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I wrote a song, and have a guitar I never got to using, and I decided to write a guitar part to the song. The thing is, I know what intervals and harmonies sound good so I just got my guitar out, and started playing with the tuning until I found notes that sounded good together. While I wrote the song I made it really simple so I play two notes at one time and the outcome sounds really simple and pretty, I have a low note keeping a steady beat and high notes that make really nice harmonies when I'm singing and harmonizing with my sister. So, my question is, is it really weird/uncommon to just tune the notes however the heck I want? Also do I have to play with the neck pointing right or left, it feels most comfortable for me to lay my guitar on my right thigh and my left hand on the neck of the guitar. I'm planning on singing and playing this song for my school's talent show so I just want to make sure i'm not going to embarrass myself up on stage when other guitar players notice i'm doing everything wrong..

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    If you've ever been to a concert and noticed someone frequently bringing different guitars out for the performer, this is one reason why. Guitars with different tunings are kept back stage so that the performer doesn't have to retune the same throughout the concert. (The retuning could be minimized by playing all the songs with the same tuning in the same block, but there's still the uncomfortable pause when the guitar needs to be tuned for the next block.) – chepner Sep 15 '16 at 18:26
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    It obviously worked for Joni Mitchell! – Johannes Sep 15 '16 at 18:55
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    Are you tuning to frequencies relative to A 440 in the standard 12 tones to the octave or do you really mean that you are just picking whatever frequencies you like as your open string? If it's the latter, there's nothing "wrong" with it but it will be difficult to notate without using just tablature. If you ever play with other instruments it could also be problematic. The only real limits are practical ones. If you are having fun, go for it. – syntonicC Sep 15 '16 at 19:11
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    you may tune your guitar however you like provided people around you can tolerate your notes. – sushu Sep 16 '16 at 9:22
  • It is not clear from your question exactly how you prefer to hold your guitar. I guess it's like a Hawaiian or lap steel, but we need some clues, please. – Tim Sep 16 '16 at 13:14

10 Answers 10

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[I]s it really weird/uncommon to just tune the notes however the heck I want?

Contemporary guitar practice includes a large number of tunings. Commonly used systems include open tunings (where the open strings are tuned to sound a particular diatonic chord), slack tunings (where the standard series of intervals between strings is preserved, but the entire tuning is lowered by some number of semitones, usually between one and five) and dropped tunings (where the standard series of intervals is preserved for all strings except for the sixth string, which is lowered to form a perfect fifth interval with the fifth string), but that is hardly an exhaustive list.

Using a non-standard tuning is certainly a valid artistic choice.

Can I just tune my guitar how ever I like?

Having said the above, there are limits to what is possible and/or practical that result from the physical properties of guitars and strings, as well as your hands.

Guitars and strings are designed to operate within a specific range of tensions. If a string is stretched too tight (tuned too high) it is more likely to break. Excess tension on the guitar neck - as a result of tuning a number of strings too high - can result in warping or breakage. I have personally witnessed bridges being pulled off acoustic guitars due to excess string tension.

Another potential issue is intonation along the length of the string. A guitar is typically set up with certain assumptions about what strings will be used - including material and thickness; and therefore, tension - and how they will be tuned. If you choose to string and/or tune your guitar differently, it is possible that the strings will not remain in tune along the entire length of the fingerboard. This can be remedied through intonation adjustment - if your guitar permits such a thing. Most acoustic and classical guitars have fixed bridge saddles, however, making intonation adjustments difficult, if not outright impossible.

Finally, the standard guitar tuning has evolved to facilitate a wide variety of material and playing styles. Alternative tunings tend to be more specialised, so they might make it much easier to play certain pieces or styles (for example, open tunings are favoured by slide guitar players), at the cost of making other things more difficult.

If you only need to play one particular song, whatever tuning makes it easiest is perfectly fine (within the limits set out above). If you want to play a large variety of material, an unorthodox tuning may be a hindrance.

Also do I have to play with the neck pointing right or left, it feels most comfortable for me to lay my guitar on my right thigh and my left hand on the neck of the guitar.

If I understand you correctly, this would be a lap guitar style - the guitar is laid in the lap of the player with the strings facing upwards and the player plays with both hands reaching down, much like a keyboard player might.

This way of playing guitar is most often used by slide players - for example, Pink Floyd's David Gilmour - as it is closely related to lap-steel guitar (essentially, a pedal-less version of pedal steel), but as Tim points out, it has also been used by guitarists who fret with their fingers, such as Jeff Healey. It is not common, but - again - is a perfectly valid artistic choice.

