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What techniques and practices are best to learn a new guitar tuning?

I am familiar enough with standard tuning to play rhythm parts in several places and also improvise with different scales.

I want to start exploring alternate tunings (specifically open G and Drop D), but am quickly frustrated that I do not know the chord shapes and scales (or even where each note is).

What are the necessary drills and exercises to learn a new tuning?

Edit:

Based on a few responses, I'm actually quite comfortable with the theory of building scales and chords. I realize that alternate tunings adjust the strings so that different intervals can be reached easier (among other reasons). I specifically get frustrated when I am 'slowed down' because I don't know where the next note or interval is when I switch tunings. I have to relearn the patterns and note names on the neck. I don't play much from tab or standard notation. Most of what I do is from ear or a chord progression. I was thinking more about drills which would help build proficiency in the new tuning - and things to learn the nuances that make the tuning useful. The suggestions of learning a song recorded in said tuning is good, and I will start that, but are there additional things to quickly build proficiency? And are there things to do that will help keep the differences between the tunings mentally separated so as to avoid extra mistakes when performing?

  • @rock-on- actually, the Drop D tuning is also often used by classical guitarists, not for power chords, but just to have that low D available. – Scott Wallace Feb 22 '17 at 20:15
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Learn at least one cover of a song that was written and/or recorded in the alternate tuning you want to learn. If you can't find a song in the exact tuning you want to know better, then start by learning other alternate tunings based on songs that exist for them. Once you get the hang of a couple different tunings, it's easier to see how to work with an alternate tuning.

The most popular kinds of alternate tuning are open tunings, meaning when you strum the open strings, a chord is formed. Of course you can play that chord flavor (major, minor, dominant seventh, etc.) on any root note just by barring across the whole neck. Then you learn how to modify the chord to make different flavors and then you can move those shapes up and down the neck. Plus playing only some of the strings will lead to different flavors on different root notes. For example, if you had a major seventh open tuning, then you can play a major chord, a minor chord, or a major seventh chord just by choosing different strings. With a dominant seventh tuning, by simply adding one finger ahead of the bar (to sharpen the minor seventh) or not, you could play major, minor, diminished, dominant seventh, and major seventh.

Other tunings are more unusual and can be harder to distill down to essential shapes. One of the joys and mysteries of some tunings is that they are so ineffable that you just have to experiment and find sounds that work. It's a joy because it's a huge creativity booster. Some tunings create amazing new textures when you use shapes that are common in standard tuning.

Either way, learning covers will help you understand how an alternate tuning can be used, and will give you a baseline of chord and scale shapes to start from.

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The fact that alternate tunings are confusing to you is perhaps an indicator that your approach to standard tuning might be based more on "learning" than "understanding".

What I mean by this is that, while it's perfectly possible to become a relatively accomplished guitarist by simply memorising chord shapes and specific guitar parts, it's more valuable to understand what it is that you're playing.

For example if I say "play a D chord" you would probably go straight to x x 0 2 3 2, but if I said "play me the third from that chord" or "play me the f# note" would you know where they were in that chord? If you have to stop and think before answering both of those question, then it's an indication that you're playing with an "opaque" approach, rather than a "transparent" one. I'll use this analogy because I can't think of a better one, so I hope you'll forgive me if it is a little patronising and a bit too extreme: it's kind of being able to write your name, but not knowing what the letters actually mean.


I would recommend, as an exercise, take some songs that you know, and try playing them in different positions, or transposing them up and down an octave.

You mentioned that you have learnt some "scales", but I wonder if perhaps you have learnt these more as "shapes" than as conceptual sets of notes. One way to get around this is to learn the same scale in all positions, but another equally (if not more) useful thing to do is to work out simple melodies by ear, and then play them at every possible position on the neck. This will help you to visualise how notes actually fall across the strings much more naturally than memorised scales, because you actually have a connection to what the notes are "doing". You will end up seeing some scales shapes you've already learnt when you play the melody in certain places too, which is useful, and interesting. Things like: "Happy Birthday", "When The Saints Go Marching In"; nursery rhymes, christmas carols, folk songs, pop melodies etc. etc.

