The Top 3 Alternate Guitar Tunings: How To Write GREAT Riffs!

By Christoper Horton •  Updated: 05/25/23 •  13 min read

Why would you want to use alternate guitar tunings? Today we look at how you can open the door to new creative ideas, simply by changing your tuning slightly. Let’s check out the top 3 to fuel some new creative riffage!

Alternate Guitar Tunings: Inspiration Fuel!

Have you ever been in a rut when it comes to writing some new riffs? I know I have, and sometimes you just hit a wall, creatively. In fact, the #1 symptom of writer’s block is the lack of that creative “spark”. That intangible feeling you get when writing songs.

There are a lot of ways to alleviate writer’s block, but one of the easiest is to change the medium. If you play more than one instrument, sometimes you can switch over to piano or bass, and then add guitar later.

But if your main instrument is the guitar, then you might be in trouble if you are having a hard time finding your spark. If guitar is the only instrument that you play, then how do you change the medium?

That’s where alternate guitar tunings can come in handy. Just like a new amp or pedal may give you a burst of inspiration, changing your guitar tuning is totally free and can have the same effect. You never know what the alternate tuning may inspire!

Bands like Sonic Youth used creative tunings to create an entirely new sound and genre. Modern bands like Death Cab For Cutie also use alternate tunings to create riffs, atmosphere, and layers in their songs. Even bands like Periphery use interesting tunings to make the sound of a song interesting and fresh.

Some artists like The Devin Townsend Project use one alternate tuning to define their entire style. In Devin’s case, he writes everything in an altered Open C tuning. This allows Devin to write some heavy riffs, but also creates interesting chords and drones for the lighter sections.

They whole point is versatility. Sure, plenty of guitarists write their entire career in Standard Tuning and never change. I mean, we call it “Standard” for a good reason, but sometimes you need a new sound to inspire you.

We have covered some popular tunings here before, like E Flat and Drop D. Those are certainly good for inspiring new sounds, but we wanted to explore a little further than that today. These alternate guitar tunings are less common, and may change the way you write!

So today we are going to look at some alternate guitar tunings, and give you examples of popular songs that were written with each of the tunings. You can try them out yourself and maybe write your next great song or riff!

What Are Alternate Guitar Tunings?

If you have a good ear, then you have probably heard a song or two before that sounding “different” to your ears. Especially if you have played guitar for quite a while, and you know how the open strings already sound.

For instance, you can tell if a song is in Drop D tuning after you have played guitar for a while. Likewise, you probably also know when a guitar is tuned down low for heavier music. But alternate guitar tunings are not just about dropping the tuning.

Alternate guitar tunings involve adjusting the standard tuning of your guitar’s strings to create unique and unconventional sounds. While the traditional tuning for a guitar is EADGBE, alternate tunings modify the pitch of the strings, opening up a world of new sonic possibilities.

By exploring alternate tunings, you can discover fresh chord voicings, find unique melodic patterns, and tap into unexplored musical territories. Alternate guitar tunings offer a myriad of advantages that make them an excellent choice for guitarists of all levels.

So what are the best ones to start with? Well, the answer is the top 3 alternate guitar tunings that we have listed today. We scanned popular songs, and popular players until we found some of the most common tunings.

But on a more personal level, I have used these tunings myself to get out of a creative rut. Sometimes you just need some new sounds to explore when it comes to writing some killer riffs/songs. So let’s dive into the best alternate tunings!

DADGAD: A Tuning For Any Genre

alternate guitar tunings

DADGAD tuning is an alternative guitar tuning that offers a unique and rich sound, and we have talked about it before. It is named after the open strings of the guitar when tuned to this particular configuration. In DADGAD tuning, the six guitar strings are tuned to the following pitches, from low to high:

D – A – D – G – A – D

Compared to standard tuning (EADGBE), DADGAD tuning provides a different harmonic palette and facilitates specific chord shapes and fingerings. This tuning is commonly associated with Celtic and folk music, but it has been used in various genres by artists such as Jimmy Page, Pierre Bensusan, and Alex de Grassi.

The main advantage of DADGAD tuning is the ability to create rich, open-sounding chords with minimal finger movement. The open strings (D) provide a droning effect that adds depth and resonance to the music. Moreover, DADGAD allows for a wide range of alternate chord voicings and melodic possibilities.

To utilize DADGAD tuning effectively, here are a few key points to consider:

  1. Chords: DADGAD tuning provides unique voicings for common chords. For instance, a D major chord can be played by simply barring the open strings at the second fret. Experiment with various chord shapes and explore the rich, open sonorities that this tuning offers.
  2. Drones: The open D strings serve as drones that provide a constant tonal foundation. They can be played individually or used in combination with other notes or chords to create interesting harmonic textures.
  3. Melodies: DADGAD tuning offers some interesting melodic possibilities. Since the tuning provides a D major tonality, emphasizing the D note can create a strong melodic foundation. Additionally, the open strings can be used to create melodic motifs and add embellishments to your playing.
  4. Transposition: It’s important to note that when using DADGAD tuning, the familiar chord shapes and patterns from standard tuning won’t directly apply. To play in different keys, you’ll need to learn new chord shapes and adapt your playing accordingly.

As with any alternate tuning, DADGAD requires some experimentation and practice to become comfortable and proficient. It’s a great tuning for exploring new sounds and expanding your musical creativity.

You can check out our full article on on DADGAD tuning, which includes some of the most famous songs ever written with this popular alternate guitar tuning. The most popular is probably “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin, but there are many others!