I just want to make sure i'm not going to embarrass myself up on stage when other guitar players notice i'm doing everything wrong.

It is possible that you might get asked why you play in an unusual way, in which case "because it's easier for me like this" is a completely sensible answer. At the end of the day, the quality of your performance is what matters. Whatever lets you reach your musical goals is good.

EDITED:

Alternate stringing methods

Aside from different tunings, some guitarists also choose alternative stringing methods - changing the order in which the strings are put on the guitar.

The best-known alternative is reverse stringing - reversing the order of the strings, low to high, so that the lowest string is closest to the floor when the guitar is held in a conventional fashion and the highest string is furthest from it. This is typically done to enable a left-handed guitarist to play a right-handed guitar (or vice versa), by holding it upside down. Jimi Hendrix is the canonical example of this, having played upside-down, right-handed guitars extensively.

Reverse stringing isn't the only possiblity, however. It is possible to come up with any number of alternative stringing methods - from reducing the number of strings to changing their order (one example I have seen involved having the bass strings in the middle of the fingerboard, surrounded by the higher ones). Alternative stringing methods may involve non-conventional tunings, as well, especially if the order of strings is changed considerably.

As with alternative tunings, alternative stringing systems can be quite specialised - making some things easier, while other things are harder, than if conventional systems were used. Reverse stringing - when used to convert a guitar for reverse-handed play - is an exception here, since the resulting stringing and tuning is standard, albeit suited to a different handedness than the guitar was originally built for.

The importance of standard tuning and technique

It has been pointed out in the comments that - while using alternative stringing, tuning and playing posture is a perfectly valid artistic choice - there is a lot to be said for developing proficiency with standard tuning and playing styles. It is a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with.

I have have stressed repeatedly in this answer, that alternative stringing, tuning and posture involves trade-offs. The "normal" way of doing things is standard for a reason: it works best in a wide variety of applications. Following mainstream instrumental teaching allows us to tap into a legacy left by generations of past musicians, who have refined both the instrument and the playing techniques. When we choose to step outside these bounds, we are given freedom to explore new musical territory, but we are faced with a whole host of new mistakes we must make ourselves, in order to learn from them.

Having a solid foundation in well-trodden territory can be quite helpful when we decide to strike out into the wilds.

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    Very extensive and complete dissertation on alternate tuning of guitar. Also your last paragraph is solid gold. I could only give you a plus one but wish I could have given more. – Rockin Cowboy Sep 15 '16 at 18:17
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    One caveat I would add: I'd recommend playing some with normal tuning and holding a guitar the "normal" way, at least every now and then, just to keep up with your skills. By all means play with what sounds interesting, but there's hundreds of years of fine tuning that has refined the guitar to where it typically is today. Make sure that, while you have fun, you don't miss out on the lessons one can learn from a more traditional approach. (source: I happen to be in the process of re-learning piano, from scratch, because I did things my own way and picked up some bad habits which limited me) – Cort Ammon Sep 15 '16 at 23:41
  • +1 I would just add one thing: If you need very strange pitches, you can even choose a non-standard set of strings. For instance if the tuning was 1D 2B 3A 4F# 5A 6D, you could use a 3G string for your F# rather than to overtense a 3D string by 3 halftones. – yo' Sep 16 '16 at 9:04
  • Bob Log III uses a very unusual guitar tuning : A - A - E - A - C# - E. He's one of the best guitar players I've ever seen, he uses it because it's what he needed for his style. – Matt Jones Sep 16 '16 at 10:57
  • Nice detailed answer, however, I did not interpret the OP's description of holding the guitar as holding it in a lap style. Therefore, I would suggest that for even more completeness, perhaps add a bit about left handed vs. right handed guitars, Hendrix, etc. – Dylan Cristy Sep 16 '16 at 13:01
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It is NOT wrong! It's unorthodox. Provided you're not going to strain the guitar neck by putting lots of unnecessary tension on it, do what you like. The only problem I forsee is when your friend who has a guitar asks you to play it. It's going to be awkward for you!

As far as playing the guitar on your lap - I've often thought that actually, it's in many ways a better option. There are some excellent players who play like that - the late Jeff Healey is one - worth a google - and just because it's different doesn't make it wrong. You'll probably be able to play things that standard players struggle with!