Playing melodies in different places will mean you cross the G-B string gap at different points in the melody. This means that you will inevitably get in the practice of compensating for how the interval between strings affects the note layout of notes across them, which is the main hurdle to overcome when trying to play in a new tuning.


For a similar activity for chord based playing, you can use a capo. Usually, we use a capo to take a song from a "difficult key" to an "easy key" (very often, we put songs in G). I'd advise using a capo for the opposite purpose, taking a song from a key you already know it in to one you don't. Take a song in, Say G, and try to play it with a capo on 3, 5, 7, and 10 (so your G would become an E, D, C and A respectively, the rest you would have to work out for yourself).

The reason this is an intermediate step is that it forces you to think outside you existing memorised shapes for that specific song, but keeps the relative tuning the same; this way you're not stepping completely into the unknown, but you're not able to just "paint by numbers" either; you should get more of an idea of what the notes are actually "for".

With these activities, you will necessarily start to understand how the notes are laid out in standard tuning and have more of an understanding of what you already "know" in standard tuning. After that, changing the intervals between the strings becomes much less of a stretch, and playing in alternative turnings becomes much more transparent.


Also, of course, listening to existing music in open tunings for an idea of what's possible is a great place to get ideas about what to "do" with the options opened up (and closed down) by open tunings:

You mentioned Drop D; that's basically the same as standard but you've got a power chord at the bottom now. Pointers for songs to start on, I might say learn the riffs to "killing in the name" by RATM, and "dead star" by muse. HEart Shaped box is another great Drop D song to play.

3 loosely defined open tuning traditions

  • Major open tunings: "bluesy" style Links incoming, watch this space.

  • "suspended tunings : "Modern" style

    • Candyrat guitarists from 2000s/early 2010s
  • Also check out Irish DADGAD music. Literally just google "Irish DADGAD" to see some great stuff.

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A lot of it comes down to your working knowledge of pitches and intervals. After all, chords are simply a collection of simple and compound intervals played simultaneously.

Typically speaking, alternate tunings are used to make a particular piece of music more pliable for the practitioner (player), such as using a capo for a song in a particular key, or tuning to Open G (Open D is another favorite of mine) to facilitate easier of use of a slide, say for country or blues. Other times, a particular tuning may just sound cool and fit what you have in your head musically, or, perhaps you just need three E's for Edward.

As far drills or exercises go, there are two you can try :

  • Start by applying the alternate tuning, and naming off the notes on each string. For instance, I know in standard tuning that an octave of any root note on the low E is always going to be two strings over and two frets up on the D string. However, in Drop D, that shifts to the fret parallel to your root note, since the low E is now effectively a low D (heh). This can give you a good mental mapping of what your fretboard looks like with the tuning in place.

  • Take a song you're familiar with, and attempt to play it in your new tuning. As long as the discrepancy isn't too large, you'll be able to see, hear, and mostly importantly feel what the limitations are. For example, the intro is now slightly more difficult to play due to an awkward picking pattern, but that silky lead in the middle is a lot easier to manage since you don't have to shift hand positions as much.

Pro Tip : Experimenting with alternate tunings is required when you're changing your strings!

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Usually, you learn a new tuning because it has specific strengths compared to standard tuning - e.g. the ease of playing a particular set of chord or scale shapes, for example. So for me the natural order of learning the tuning is to learn those 'strengths' first (which are usually very easy - they're the reason you moved to the tuning in the first place, after all!) and then fill in the gaps with the other shapes that are different to standard tuning and might not be so easy.

When you're learning Drop D, which is just one string different, all you really need to do is remember to mind the bottom string. However, in the more general case of learning different shapes, the bottom line is that the specific 'muscle memory' of shapes you have from standard tuning doesn't carry over, so it may be better to learn each tuning a bit like a new instrument, rather than have too many expectations of being able to carry the patterns across.

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