I have a question. How does tuning come into play in guitar songs? See, I can find the tab of a song in the guitar by ear and I was taught that in tuning standard the fifth fret of the low e string is same sounding as the open a when plucked. This means I could derive a same sounding note from one string to another, isn't this correct? So why does one need to alternate tune sometimes? Is this because in some songs some notes go from low to very high? So that the player could easily play that song because the notes would be nearer to each other?

  • For some reason, there has been no mention of folk and blues here: richie haven (woodstock) played an open D tuning, and slide guitar is quite often open A or Am. The trick here is that the chord can be played with a full barre and merely slid up or down the fret board. One reason is naivete without the benefit of lessons, another is ease of use. – horatio Oct 20 '11 at 17:31

You've pretty much answered the question yourself. Sometimes the guitarist needs access to other notes (usually lower, such as in drop-D tuning) or to take advantage of chords that would be difficult/impossible to form in standard tuning. Two other options are wanting the change in sound (particularly with the open strings) or simply preference (preferring to play songs one way over another). Naturally, tunings can be combined with a capo to create many variations.

  • Would it make any difference though regarding plucking the same notes but with different strings? For example, the 7th fret of the D string would sound like 2nd fret of the B string right? Would there be a noticeable change in sound? What I really mean is if you pluck the same note from the bass strings(EAD) then the higher strings(BGE), is there a difference in sound or would they really just sound the same? – J Roq Oct 19 '11 at 5:08
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    @JRoq Yes, there would be, due to overtones. A different mix of frequencies is produced by different strings playing the same note, though they share the same fundamental, due to their thickness and other physical properties. – user28 Oct 19 '11 at 5:18
  • Cool dude! Thanks! That's why it sounds different to me when I hit the notes at different strings but they're the same. The mystery is solved! Thanks guitar master! ^^ – J Roq Oct 19 '11 at 5:30
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    would be worth mentioning another reason for alt tunings: slide guitar – mkorman Oct 4 '20 at 14:11

The change in sound is a big reason, especially in folk styles… I've learned one song that is played in DADGAD tuning for a specific type of sound, one with a lot of suspensions in most of the chords. It's simply not possible to play it in standard tuning and keep the same character of sound, and it's what makes the song what it is. However it's also used for the ease of playing specific things. It's also sometimes used as a songwriting tool, at least by some, as it lets you escape the progressions you know, and explore the ones you don't, completely by ear. I've used it on occasion, and though I'm about as far as you can get from a gifted songwriter, it has certainly helped get me out of many a rut.

In addition, some individual guitarists use alternate tunings, especially open tunings, to overcome physical difficulties. My father cut two fingers of his left hand off on a table saw, and now has only his thumb, pinkie, ring finger, and minimal use of his index finger (won't bend, so usable mostly just for barre chords). He has no middle finger any longer. He used to be a phenomenal guitarist, and although he primarily plays bass now, he does play guitar in open tunings, which help him do what he needs to.

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    I wonder how your father would do with my Flat Finger Tuning? G-D-d-f-g#-b [the fifth string is the lowest]. All major and minor triads and seventh chords (7/M7/m7/Mm7) can be played using two or three fingers, placing the index finger across three to six strings, and other fingers covering one to three strings. – supercat Apr 2 '15 at 1:02

The character of the sound, rather than ease of playing, is most often the reason seasoned guitar players use open tunings. I don't know what kind of music you anticipate playing in alternate tunings, but they are frequently used in everything from blues to country to rock. Guitarists from Mississippi John Hurt to Doc Watson to Keith Richards to Neil Young use alternate tunings.

To really answer your question, find a song you like that you know was done with an alternate tuning and try to learn it in standard tuning. You'll almost certainly succeed. Then relearn it in the alternate tuning and you'll appreciate why it was done that way.

  • I'll be doing Sonic Youth and Pavement songs if you know them. :) – J Roq Oct 24 '11 at 8:03
  • Hey, your "learn standard before learn the alternate" thing really struck a chord in me. I'll definitely do it! ^^ – J Roq Oct 24 '11 at 8:19
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    In "Teenage Riot" it's clear that for one of the parts, the open G tuning is to make the strings ring more and to make for that kind of lazy alternating backing rhythm pattern. It could be done in standard tuning, but I'm pretty sure you will "feel" the difference in open tuning. Because open G is so different from standard, you might want to consider a different set of strings more appropriate to the pitches of the tuning if you use it much. – Steve Ross Oct 24 '11 at 17:09
  • Different set of strings? So I need to buy a new guitar? – J Roq Oct 25 '11 at 5:08
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    If you only have one, then just tune them around and see how you like the sound. If you get to playing in alternate tunings and standard tunings -- especially with others, switching will get old in a hurry and many people do have a guitar they leave tuned in one or another alternate tuning. D'Addario has a primer on selecting strings for this here: tothestage.com/upload/StringTension_1949.pdf. You'll be tuning up so unless you can fret the strings cleanly, you should be ok. A dropped tuning is more likely to generate fret buzz. – Steve Ross Oct 25 '11 at 17:57

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