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Help Figuring out alternate tunings

01 Mar 00 - 11:23 PM (#187917)
Subject: Figuring out alternate tunings
From: GUEST,Frank

How do you go about figuring out the chords to a song if it is in an alternate tuning. How do you establish the tuning? Frank

02 Mar 00 - 12:25 AM (#187944)
Subject: RE: Help: Figuring out alternate tunings
From: ddw


The way I go about figuring out chords is pretty simple — at least to me — so I'll see if I can help.

First, to find what key something is in, I listen to the end of each verse and/or chorus, then find the main note on the bass E string of a concert-tuned guitar. If it's, say, at the fifth fret, I assume it's in the key of A and try playing along with it in that key with the standard progression — A, D and E.

If I want to do the song in an open tuning, I would then tune to Open G and capo at the second fret. The Open G tuning I use is, from the 1st (treble E) — D, B, G, D, G, D.

To figure out a tuning, just play the chord in a standard tuning, figure out what the notes are, and then tune the strings closest to those notes up or down to coincide with the notes you need.


For an Open D, drop the treble E to a D, the B string to an A, the G string to an F#, leave the D and A strings at concert pitch and the bass E to a D.

To play it, use the open strings for the tonic (D), barre the fifth fret for G and the seventh fret for A.

This is a tuning I use quite a bit for bottlenecking.

The main caveat I would throw in here is that I'm careful not to crank too many strings UP and I don't take them far.

In the Tom Rush thread somebody mentioned his Open C tuning, in which the B string is taken up half a tone. I use that tuning for a couple of songs, and I've never had a problem with it either warping the neck or breaking strings, but I won't take anything up more than one full tone and then only one or two strings.

There are literally hundreds of tunings you can use, each of which will give you a slightly different sound. If you want to REALLY experiment, I would suggest going to your friendly local music store and ask about one of several books I've seen — most fairly small and relatively inexpensive — that have lists of tunings. One I saw — tho' I don't remember when, where or what it was called — even had fingered (as opposed to barred) chords listed, so you could pick fancier stuff in open tunings. I've always wished I'd bought it, but I've never seen it again. Wudda saved me a lot of time figuring them out on my own.



02 Mar 00 - 12:40 AM (#187954)
Subject: RE: Help: Figuring out alternate tunings
From: rangeroger

Stefan Grossman's "Book of Guitar Tunings" is excellent and has pictures of finger placements for chords along with tablature and standard notation. rr

02 Mar 00 - 09:21 AM (#188077)
Subject: RE: Help: Figuring out alternate tunings
From: M. Ted (inactive)

I like your method, David, and I think that it works pretty well for tunings that are open chords, but does it work for tunings that are not chords? I have tried for years to figure out certain slack key tunings, particularly the one that Gabby Pahinui used on his twelve string for his version of Aloha Oe, with no luck--

I have a book with many Hawaiian steel guitar guitar tunings, and the author points out that it is possible to do about 880 different tunings on a 6 string guitar without repeating pitches--but it is also possible to make drastic changes in string gauges, and to put strings out of octave sequence, so that you have 24 possible pitches for each string--

I used to use a lot of open tunings when I first played. because it made it easy to play melody , and I loved those fat chords with lots of open bass notes--but tuning and retuning is such a chore--

02 Mar 00 - 11:13 AM (#188133)
Subject: RE: Help: Figuring out alternate tunings
From: Whistle Stop

Some good comments here. I use a few open tunings on a regular basis, but it's worth noting that there is a drawback to open tunings, particularly if you use a lot of them. The problem is that they make the fingerboard unfamiliar territory, which makes it difficult to improvise, or really to play anything that hasn't been painstakingly worked out in advance. If you only use a few tunings, you can get past this -- what was unfamiliar becomes more familiar the more you work with it. But the further down this road you travel, the more this can become an issue.

It all depends on how you play, of course. If you tune to an open chord and just run a barre over the strings, then maybe this isn't an issue (as long as you don't want to play minor chords). Or if you are accustomed to playing a very established part as backup to vocals, etc., maybe the unfamiliar terrain doesn't matter so much (people like Joni Mitchell and David Wilcox take this approach, as do a lot of the Hawaiian slack-key guitarists). But if you tend to get a touch of wanderlust as you're playing, it's easy to get in over your head. Good luck.

03 Mar 00 - 09:11 AM (#188704)
Subject: RE: Help: Figuring out alternate tunings
From: M. Ted (inactive)

Hawaiian Steel Tunings often use compound chord tunings to allow major, minor and extended types of chords--you have to learn which group of strings gives you which chord, and of course, what it's relationship is to the full chord--you actually need to know note names and scales, because a steel player is responsible for playing a lot of fills and melody as well-- Some steel players have used up to four 8-string necks with different tunings--or the have pedals and knee bars that change the tuning--

All in all, there is an incredible amount if information to keep track of, which is probably why good steel players are scarce--

03 Mar 00 - 12:21 PM (#188800)
Subject: RE: Help: Figuring out alternate tunings
From: Tony Burns

Frank, get Nut Chords software, tell it how your guitar is tuned and what chord you want to play.

31 May 02 - 10:24 AM (#720645)
Subject: RE: Help: Figuring out alternate tunings
From: Áine

Since there are quite a few more Mudcatters now, and I've just started using Open-G tuning, I thought I'd bring back this old thread to see if there are any new ideas in re Frank's original question, "How do you go about figuring out the chords to a song if it is in an alternate tuning. How do you establish the tuning?".

BTW, the link to the 'Nut Chords' reference in the post above no longer works. Are there any new similar sites or programs that anyone can recommend?

All the best, Áine

31 May 02 - 03:14 PM (#720706)
Subject: RE: Help: Figuring out alternate tunings
From: JohnInKansas

A quick-hit web search on "Nut+Chord" shows Nut Chords - Chord and Scale Finder for Windows and NutChord32 - the first two items up.