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In the wikipedia article for the song Iris it says there is an:

unusual guitar tuning in which most of the strings are tuned to D, lending the guitar a chorus-like effect.

In a follow up article follow up article it says:

Perhaps the most famous example of this is the B-D-D-D-D-D tuning of his signature hit "Iris"

Can somebody explain this to me? If one were to make every string of a guitar play D, wouldn't she have to completely re-learn how to play the instrument?

I have never played guitar so I do not know what "tuning" such as this is, but, to use another example, if every Piano player tuned her piano a different way, it would be impossible to play on any normal Piano.

Can somebody briefly explain how "tuning" a guitar works and why the B-D-D-D... tuning is different?

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    Keep in mind that when popular artists do things like this they're not re-learning their entire repertoire in the new tuning - they use that tuning for one song which they write and learn to play in that tuning and switch back to standard tuning for the rest of their songs. This really makes it no different than simply learning a new song. – J... Apr 15 at 14:50
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    There are a number of artists who use a different tuning every song. In fact Alter Bridge have different tunings'for each guitarist for almost every song - their guitar techs swap them out each time. I have been trying to learn them - it really is not easy! – Doktor Mayhem Apr 15 at 20:20
  • Some bands make alternative tunings a part of their sound. Here's a list of weird tunings like C C D# G G D used by Sonic Youth: sonicyouth.com/mustang/tab/index.html – Your Uncle Bob Apr 16 at 1:30
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I do not know what "tuning" such as this as

A tuning defines the notes of the open strings on a guitar. Standard tuning is E-A-D-G-B-E but other tunings are rather common as well. The main reason behind this is the use of open strings, simplification for specific chord shapes and easier fingering for certain phrases that are important to the song.

One obvious example if playing with a slide. A slide typically touches all strings at the same fret, and so you want this to make a chord by itself. Popular turnings for this are "open E" (E-B-E-G#-B-E) or "open G" (G-B-D G-B-D).

John Mayer uses a lot of non-standard tunings. For example "Atmosphere" "Something's missing" and "wherever I go" are played in "E-B-E-F#-B-E" and he uses the second between E and F# as an interesting tension in his open chords. "Neon" he plays in "C-A-D-G-B-E" so he can fret the bass line with his thumb at a reasonable position.

If ... wouldn't she have to completely re-learn how to play the instrument?

Yes. You have to relearn chord shapes and specifically scales. Improvising in a different tuning takes a fair bit of practice. On the other hand, it allows you to play things that would be very difficult or impossible to play in standard tuning.

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    You'd probably also have to completely re-string the instrument, as most guitars I've seen use thicker strings for the lower notes, so I'm not sure it'd be possible to get them all to play the same note with standard strings... – Darrel Hoffman Apr 15 at 15:45
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    @DarrelHoffman True for BDDDDD, but not generally the case for most altered tunings. It's possible to optimise strings (and even saddle and fret intonation!) for a specific altered tuning, but most players don't unless they are going to be using that tuning exclusively. You can tune strings a semitone higher or 2 semitones lower with no ill effects, but around 2 semitones higher or 4 semitones lower it's probably time for different strings. Many guitarists have old instruments which they used as beginners though, so those can be useful for experiments like this. – Graham Apr 15 at 16:28
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    I tuned a guitar BDDDDD, using its usual frets, to play Iris, once. All went well until I tried to tune it back, then the sound board lost touch with the rest of the body near the strap pin. From open tuning to open guitar, I guess. (Which I still played, after tuning it 2 tones and a half below, for a while). – Zachiel Apr 15 at 17:42
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Maybe it makes it more difficult to play for someone who's used to standard tuning, as all chord shapes are different. However, using just one shape, it's possible to move it up and down to produce the chords used in the song.

The idea is that the D notes will be very slightly 'out of tune' with each other, which produces what's known as the chorus effect, a sort of shimmering, not horribly out of tune. Somewhat like the sound of a 12 string guitar.

Any tuning is possible with a guitar, and, yes, all the chord shapes will alter. This makes it more difficult - there's another set of shapes to remember - but for lots, that's not a problem - some find tuning differently makes some chords easier to finger.

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    The idea is that the D notes will be very slightly 'out of tune' - additionally, and you may have meant this already, even if you miraculously got every string perfectly in tune then they would a) be out of phase, and b) guitar strings change pitch slightly from the hit to the fade, so you'd get a chorus effect anyway – Whelkaholism Apr 15 at 15:11
  • @Whelkaholism - yes, the out of tune occurs immediately after being plucked, but only lasts less than a second, but with strums coming along at around the same timing (nearly said frequency!) the chorus effect would be, well, effective. – Tim Apr 15 at 16:02
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If one were to make every string of a guitar play D, wouldn't she have to completely re-learn how to play the instrument?

You do have to play the instrument differently, but it's not as bad as having to "completely re-learn" it. Many of the skills involved in playing an instrument (such as having an idea of what sound you are trying to get out of the instrument in the first place, and knowing any applicable theory) are fairly independent of the tuning of the instrument.

