This is probably appropriate for a range of instruments, and I have seen mentioned in other questions that professional musicians can cope easily with transpositions, different instruments that play in different keys etc., but my specific problem is with the guitar.

I have a range of guitars in various tunings (mostly for tonal reasons) and I like to play them all, but typically I will play a month or so with just one then go to another and I have major problems retraining my muscle memory. For example, I know that for this particular song I'll be able to place my fingers like so and the notes will work...in Drop D tuning, however when I move to an Open C tuned guitar I have to go back to thinking out my licks, solos and chords rather than just letting them happen automatically. I have a couple of little tricks focusing on anchor notes, but this is causing me problems.

For the proper professional musicians out there - how should I approach different tunings in order to make them all feel natural. Is there a trick to it, or is it all just practice? Or, worst case scenario, is it just one of those things that isn't easily surmountable?

  • 3
    The guitar player of my band says that he needs to anchor a few key notes visually in his mind to see where all others are relative to them. Then he would try to think of the melody as the distances from those. It's quite difficult to understand the exact process, being a drummer, but I guess you need to find a way to remind yourself the current fretboard configuration. That would be a pretty subjective way to do probably. In certain fast soloing cases, he also admits that he often hopes to land on the correct note :)
    – user1306
    Jan 29, 2013 at 13:27
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    @percusse - Guitar playing is all based on patterns, and those patterns are typically drilled into a player's head. The problem, though, is that the patterns that produce the desired notes changes when the tuning does. That's the problem Dr Mayhem is experiencing; he gets used to one set of patterns, then moves to a different tuning and those same patterns produce different results.
    – KeithS
    Jan 31, 2013 at 21:53
  • The drumming equivalent is if I rearranged your kit, maybe to raise or lower the floor tom, change the angles of toms, or even more drastically, mirror your normal setup. You could play on it, to a point, but it would throw you, especially if you were playing something that tested your technical ability.
    – KeithS
    Jan 31, 2013 at 21:55
  • @KeithS That's a great analogy! Indeed that's the case. But speaking of that drum configuration I tend to think about the sounds that the drums produce. So I have a tendency to search for the drum with my eyes a few notes in advance maybe that's what saving me in a fast solo situation. Because usually we play in very small places and I don't have the luxury to setup my drums as I want them to be (sometimes skipping a tom etc.). So maybe a guitar equivalent of this might help but indeed that's very subjective because muscle memory is tough to override.
    – user1306
    Jan 31, 2013 at 22:06
  • Also if you have a piccolo or a cowbell that you can't fit somewhere :) you have to rely on your free-riding skills. So I don't think that it's impossible but it's surely difficult. Many experts recommend thinking horizontally on the strings instead of vertically boxing the chords. But I'm not an experienced guitar player so I can't judge the value of that advice.
    – user1306
    Jan 31, 2013 at 22:13

2 Answers 2


Your question is a question that is asked by many musicians over a range of instruments, but I think that the real question is a bit more broad than the one in the original post.

I believe the real question your looking for is: "How can I make something that is unfamiliar familiar?"

The answer to this is frequency.

The reason why you have a difficult time moving between alternate tunings is that, as you mentioned in your question, you only rotate between them about once a month. Such a distance of time between changing tunings does not create a frequency high enough for the information to pass into long-term memory storage. Up until this point, the majority of your understanding and facility with respect to scordatura is that of short-term memory.

So, it stands to reason that if you want to become more familiar with them, have to use them more often. I would say that you should alternate between the tunings during your practice sessions - that is solo practice sessions - not a rehearsal with the group (at first.) Increasing your frequency will make them much more familiar and therefore reflexive.

Also, I inferred from your question that you have several guitars - all tuned to a different tuning. I am sure this works for expediency, but I would recommend using one guitar and changing all of the tunings manually each time. This will not only improve your ear and your familiarity with your instrument, but it will also help to get you accustomed to thinking about the instrument in that new tuning.

In terms of practice techniques, you have to apply the same techniques you used to learn how to play guitar in the standard tuning. With each alternate tuning, I would suggest that you learn how to play all of your major, minor, and modal scales in the 12 keys. Memorize the new patterns, see how they differ or are similar to standard tuning patterns, make connections. Doing this will further help to familiarize you with the layout of the instrument.

Also, if you know the names of all of the notes on the fretboard and your scales, it is helpful to say the names of the notes out loud as you're playing through them. This helps to audiate the pitches your playing and provide your brain more context to work with.

Learning a different tuning is no different than a wind or string player learning a different scale, or a musician learning to read a different clef. It's just the process of taking something unfamiliar and making it familiar.

Bodybuilders have big muscles because they lift weights. Artists have keen eyes because they draw. Familiarity will come with time, but there is no substitute for putting in the work.

Hope that helps.

  • Retuning the one guitar is not really an option unfortunately - some have odd physical setups, some have odd electronic setups - all the floating bridge models take a long time to settle etc., but I do like this answer :-)
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Jan 29, 2013 at 20:15
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    I agree with most of this, but I don't agree that retuning one guitar is the answer. Retuning using standard strings is a compromise. It's better to have a guitar fitted with the right strings for the job.
    – slim
    Jan 29, 2013 at 20:28
  • Dr Mayhem and slim, you are both correct. I should clarify my point by saying that my comments were made with regard to assuming the use of a standard 6-string guitar with a fixed bridge and standard 0.42 gauge strings; since I do not believe the type of guitar(s) were specified in the original question. Thanks! Glad I could help! Jan 29, 2013 at 22:10
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    +1. I would think that the different guitars actually help as a subconscious visual, audial and sensory trigger: your mind says "Ah this is the guitar with this tuning and fingering". Jan 31, 2013 at 12:50

I like the way you've posed this question, and I think you're correct in comparing your problem to musicians who play different instruments in different keys, so I'll answer from that perspective.

As jjmusicnotes alluded, it seems the problem may not be playing in different tunings so much as it is switching from one tuning to another after an extended period of time. I think you'll get the greatest benefit from practicing that specific skill.

This means keeping more than one guitar around and switching between them more frequently. I could imagine having a technique workout sequence of sorts that takes about 20-30 minutes to play through; and then practicing by playing the full sequence on instrument A, then switching to instrument B and doing the same thing, and so on.

Another important thing is to strongly mentally compartmentalize your technique for each instrument, or in this case, each tuning. This anecdote comes from a reed doubler who played a master's jury on FIVE different instruments. In that kind of situation, where you must be able to pick up a different instrument and perform on it immediately (not unlike changing guitar tunings in the middle of a gig), you must be able to think "Now I am bassoon player"... "now I am clarinet player", and pull up all of the posture, fingering, technique, etc. that you have mentally categorized away for that instrument.

A difference in physicality actually makes this easier, since the brain is much better equipped to remember things with a physical component than things without. Meaning, learning completely different instruments is easier than learning multiple tunings on the same guitar, but your use of multiple guitars should also have a positive effect as long as you're learning to rotate frequently as described above. This whole mode of thinking also means you should avoid thinking of Tuning A as "like Tuning B, but..." and so on--instead think of yourself as "Now I am standard tuning guitar player"... "now I am DADGAD tuning guitar player" as you rotate through your tunings.

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