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I started teaching myself how to play acoustic guitar approximately one month ago, and I can already play some basic chords and do some strumming and solos.

However, my repertoire consists of some songs which I need to play in standard tuning and some others (mostly Guns n' Roses ones) which I need to play in Eb.

Does it harm my practice and learning process if I use the Eb tuning by default on my guitar and use a capo on the first fret whenever I want to play in standard E tuning? Or should I stick with standard tuning while I'm learning and play Eb songs a half step up?

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The main question raised with your question is why do you need to play G&R with an Eb guitar? The only reason I can think of is to play along to the songs with the track. If you are not doing that, there's little point in retuning. Either leave it standard, or leave it in Eb, and play everything the one way.I doubt many folk would know if, in isolation, you played an Eb song with a standard tuned guitar.

The only problem you may find with Eb tunng and capo on first fret is confusion with fret markers, which won't tell the key properly.

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Dropping your guitar's tuning by half step, as so many rock guitarist do, is just to accomodate the vocal range of the lead singer in the band. It serves a double purpose as it also accomodates the guitar player, it means that the guitarist can still play easy open chords with this drop tuning in stead of having to play more challancing bar chords in standard tuning in order to drop the key of the song by a half step.

Anyways, with equal temprement, any song can be transposed into any key you see fit, and the song will still sound perfectly good. A song written in the key of A with a progression like A-E-D can be transposed to be in the key of Ab, a half step down, so the progression would now be Ab, Eb, Db. If you play both progressions, the song would sound exactly the same, except the second song will be a half step lower in overall sound.

Instead of having to stuff around between standard and dropped half step tuning when learning songs, keep your guitar in standard. Whether your keep your guitar in standard or tuned half step down, it would not matter and won't change anything in the song. The only time there will be noticable difference if is when you want to play along with the original recording as all chords and notes will be a half step higher or lower on your guitar.

Anyways, the choice between having a guitar tuned to standard or half step down should be based on the singing. If your vocal range (of someone else doing the singing) can accomodate you to sing better along with Ab-Eb-Db, instead of A-E-D, keep your guitar tuned half step down. It just makes sense playing easy open chords like A, E and D with a guitar tuned half step down than playing Ab, Eb and Db on a standard tuned guitar

Just a note, it is just easier to have two guitars, one tuned standard and one tuned down half a step

  • I'm sceptical that a semitone drop in pitch makes much difference to the vocalist. If it's a song written by the band, it often makes more sense to choose a more suitable key. A lot of rock bands would use barre chords anyway, so that doesn't count either. Rock songs with open D chords? maybe not! Transposing a song can mean using different chord voicings esecially with guitars. – Tim Feb 8 '17 at 22:50
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    @Tim Having played guitar with lots of rock vocalists, I can say that dropping the tuning a half or whole step is quite popular. Live (the band) also drops a half step, among others. I played in a band where we dropped a whole step and I strung my short scale length guitar with 12s! It doesn't have to do with whether or not open chords are played, it has to do with whether open strings are played, particularly the lowest string, which is quite often. – Todd Wilcox Feb 8 '17 at 23:23
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    I would agree that a semitone can make a difference, we've done it for the singer in my band and it was perfect for her. However, I think it's more common for guitars to be tuned down a semitone or a whole tone for the effect on the tone. The strings being looser affects the tone and sustain quite a bit and I think this really increases the rock quality. It changes how much and how easily you can bend the strings. It changes a lot, which I'm sure you're both aware of, so my point is that I think the choice of tuning has more to do with the guitar than anything else. – Basstickler Feb 8 '17 at 23:44
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    @Basstickler - I understand. I've been changing keys for singers for 50+ yrs, and don't think in a lot of songs that one semitone is that critical.Guitarists who tune down often compensate by using thicker gauge strings, which is where the sustain comes in, along with fatter tone. I've used looser strings for decades - .008s - for bendability and ease of fretting. Tone loss compensated by amps. Don't think looser strings = better sustain too much. Agree to differ! – Tim Feb 9 '17 at 8:01
  • @ToddWilcox - I get what you're stating. Yes, sure it's popular, but not all songs in 'E' will have the same range - top particularly - so vocals wise, the jury's out for me. Bottom string open has a big resonance! I guess it points a lot of songs' keys to E and A, which for me gets tedious. I've often wondered why, when guitarists became commonplace in big bands, (going back to the 40s/50s), that they didn't tune to Eb. After all, so many big band arrangements are/were in Eb. but I don't think they did. Think it would have made sense, though. – Tim Feb 9 '17 at 8:13
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Congratulations on your decision to learn to play such a versatile instrument as guitar. You will find that playing guitar will provide countless hours, days, months, years of pleasure and satisfaction.

There is absolutely no problem leaving your guitar tuned a half step flat if you prefer. In fact, while you are still in the process of building finger and hand strength, it will actually make it easier to push the strings down to the frets (particularly helpful with barre chords) because the tension of the strings will be less.

When you are playing half step flat with capo on 1st to be in standard tuning, it get's even easier still to play barre chords closer to the headstock - because the first fret becomes the nut and is closer to the fretboard than the actual nut and therefore makes it easier to push the strings down to the frets. To see for yourself, try an F major full barre chord on 1st fret with and without a capo and you will see how much easier it is to play cleanly with the capo (even without tuning down).

Making the guitar easier to play by reducing the tension will increase your enjoyment and encourage you to play more and the playing more will help you build strength just as good as playing less with higher tension - with the added benefit of faster progress on learning to play.

I keep my guitar's tuned half step flat all the time because I am the lead singer in my cover band and it is easier for me to sing the songs we cover if we lower the pitch by half step. When I cover bands that typically tune half step flat, I need make no adjustments. If there is a particular song that I sing better in a different key, I use a capo. I also use a capo if I am trying to learn a song by playing along on YouTube and I need to match the tuning on the vid.

The only difference to contend with playing with a capo, is that it changes the fret markers relative to the capo. If you do it regularly, you get used to it *you come to realize that the "5th" fret is the one right after the actual 5th fret marker if you play capo 1 often enough). Some guitarist use peel and stick round labels to make new fret markers but I don't find it necessary.

Have fun on your journey towards becoming an accomplished guitarist.

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Reasons to play with your guitar tuned in Eb:

  • If you play with a jazz player or jazz singer or with horns and you want to take advantage of open strings. Horns generally play in Eb or Bb. Tuning down a step gives you the open strings and open chords Eb Ab Db Gb and Bb.

  • It allows the use of heavier strings (for tone) without decreasing playability. This is why Stevie Ray Vaughan liked the tuning.

  • It can give a richer guitar tone.

  • To accommodate a singer's vocal range.

Besides Slash and SRV, Jimi Hendrix also liked the tuning.

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