF), some Irish players, and French fingerpicker Pierre Bensusan (exclusively DADGAD).

Every tuning has a definite sound, which (as mentioned at the end of the first chapter) can get pretty monotonous quite quickly, causing the guitarist to seek out another tuning with different open strings.

Most people who use alternate tunings use several alternate tunings, and aren't afraid to experiment with new ones (Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Adrian Legg, Shawn Colvin). I guess it goes to show how addictive open tunings can be-- once you get started it seems silly to stay chained to standard tuning all the time.

A big minus to alternate tunings is that you break a lot of strings. Changing the sixth string from E to D all the time can take it's toll pretty fast. But the strings always seem to last as long as they need to, so by the time your fifth string breaks while tightening it from an A to a C, it was probably time to change that dirty string anyway. Once you get over the initial fears of changing the tunings on your guitar, you'll wonder what held you back.

Although open tunings certainly sound beautiful, the lower tension ones can sound pretty dumpy if your action isn't high enough, or if you use very light gauge strings (see EQUIPMENT). After you change the tuning on your guitar, sometimes the strings like to take their time stretching out, so you may have to adjust the tuning a couple times before it's right, especially if you use nylon strings (even more so for cheap nylon strings).

GETTING STARTED:

A lot of slide players use "open D" (DADF#AD) and "open G" (DGDGBD). Those tunings are great for slide, but they're so sweetly consonant that they become pretty boring outside the blues. Oddly enough, many guitarists who dabble in slide playing have never thought of straying from the straight-laced security of a consonant chord. If you'd like to know about open D and open G, there are many slide guitar instructional books and videos that can get you started. But here I want to discuss the magical sound that comes from suspended-chord tunings, which don't resolve as easily as slide tunings.

Let's just dive into the cold water right away-- grab your guitar and tune to DADGAD. If you're not sure how to go about this, just match the sixth string to the third string (which is already D), drop the first string to D (so that it will also match your third string), and lastly lower you fifth string to A, so that it's the same as your second string. Now strum all the harmonics on the twelfth fret. Pretty, huh?

The notes for this tuning are usually read out as single word, /dad gad/, and it's undoubtedly the most common alternate tuning. It's a half-step away from the popular slide tuning of open D (DADF#AD)-- just raise the major third F# to the perfect fourth G. Most of the tunings/open strings for the exercises in chapter IV use the same intervals as DADGAD, simply because there's so much you can do with the open sus4 chord. As the open strings don't include a minor or major third, you can float back and forth between paying in Dminor and Dmajor and still use all the open strings.

Lost? If you don't know anything about basic music theory or chord construction, you'll understand what I'm talking about by trying exercise 15. Here, the key modulates from D major to D minor:

exercise 15 (tuning: DADGAD- getting a feel)

See how much freedom you have by removing that third? DADGAD and other open tunings lacking the restraints of a third allow you to drift between major and minor keys while still using all the open stings.

Another neat thing about open tunings is the new set of harmonics available. In exercise 16...

THE DRONE STRING:

The drone string can be a really addictive sound, and is one of the biggest reasons people seek out alternative tunings. The drone is the string or strings that just ring open through out the song, creating a background to what's being played. Many instruments have a drone string built in-- the five string banjo, the sitar (made up mostly of drone strings), the Chinese zither, and flamenco guitarists often use of the fifth and sixth strings on the guitar as drone strings.

The next exercise is a really basic introduction into getting the feeling of drone strings. The fifth and sixth strings will drone on C-natural and D-natural....

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DOUBLING STRINGS:

You can get an amazingly rich sound by tuning two strings to the same note, creating a chorus-like effect on the guitar. Doubling strings is a technique used by Smashing Pumpkins guitarist Bill Corgan as well as a signature sound of Michael Hedges.

Exercise M uses a really great tuning from a song I made a few years ago called, "Just One More Step". I strum this one with a pick and use very simple chord shapes, so you shouldn't have any trouble getting it right. Sometimes tightening the third string up do an E will break the string, but it probably needed to be changed anyway (see EQUIPMENT: strings).

exercise M ("Just One More Step")

"Just One More Step" also contains a chord inversion that I often use. By tuning the first, second, and third strings to R-5th-9th (i.e., C-G-D or D-A-E), you can easily bar a colorful 9th chord in the bass. This makes the ninth chord very accessible for tapping, and adds much more color than the simple standard R-5-R power chord shape.

I wrote the next song during a hitchhiking trip through northeastern Japan. "Broken Soles" is just basically Am-C-G, and F-C-G, but uses a double C-C on the fifth and sixth strings to add flavor to the 3-chord progressions and carry a melody.

exercise O ("Broken Soles")

Aside from the doubled strings, the open first and second strings are a major third apart, a little change from the perfect fourth or fifth of most tunings. This lets you easily tap major or minor-third intervals in the bass, but it can sound pretty muddy if you don't capo up. Exercise M on page 12 uses the same major-third bass.