Many players might associate DADGAD with acoustic guitar playing, but it can be used with electric guitar as well. Lots of great ideas can happen if you just experiment a little bit! While this is one of the most popular alternate guitar tunings, there are plenty of others!

Open G Tuning: The Sound Of Blues/Rock

alternate guitar tunings

Robert Johnson is known as the man that sold himself to the devil at the Crossroads to learn The Blues. Johnson often used Open G tuning, and this inspired other players like Keith Richards, Joni Mitchell, and so many other players to bring this unique guitar tuning to the forefront of rock music.

Like DADGAD, we have talked about Open G tuning before in another article, which is exactly why we decided to include this tuning in our top 3. It is used often in rock, but especially in heavy Blues-Rock like The Black Crowes and similar bands. Blues guitarists uses alternate guitar tunings all the time, and the Rolling Stones built their whole sound on this tuning!

Whether you’re a beginner guitarist seeking fresh inspiration or a seasoned player looking to expand your sonic palette, Open G Tuning is a fantastic option. Let’s dive in and discover why it’s a great alternate guitar tuning:

What is Open G Tuning?

Open G Tuning is an alternative guitar tuning that offers a wide range of expressive possibilities. In Open G Tuning, the strings of your guitar are adjusted to form a G major chord when strummed open. While the standard guitar tuning is EADGBE, Open G Tuning transforms the strings to DGDGBD, changing the low E, A, and high E strings.

Open G Tuning provides a plethora of benefits that make it an appealing choice for guitarists. Let’s explore why this alternate guitar tuning is worth your attention:

Just like DADGAD tuning, Open G can also be used with a capo to change the key of the song. Likewise, open tunings are the most common for slide guitar, which is making a huge comeback in Rock and Metal playing.

Whether you’re drawn to the expressive world of slide guitar or seeking new chord voicings and harmonies, Open G Tuning has you covered. Its accessibility, versatility, and creative potential make it a valuable addition to your musical toolbox.

Open C: Let’s Get HEAVY

alternate guitar tunings

When it comes to Open C tuning, this might be the least explored of all of the alternate guitar tunings. It really comes down to going so low, and that means you might need to change your guitar strings. You may also have to intonate your guitar for this tuning as well.

But if you are willing to venture into new territory, then Open C tuning can be a lot of fun. It makes scales and arpeggios a little easier to pull off, and it works a little bit like Drop C tuning with the bottom strings.

Other than “Heavy Devi” there are many other artists that use Open C. Again, we see Jimmy Page using this tuning, as well as John Butler and a slew of other guitar legends. It offers the same “type” of sound as Open G, but with a much heavier sound.

What is Open C Tuning?

Open C Tuning is an alternative guitar tuning that provides a unique sonic landscape for your guitar playing. In Open C Tuning, the strings of your guitar are adjusted to form a C major chord when strummed open. While the standard guitar tuning is EADGBE, Open C Tuning modifies the strings to CGCGCE, preserving the low E and A strings.

Open C Tuning offers a range of benefits that make it an exciting and versatile choice for guitarists. Let’s delve into why this alternate guitar tuning is worth exploring:

There are a lot of possibilities when it comes to using Open C, and bands like Periphery have modified it for songs like “Marigold”. That low C string may need a heavier string gauge, but it might be worth it for the change of perspective.

Open C Tuning is a captivating alternate guitar tuning that opens up a world of possibilities for guitarists. Whether you’re drawn to its expansive chord voicings, desire a broader sonic range, or seek inspiration from artists like Devin Townsend, Open C Tuning has much to offer.

The Top 3 Alternate Guitar Tunings: Wrapping Up…

It was hard to pick just 3 alternate guitar tunings, but I picked the ones that have been most useful to me over the years when I hit a roadblock in my songwriting. Sometimes you need to just change one thing in your guitar setup to get a kick of creativity.

If you don’t write your own music, then it can be fun to learn some of the songs in these alternate guitar tunings. Especially some of the classic songs that you might have thought were in standard!

Alternate guitar tunings are an exciting pathway to unlock new sounds and expand your musical horizons. With their ability to inspire, create fresh chord voicings, cater to specific genres, and encourage experimentation, alternate tunings are an invaluable asset in your musical toolbox.

Embrace the unknown, explore alternate tunings, and unleash your creativity to create music that resonates deeply with both you and your audience. Break out of that rut, and start writing some killer riffs!

What Are Alternate Guitar Tunings?

Alternate guitar tunings involve adjusting the standard tuning of your guitar’s strings to create unique and unconventional sounds. While the traditional tuning for a guitar is EADGBE, alternate tunings modify the pitch of the strings, opening up a world of new sonic possibilities.

Do I Need To Change Strings For Alternate Guitar Tunings?

For most alternate guitar tunings you can use your regular gauge of strings. But alternate tunings like Drop C might require some thicker strings, especially for the bass side of the guitar.

Is Open G Tuning For Slide Guitar?

When it comes to alternate guitar tunings, Open G is used a lot for slide guitars. But it is not exclusively used for slide guitar, as you can use it for just about any application!

Christoper Horton

Christopher has been playing guitar, bass, and piano for 28 years. He has been active in the professional music industry for over two decades. Chris has toured for years with several bands and music projects across the United States. He worked in Los Angeles as a studio musician and engineer working with many genres, but mainly Pop, Rock, and Metal. In between giving private lessons, he is usually recording under his various projects. Christopher plays Schecter Guitars, BOSS Amplifiers, and uses STL Tones in the studio.

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