Even many of the physical skills (such as how to fret the notes, and all the right hand skills) are the same. Of course you do have to re-learn chord and scale shapes somewhat, but even that only applies to the intervals moving across the strings - the intervals moving up and down the strings stay the same, of course.

The advantage of using alternative tunings is that it makes certain note patterns and combinations physically easier than they are in standard tuning (and in above cases makes things possible that would be impossible in standard tuning). If using an alternate tuning doesn't make a part easier to play (including aspects such as being able to do appropriate articulations to make the part sound good), then you would probably use standard tuning...

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    it's not as bad as having to "completely re-learn" it - exactly; another way of looking at it is that it's just learning a few more chord fingerings. The principle applies to any fretted stringed instrument really. Just learn a few more shapes and you're set. – Whelkaholism Apr 15 at 15:08
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All the answers tell you that you have to relearn chord shapes and structures which is true. I don't have much experience on guitar but once you have th basic skills like fretting, picking, speed and vibrato; it shouldn't be too tough especially since they are used mostly for a specific part ina song to make unique chord structures or sounds that are too tough with the regular tuning. On piano if you want to play everything a note up the patterns change but intervals remain the same, atleast tonally. It takes some time to learn the first alternate tuning but after two or three tunings it will feel like second nature to you.

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Different tunings are used for different styles of music. There is : Standard, drop D, Irish, Half step down, Half step up, Open E (common with slide guitar players) and a whole host of others. look it up on the web, you'll see tunings with explanations of their purposes.

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Standard guitar tuning is EADGBE (those letters are the tones for the strings low to high.)

The alternate tuning for Iris is very unusual and I don't think it's a good example to introduce alternate tunings.

One very common alternate tuning is "drop D" where the low E string is dropped down a full step to D. That tuning is common for both classical and rock styles.

Another kind of alternate tuning is "open" tuning where the strings are tuned to various chords. A common open tuning is "open G tuning" DGDGBD. Notice that all those tones produce a G major chord.

Doesn't it make it more difficult to play?

In the sense that standard tuning chord shapes won't work and you need to learn new techniques then "yes" it will be more difficult to play.

But in some ways it can be easier, or at least not that hard to understand.

Open G tuning is popular for playing the blues. Basic 12 bar blues is of course based on chords I IV V. Playing those chords is super easy in open G tuning. Just play all the open strings for I, barre across the whole neck at the 5th fret for IV and at the 7th fret for V.

Typical blues licks add various tones to those basic chords. One way to conceptualize those added tones is alterations from the main chord tones. The minor seventh is a full step below the chord root, the minor third is a half step below the chord third, a flat fifth is a half step below the chord fifth, etc. etc. It's fairly easy to create blues licks by simply stepping up/down from those basic chord tones. This explanation is a bit wordy, but the actual performance process is pretty easy.

...why would you use them?

In the case of playing slide blues in open G tuning - as one example - it produces a "sound" that you can't get with standard tuning. If you want that particular sound, you really need to use the alternate tuning.

Also, alternate tunings are used because they provide a different timbre for the guitar. This is fairly subtle, but it is noticeable. Many open tunings lower the strings and that results is a kind of deep, twangy tone.

If you play a song which uses a unique alternate tuning, and you really want to get the sound right, you will need to use that unique tuning. But that's not really about standard guitar technique and very specific to particular songs. The fingerings used for such songs won't apply to other tunings.

I think a versatile guitarist should have some familiarity with common alternate tunings. But for casual playing, like strumming basic song chords, you don't need to know how to play in alternate tunings.

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The mentioned B-D-D-D-D-D tuning is probably a gimmick that is only used for particular parts in specific songs. And yes, with a tuning like this, you'd have to relearn everything, and can't play most of what you'd expect a guitarist to play.

The guitar standard tuning is E2-A2-D3-G3-B3-E4. Within certain limits, you can tune each string up or down - two half-steps usually work fine; for a wider range you should change the string to a thicker or thinner gauge.

There are some popular alternate tunings that require relatively few adjustments to your playing:

  • you can tune the whole instrument one or two half-steps down to get a deeper, fatter sound. You then have the choice of playing the piece on the same frets, and it just comes out transposed, or you shift everything up one or two frets to keep the original pitch. As long as you don't use open strings, that's easy.
  • you can tune the lowest string down two half-steps ("Drop-D"), which expands your range for a fatter sound, and allows you to play power chords on the lower three strings very easily. You can play melodies and chords on the five highest strings just as you're used to.
  • you can combine the two: drop everything two steps, and the lowest string by an additional two, to get "Drop-C".

Anything that goes beyond these alternate tunings is, IMO, quite exotic and not something you'd expect a regular guitar player to handle.

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    Exotic is a big word. There are the open tunings of course (most commonly open E, D, A and G, I'd say), but even DADGAD is quite popular. – Willem van Rumpt Apr 15 at 11:00
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    While drop D and tuning down is popular there are other popular tunings as well. Some players play exclusively in an alternate tunings. Kieth Richards comes to mind. i don't think alt tuning is exotic at all and is a lot more common than you think. – b3ko Apr 15 at 11:27

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