These examples really demonstrate the tonal beauty of doubled strings, and how they can carry a simple melody. Hopefully this will get you started coming up with ideas of your own-- no chorus pedal needed!

CREATING YOUR OWN TUNINGS:

A wonderful challenge when using alternative tunings is to compose so that the open strings create musical tension rather than resolution. Too often in alternative tunings, the lowest string is the root, and the open strings form the tonic chord (usually a suspended tonic). I certainly tend to make music that way myself-- it's hard not to drift back to the attractive resolution of sweet open strings. But by tuning the guitar in such a way that the open strings create tension will give you a very different sound from other guitarists who depend solely on open strings when resolving to the tonic. I'm not talking about tuning to a hairy dissonant chord (although that can certainly spice things up), but rather basing the open strings on, say, the minor third of the tonic, or a whole step down from the tonic. This way, you have the fullness of open strings, but break the predictable mold of open-string resolution. I have no exercises to offer, but you can hear this non-resolving open tuning used in "Boiling Point" off my CD, "Paper Flowers", and in several works by Michael Hedges. You'd be surprised of the fascinating melodies hidden in the guitar if you just look in the places others avoid.

THIRD-HAND CAPOS

The first time I saw guitarist David Wilcox in concert, I was just amazed by the simple genius of capoing only half the strings. Since then I've run into other guitarist who use third-hand capos, and I've learned a few common tricks. The great thing about using third-hand capos is that you can get the cool sounds of an open tuning without actually having to leave the security standard tuning. A D-chord shape will still give you a nice pretty major chord, and the pentatonic scale doesn't go anywhere like it does in an alternate tuning.

To do the exercises in this chapter, you'll need a Kyser capo or an adjustable "Third-Hand Capo" (see Caterpillar Capos). The only other solution I can think of is to have a friend loan you an actual third hand by holding down the chord shapes indicated in each exercise.

Exercise H comes from my CD title track, "Paper Flowers" and illustrates the most common shape used for the third-hand capo. Here, the open strings create the same DADGAD sound discussed in the last chapter.

If you use a Kyser capo, you can just turn it upside down so that the long side rests on the back of the neck, and the short side covers the second, third, and fourth strings, i.e., makes an Esus4 chord (see figure Q).

As the third-hand capo shape for the next exercise is by far the most popular third-hand shape, I promise that modulating one capo for this exercise will be without regret.

exercise H ("Paper Flowers"-- actual song capoed up to G#)

As you can see, it's really just a basic D-A-G/Bm-A-G progression, but the third-hand capo really adds some depth. Notice that the fourth string is open for the Bminor chord, a chord shape that will show up again in exercise N.

The bridge for "Paper Flowers" is a very standard F-C-G-D, although the fourth string rings open in the F chord:

exercise I ("Paper Flowers"-- bridge)

The D-A-G progression and F-C-G-D bridge is so standard for this type of Esus4 third-hand capo that I'm partly ashamed to call the song original. But as you can see in exercise J, using the same chords with the same capos can give you a really different sound:

exercise J ("Scottish Sunrise")

Exercise J is a bit long, but if you break it up, chord-wise it's no different from exercises H and I.

ALTERNATIVE TUNINGS WITH THIRD-HAND CAPOS:

Now we're really getting advanced. I'm still exploring this area myself, so I'm a bit limited with advice. I usually choose a tuning by selecting a chord shape and then editing the tuning around the shape.

In example L, I started with the third hand capo on a standard A-chord, and tuned to "double-drop-D" tuning (DADGBD). Because I didn't like the D in the bass, I dropped the first string all the way to a low A, to have a drone string in the bass. That's REALLY loose, so you've got to be careful to keep it from rattling around like a shoelace. I chose this song for example L because you can use your Kyser capo by turning it upside down and attaching it from under the neck rather than from the top (see figure Y), or you can just use the capo that you already cut up to do exercises H, I, and J by attaching them from under the neck rather than from on top. The song is just strummed freely, although I use the palm of my right hand for percussion (see FINGERSTYLE TECHNIQUES).

exercise L (theme from "Familiar Love Scenes")

The last example for this chapter is a simple fingerpicking melody. The open strings create the same DADGAD inversion as in exercises H, I, and J, but because the tuning is different from actual DADGAD, you have several different options for chord shapes.

The bass line is a basic alternating thumb pattern found in Travis Picking (see FINGERSTYLE TECHNIQUES), although I switch to a muted strum for bars XXX through XXX, as in exercise L. This example uses a pretty weird third-hand capo (see figure Z), so I can understand if you don't want to cut up another capo just to try a single exercise.

exercise M ("Catfish and the Breadtie")

There are so many great sounds you can get just by fiddling around. Don't be afraid to put a weird capo on an arbitrary fret, change the tuning to something new, and start exploring. You'd be surprised of the rich sounds that suddenly appear once you get away from the restraints and habits of standard tunings.

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