This is essentially a generalized version of this question for fingerstyle guitar, and I'm surprised I can't find it on this website: how do I find the most optimal alternate tuning for a guitar/bass(/banjo/ukulele/mandolin)/etc. piece?

There's got to be a way, I believe: for example, Jonny Atma is convinced that "You Will Know Our Names" from Xenoblade Chronicles is written in Drop D#, at least according to his page on his remix of that boss theme. Especially since Drop D# is such a rare tuning that he didn't want to retune any of his guitars to that tuning, he's got to have reached that conclusion about the optimal tuning for good reason.

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    I guess drop D#/Eb is downtuning the bottom string just one fret. Is that such a big deal that it can't be done in seconds - and retuned/returned in the same time, to standard tuning? – Tim Aug 25 at 9:39
  • @Tim - Jonny Atma actually gives Drop D# as D#-A#-D#-G#-C-F on that web page, and he opted to play "You Will Know Our Names" with D# Standard tuning instead, despite finding it suboptimal for the piece, because he had a guitar already tuned in that. – Dekkadeci Aug 25 at 14:36
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    @Dekkadeci D#-A#-D#-G#-C-F is actually just drop-D with capo 1. – leftaroundabout Aug 25 at 14:50
  • @leftaroundabout - It's probably a sign that I've never noticed a capo on an electric guitar or bass in a Jonny Atma GaMetal video. – Dekkadeci Aug 25 at 14:51
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    Is there ever a "best" alternate tuning? Guitarists can't even seem to agree whether standard tuning or all-fourths tuning is better. Hint: it's standard tuning ;) – David Bowling Aug 25 at 20:50

It is my experience that each individual guitar player has their own preference when it comes to alternate tunings. That leads me to believe that the selection process used by most is a trial and error process used to eliminate alternate tunings that are uncomfortable for the performer to play, or maybe the fingering patterns are a little more confusing for the player so they avoid certain tunings. I would expect the style of playing would also be a factor to consider, whether it be blues, finger-style, slide etc. As best I can tell, the magic bullet you seem to be looking for is different for each individual and requires study and experimentation in order to discover its existence. I'm open to being proven wrong1


The main purpose of alternative tunings on guitar is to allow for unusual chord voicings, especially to have a particular “mood sound” from the open strings alone. This applies also somewhat to other instruments, in particular scordatura on cello or violin, but doesn't really make much sense for bass because open strings are so low-pitched that using them for any chords gives little more but musically useless sub-rumble. Bass is usually played mostly monophonically, and for that switching between tunings accomplishes little but messes with muscle/scale memory. The only alternative tuning that's really common is drop-D, and basically its only purpose is to extend the bottom range on a 4-string bass. Same with drop-E♭: you'd use it if a piece benefits from having a low E♭ but you want to change as little as possible about the instrument or effects.

That said, for virtuoso bassists alternative tunings do become interesting: some use chords on unfretted strings a lot, but not so much on open strings as flageolett harmonics. There's a lot of interesting options here, in fact far too many to fit them in an SO post. There's a lot you could just try and experiment, which is probably how most guitarists go about this as well. For example, the one piece I wrote for scordatura guitar is heavily based around the mysterious-misty sound of the sus4♭69 chord, in this case D-G-♭B-E. It's used mostly in harmonics, which is what you'd probably also do on bass.

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