Drop your tunings ever lower for inspiration

I get bored fairly easily. After 30 years of playing guitar there are patterns that are so engrained in my hands and mind that they can become difficult to ignore and easy to fall into. Sometimes those patterns are helpful and sometimes they’re a hindrance. The good news is the guitar is an endlessly versatile instrument with the ability to adapt to change to offer up new possibilities and directions.

Nobody says that you have to tune your guitar to standard pitch. We’ve all witnessed DADGAD as well as alternative tunings for slide, etc. but what if we took it to another place? Perhaps a place that wasn’t necessarily as much a musical open tuning, but rather a way to open up our minds and force us to think musically rather than the pattern-based playing the way we’ve learned over the course of time. While working on my solo album this summer and under a fairly tight deadline I had to “force” creativity at times when the muse wasn’t hanging around. Outside of plugging into a new guitar, amp or pedal I found that altering the tunings on some of my guitars was a great way to find that elusive muse and hear what she had to say.

Baritone Gone Bad
For one track on my record I was using a Tacoma Thunderhawk Baritone acoustic, which is normally tuned to A–D–G–C–E–A, or a fifth below standard guitar tuning. It’s low! However, my mind still saw the saw patterns that are present in the higher tuning and I needed new inspiration outside the obvious tonal color of a baritone.

With just minimal tweaks to the tuning it became G–D#–G–C–D#–B. That meant dropping the sixth by a whole step, raising the fifth by a half, and dropping the second a whole step while raising the first by a whole. It’s an ugly sound if you strum the open strings, but it broke me out of the patterns that my hand wanted to fall into. The key in this situation was that I was forced into thinking musically where every note had to be carefully chosen due to the altered relationship between strings and that led to some very interesting and new sounds (hear it).

How Low Can You Go?
On another track that featured a Gibson Les Paul Baritone (see a pattern here?) I wanted to do something more extreme. This particular guitar is usually tuned A–D–G–C–E–A, and while that’s plenty low, this song just called for a lower guitar sound than I’ve ever had. Using the “drop D” concept, I dropped the sixth string all the way down to E—a full octave below standard E. Just that string, and it made a serious difference in the way I approached the riffs for this song (hear it). It also radically changed the feel of the strings because of the downtuning, making it very loose and subject to the slightest movement of my fingers. If I wasn’t careful the guitar would quickly go out of tune with any extra pressure or vibrato. One benefit that came as a side effect was that the bending you can achieve with that looseness is pretty incredible, and the sound is something I hadn’t heard before.

In the past I’ve written about changing the strings on the guitar to mimic a banjo (hear it) and about other ways to restring the guitar that are unorthodox. It’s just one way to help out when you need a push in a new direction. There’s no cost unless you break a string and it’s so easy to do that you can experiment all day and come up with a handful of new ideas. Nothing beats thinking out of the box and this one has more than done the trick for me in a time of need.

Feel free to share your tuning examples!

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