  • There's actually an entire tradition of this in Hawaii. The traditional story is that Mexican cowboys were brought over to work Hawaiian herds and they taught guitar to the native Hawaiians and then left. Without traditional teachers they developed their own tradition. It's probably more complicated but that's the traditional story. Check it out. It's not wrong, just different and you might have a hard time replicating it. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slack-key_guitar – Zessa Sep 15 '16 at 15:23
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    I agree wholeheartedly, but the OP should still be prepared for certain rigid-minded individuals who will take issue with unorthodox methods: schoolkids can be {jerks}. And recall that virtually every major art movement since the 14th century takes its name from a disparaging remark by a critic. Baroque was a put down. – Yorik Sep 15 '16 at 15:45
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    @Yorik - true. I just hope the OP is ebullient enough to shrug off the naysayers. – Tim Sep 15 '16 at 15:57
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    @Zessa - I've often envisaged a guy on a deserted island when a guitar gets washed up. Never seen one before, and wonders how it's played. Probably would try horizontally first. Of course, the salt water never affected it... – Tim Sep 15 '16 at 15:59
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Your question reminds me of a saying my dad often repeated - "different strokes for different folks".

I admire your creativity and talent. It's easy to follow the path laid by those who precede you, but it takes courage and inventiveness to forge your own path.

There is nothing wrong with creating or inventing a tuning that perhaps few if any have ever used. So called standard tuning is just one method of tuning the guitar that is popular and has been repeatedly taught through the ages. There are many guitarists who use a different tuning as a matter of course and other guitarists who use many alternate tunings.

The most prolific purveyor of alternate (many self invented) tunings is an artist named David Wilcox DavidWilcox.com I met him at a house concert several years ago and he changed tunings between every song during his performance. I asked him and he told me he has used over 100 different tunings.

Many of his tunings can be found here David Wilcox songs with tunings. Some are common alternate tunings used by many but many are very unorthodox.

It should be noted that he uses composite guitars which may be capable of withstanding more string tension than a wood guitar - which could allow for some tuning tensions that might damage a wood guitar.

Feel free to continue to invent tunings for other songs. It's a valid way to exercise your personal creativity. Just be sure to write down the ones you like so you will remember how to reproduce them. Use a chromatic tuner to help identify the pitches you end up with and keep a journal of all your custom tunings.

Just be sure not to put too much tension on the bass strings which could put damaging stress on your bridge or neck. If you over tighten your treble strings they might just break before your guitar does.

Have fun with your song writing and guitar playing and good luck at the talent show. You will be displaying a talent for writing songs, inventing alternate tunings, stunt guitar playing, singing, AND playing an instrument! With all those different talents on display, I think the audience is in for a real treat!

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Of course you can

And you'd hardly be the first player to do so. John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls does some pretty crazy tunings:

Rzeznik is well known for his distinctive and unusual guitar tunings ... Perhaps the most famous example of this is the B-D-D-D-D-D tuning of his signature hit "Iris" wikipedia

Ultimate Guitar even compiled a list of their Top 10 Favorite Songs with Alternate Guitar Tunings

Learning to create good music on the guitar using alternate tunings takes a lot of time, creativity, and patience. But that is par for the course when it comes to doing anything well in a "non-standard" way.

  • As someone already said in another answer, make sure your nonstandard tuning does not strain the neck. I once tuned my guitar in order to play Iris, and while tuning it back to normal, the strings tore the soundboard from the far end of the lower bout. It's been really satisfying to play Iris in its intended tuning, but it won't ever happen again. :( – Zachiel Sep 15 '16 at 17:11
  • See David & Jad Fair's take on learning guitar. Not in the link, but the quote continues: Tuning the guitar is kind of a ridiculous notion. If you have to wind the tuning pegs to just a certain place, that implies that every other place would be wrong. But that's absurd. How could it be wrong? It's your guitar and you're the one playing it. – mattdm Sep 15 '16 at 18:18
  • @Zachiel: even in that state I am sure you could have pounded out a tune if you swung hard enough! – Yorik Sep 15 '16 at 20:43
  • @Yorik or if I kept it shut with the elbow after going for a -5 slack tuning, which I did for one year and a half. – Zachiel Sep 15 '16 at 21:43
  • For CSNY's "Suite:Judy Blue Eyes" and "4 and 20 years ago" both use EEEEBE. Sonic Youth uses all kinds of crazy alternate tunings and have to take a pile of guitars on tour. – runrig Sep 16 '16 at 16:03
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Succinctly, the limits are:

1) If the strings are too lose, they will flop rather than resonate.

