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Why Would Anyone Use an Alternate Tuning?

For so many decades, our beloved E, A, D, G, B, E tuning has served us well. There has of course been the rare instance of an artist retuning to an alternate or a drop tuning, but for the most part our standard tuning was just that – the standard. Isn’t that enough to keep us developing our creativity? Or maybe our creativity tells us to alter the tuning of our guitar. But why alter something that has worked so well until now? Well, let me try to shed some light on alternate tunings for you. This article will address drop tunings. Van Halen, Weezer, Kiss, Smashing Pumpkins, Ozzy, even Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan have used drop tunings. Some bands use them exclusively, they tune down and that’s that. They leave their instruments in that tuning for all situations. Early Van Halen recordings are a great example of this. Eddie would tune his guitar down a half step and leave it there until 1984 was released. Some artists would tune down for just one album and then return to standard tuning on the next recording.

            So why do these artists tune down and what does it mean to your guitar playing? There are many reasons why someone would want to tune down to a lower tuning. I’ll address a few of the reasons, but keep in mind that every artist might have a different reason for using a different tuning.

            1) Heavier sound. Let’s remember that lower frequencies move more air. Therefore they tend to have a bigger sound. Ask yourself, what sounds bigger and deeper a violin or a double bass? A flute or a tuba? The answer is clear. Some artists might use a drop tuning to get a heavier, sound. Over the years bands have gone from tuning down a half step to tuning down two whole steps or more. That’s pretty dramatic. It’s almost as if there was a sudden contest to see who could tune down the lowest and still sound cool. I’ve heard some guitarists brag about how low they tune. But I could barely hear anything musical that these players did. Don’t get me wrong, I love low heavy stuff just as much as the next heavy metal-head, but if it’s not making musical sense, then what’s the point? So as far as those that claim “we’re so cool because we tune down so low” goes, I’ve just got two words for you to consider – Judas Priest. These guys are in an elite class of artists that are considered to be the pioneers of modern heavy metal. They had the energy, aggressive riffs and attitude that could rival anyone else, and they stayed in standard tuning to this day. This is not the only band to consider. Take a look at Metallica. They are the monsters of metal. A lot of their early work was standard tuning. Even Enter Sandman was standard tuning. The funny thing to me is that when they started using more drop tunings, their fans started becoming critical of the albums. Coincidence? No one complained about the drop tunings, they complained about the songs, the music. The album that they used the lowest drop tunings, St. Anger could arguably be considered their least favored albums amongst the fans. I really liked that album, but I can see how perhaps using such low tunings turned them away from what would usually work for them. One could say that they were experimenting and trying new things, which of course is a great thing to do, and a natural step forward as an artist. But maybe they just couldn’t find their true voice using those tunings. The album that followed saw them moving away from the super low tunings (still Eb tuning, but only a half-step down from standard as opposed to two and a half steps down) and getting back to their natural artistic voices.


            Iron Maiden is another iconic metal band to consider; yet I don’t recall them ever using so much as a drop D tuning. The list goes on, but I think the point has been made. Tuning down doesn’t necessarily make everything sound heavier. In fact I believe that playing an established song in a different key changes the song completely. That’s right, I said “changes the song completely”. If you make a study of tonality and pitch, you’ll notice that the key of F# has a particular twang or bite to it. Take an established song that was written in F# and play it in F. It won’t have the same bite to it. It’s a fact. This may be a topic slightly unrelated, but it can also be something to think about when considering drop tuning. Mozart knew this. Mozart was very picky when it came to selecting the proper key for a piece. He knew that a piano sonata might settle a little softer in B flat instead of B. So if you want to experiment with getting a heavier sound, go for it. Choose a low tuning and start writing. But once it’s written, leave it alone! Don’t monkey with it by changing tunings when you play live or when you do an acoustic version. This goes for pro artists too. I can’t handle it when a band that I love tunes down and changes the way I hear my favorite music. It works the other way too when tuning back up – try playing Runnin’ With the Devil in standard tuning, it’s not going to have the same effect. The energy in the riff changes. Select your tuning. Write. Leave it there.

            2) Retuning for the singer. Ugh, don’t get me started. Note to singers – stop making excuses and sing! Take care of your voices and develop your “instrument” just as everyone else does. Ok, my dig on singers is over… I think. Hey, I’m a singer too. I know it’s tough. Trust me, I know. That being said, let’s get real. If you can’t sing the song in the original key, then don’t play the song until you can. Obviously this is something that applies once again to a song that has already been written. I disagree with any decision to change the key of a song, even if just a half step, because the singer can’t hit all of the notes. Sorry singers, it changes the feel and energy of the piece. I wonder if a singer ever asked Rossini if he would change the key of his opera down a half step so that they could hit those notes a little easier. I know it’s a strong opinion, and maybe not a popular one amongst singers. But I’ll have you know that I’ve worked with some world-class singers and I’ve worked with some bums who called themselves singers because they had a cool haircut and dressed like David Bowie. The best singers never complained once about keys. Never. You know why? They are masters of their instrument. Listen to Patrick Monahan from Train singing Dream On by Aerosmith or Ramble On by Led Zeppelin. He nails it. So here’s the bottom line – if your singer is having a bad night or has a sore throat or something, have them sing a different melody and don’t worry about it. Freddy Mercury would do this so he didn’t have to hit all of the high notes during a show. We Queen fans never complained and we thoroughly enjoyed the music.

            Now if you’re starting out writing, by all means tune however you want to tune. If your singer prefers Eb tuning or even low C tuning, then try it out. If it helps your singer bring out more creativity and passion then do it! Work with your singer to find what tunings and what keys fit and sound best for their tonal quality.

            So this article covered a couple of different reasons for using a drop tuning. Some do it to get a heavier sound; some may do it to help out the singer a little. Now you know my opinion on retuning once a song has been established. Test it out for yourself. Play some songs in different keys and see how the “audio colors” change. Maybe you like it, maybe you don’t. Either way, now you have more insight on the effects of a drop tuning. Stay tuned for more of my articles on drop tunings, as well as alternate tunings. Go have fun with it! 

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