2) If the strings are too tight, they will stress the instrument or break themselves.

3) No one else will be able to play it easily.

Other than that, "Fill Your Boots".

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I got my start playing guitar with a tuning which I invented to make things easy for me, but which I think yields better voicing than standard tuning for a wide range of music. Swap the bottom two strings, and tune G-D-d-f-g#-b. When using that tuning, the left hand will generally be further up the neck than with standard. For C and G chords, the index finger will be on the fifth fret; for D chords, it will be on the fourth.

More specifically, a G chord is x-5-5-6-6-8: index finger bars the top five strings, the middle finger bars the top three, and the pinkie hits the top string. For a C chord, reach around a bit and use the ring finger instead of the middle finger, to play 5-5-5-7-8-8. For a D chord, pull back and go down to the fourth fret, to play x-0-4-4-6-7. Chords for other keys can be played by simply shifting the G and C chords up and down the fretboard. For a seventh chord, lift up on the ring finger (if used) or else the pinkie. Other chords including Minor chords, major sevenths, minor sevenths, etc. can also be accommodated easily.

Different people have differently shaped hands, and Flat Finger Tuning probably won't work well for everyone, but I'd be interested to hear any thoughts by people who try it out.

  • 'Swap the bottom two strings', Seems like everything has changed. Explain more clearly, please. – Tim Sep 15 '16 at 18:56
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    @Tim: Setting the indicated tuning without swapping the bottom two strings would result in a fifth string whose tension is about 50% lower than normal, and a sixth string whose tension is about 50% higher than normal. If you're using a set of light-gauge strings, tuning the sixth string up to a G might be okay but the low D would be very loose; if you're using heavier strings, the D might be okay but the G would be dangerously tight. – supercat Sep 15 '16 at 19:33
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    @Tim: Swapping the fifth and sixth strings will mean that the fifth string is an E string tuned down two frets, and the sixth string is an A string down two frets. Completing the picture, the fourth string would be a d at standard pitch, the third a g down two frets, the second a b down three frets, and the first one an e down five frets. Using heavier string gauges for the strings which are tuned down more may improve action, but that's more complicated than just swapping the bottom two strings. – supercat Sep 15 '16 at 19:35
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You can definitely tune however you like but there are some things to consider. As Tim mentioned in his wonderful answer, you wouldn't want to be tuning your strings too tightly, or you may risk warping your neck or ripping the bridge off. The other thing to consider is Intonation and Tone. Guitars are set up to handle specific strings tuned at specific frequencies. There is plenty of wiggle room in how this all works but once you get too far away from it, you start to have problems. When the strings are too tight, there isn't enough give to the string to allow proper vibration, which will affect the tone and the sustain. The same thing can happen when the string is too loose, as well as the potential of the string vibrating against the fretboard.

If your tuning is drastically different than a normal tuning, I would recommend taking it to a shop and having a technician check it out. Some of the issues can be resolved by using different gauge strings. For instance, if you're tuning a lower pitch string too high, it adds tension but if you swap it out for a smaller string, you can achieve the desired pitch without having too much tension.

Lots of players are known for having atypical tunings, such as Ani DiFranco, who seems to have a different tuning for every song and basically has to change out her guitar every song, one, to avoid retuning constantly, and two, each guitar can be set up for that specific tuning.

Also, it sounds like you're holding the guitar the same as most people do. A normal right handed guitar has the left hand holding the neck. When sitting, most place the guitar on their right thigh, though the Classically trained and/or posturepedically aware are taught to keep it on their left leg with the leg elevated slightly.

  • It seemed to me like the OP has the guitar flat with strings facing up. But it's not crystal clear - yet. – Tim Sep 16 '16 at 7:44
  • @Tim - I see. I didn't gather that from the question but rereading it I can see that that might be the case. – Basstickler Sep 16 '16 at 13:16
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I'd say: "sure!" in agreement with most freedom-loving knowledgeable folks writing about it here. CAVEAT: make a recording of it-- in case you forget what the tuning was, you can always have that reference which might just save you from a boatload of brain-hurt! That said, I advise against it. It's hard enough learning one tuning, as in really learning it, to a "muscle memory" degree, which is crucial for impressively jamming live. I recently have come to appreciate this way more than ever. A ukelele came into my posession that actually stays in tune (i.e. is playable) - something I hadn't been able to afford. Jamming to magnificently splendourous Grateful Dead concerts with it, I found myself way less concerned with needing to keep my eyes on the fingerings or even my mind concentrating on the patterns-- because all four strings are equally spaced wrt pitch, unlike the standard guitar tuning! So what's happened is, I can generally bang out counterpoint just as fast as the chord changes get, without having to think about it. Maybe consider such a tuning across 6 strings-- I've yet to go there.

  • As to artists, Neil Young has some great alternative-tuning songs. Thoroughly described at songx.se ! – Mark A. Williams Sep 16 '16 at 0:47
  • The only alternative tuning for Neil Young that I know of is double-dropped D (both E strings tuned down to D). Cinnamon Girl and The Loner use this tuning. – runrig Sep 16 '16 at 16:00
  • It seems that I did an inadequate job at selling you on visiting that site-- it's simply superb. He uses DADGBE in many tunes. But other tunings too.. sampling from page 1: A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop EADGBE Ain't It The Truth EADGBE Albuquerque DADGBE Ambulance Blues DGCFAD Angry World DADGBE Are There Any More Real Cowboys? EADGBE Are You Ready For The Country? EADGBE Aurora EADGBE Baby What You Want Me To Do (cover) EADGBE Bad Fog Of Loneliness EbAbDbGbBb Bad News Comes To Town EADGBE Bandit BbFBbEbGBb Be The Rain DADGBD -- this web-editor is nuts. No \n insert?! – Mark A. Williams Sep 18 '16 at 0:32
  • Okay, I agree, it's a fantastic site. And, okay, DADGBE is (single) dropped-D...but I don't really consider, e.g., DGCFAD alternative, or anything where all strings are tuned up or down the same amount. BbFBbEbGBb is interesting, but it's double dropped-D tuned down a major third (I'm not even familiar w/that song, I'll have to listen). – runrig Sep 20 '16 at 15:30
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Absolutely fine - if you like it, for yourself. If others like it, for them also! You could even emulate some non-12 tone music that way (Indian, etc.) - however your frets would still be a limiting factor as you move up or down the neck (bending might make that available to you however - consider John McLaughlin's work with scalloped fingerboards)

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Interesting question, and some interesting points raised in the other answers.

I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned the practicalities of using a non standard tuning whilst performing live.

It's a pain to change tuning during a live performance, it interrupts the flow of the set. You can't blend songs together, you can mitigate this by having other band members carry on while the guitarists switch, but it depends on how picky you are about your performance ;-)

Switching to drop D and back again is relatively simple, but if you have an exotic tuning, that is quite a departure from your current tuning, you'll probably find it impractical to change tuning on stage. You could just use a different guitar for each tuning, but you'll need enough guitars, and you'll have to accept the break in flow caused by the instrument switch.

  • The question appears to be posed with the express object being one number. Were it more, you'd have a fair point. There are also now a few guitars available with auto tuning which works rapidly - at a price! – Tim Sep 16 '16 at 13:25
  • As as Variax owner, I can testify that this is one of the real advantages they have. You don't physically retune the strings - instead the instrument pitch-shifts each string as needed. Of course it doesn't (can't) work at all acoustically, but for an electric guitar you can rarely hear the little "twang" it makes acoustically over the top of your amp, so all you hear is the pitch-shifted version out of the amp. For a gigging musician, this is a godsend. And it doesn't require those awful auto-tuning mechanisms either. – Graham Sep 19 '16 at 10:04
  • @Graham wow, they look really neat! I'm going to have to go to the guitar shop and try one. What's the intonation like on them? Would you say they are of a good enough quality to use for recording? – Doctor Jones Sep 19 '16 at 11:01
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    @DoctorJones I have a Variax 300 (electric). I think the electric models are very good. The acoustic models are pretty bad though - they all sound like an acoustic with a cheap piezo pickup, and the resonator models both sound more like banjos. The main fault with them was the necks though. The 500/600/700 had nice Strat-style necks, but the 300 was very poor quality and not nearly so playable. Intonation was fine, but the neck and fret finish was cheap and nasty. – Graham Sep 19 '16 at 11:58
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    @DoctorJones Also the new ones, they've forgotten what the purpose of a Variax was, and added mag pickups. The whole point of the instrument is that you don't need mag pickups! And all the improvements which Variax users asked for with actual experience of using them in real life, they just flat ignored. But that's Line6 all over - great R&D, but utterly crap salesmanship with the class-leading products they invent, and zero customer support. – Graham Sep 19 '16 at 12:02

protected by Doktor Mayhem Sep 16 '16 at 12:43

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