Category Archives: altered tunings

SONGWRITING: D Standard Tuning (guitar)

With all the vocal problems I’ve experienced over the last two and a half years (almost three)… I’ve had such an issue singing the 3rd over a D chord (F#, which is the breaking point for most tenor singers– and the note where the passagio is… or the point where chest voice becomes head voice (as it has no choice, unless you like that strained, whiny sound)…

I play D a lot, on guitar (the chord). And singing an F# just feels so good (when I can even reach the damn thing). But what do you do when you have a lower or limited range, but you still use the D shape a lot in songs you write?

Well, you have two choices– 1. use a capo, and put it up higher on the neck (5th/6th fret) and sing in a lower range, so you’re still singing the 3rd of the chord, even though it’s not a D anymore)… or 2. de-tune your guitar one full step (which is commonly called D Standard tuning).

Elliott Smith used this in a LOT of his songs, including one of his most famous, “Between The Bars.”

Also, I just discovered that the lovely Madonna song “One More Chance” is tuned to D Standard (I love that whole guitar part… beautiful changes and an incredibly well-written song).

Finally, Matthew Caws of Nada Surf wrote “Blizzard of ’77” in that tuning (and it is also in that tuning on the “Let Go” record.)

Going back to the other two songs… Madonna has had a lower voice (especially since 1989 or so), and maybe that’s why “One More Chance” is tuned so low. And Elliott had an insanely high range, even though he always sung quietly and subdued most of the time (god, I miss that guy… thankfully he left us an incredible amount of perfect songs to enjoy and be inspired by)….. but anyway, there’s a lot to be said about this tuning. It really lends itself to sadder songs, usually. We are so accustomed to hearing the D shape in standard tuning (thus, that F# stands out so well in the chord)… but, in D standard tuning…. the D shape becomes a C major… and the highest note you hear is an E above middle C.

This is great for those of us with voice issues (or baritones), who can’t seem to hold that F# for a long while (or hit it at all), but yet, we can hold that E for a lot longer, and it feels just as good, as if it were a D major chord…. it’s a psyche-out sort of thing… but, it helps.

Maybe you wrote a song 7 years ago that you’re finally finishing. Initially it was in the key of D, and you sang that F# note a lot. Now your voice is lower or in worse shape, and you are dying to record the song and/or perform it live. Drop your tuning/change the key, but the song still feels very similar (and it doesn’t make you feel like crap if your voice cracks on that E/3rd).

Try this, if you’re running into a limited vocal range, or are just tired of the sound of standard tuning… you never know, you might even keep your guitar in this tuning for an entire album’s worth of songs. God knows, every time I learn a new Elliott Smith song that I love the sound of, I’m like “dammit, there he goes again with the D standard tuning”…. but, it’s so lovely, and it works. If you tried “Between The Bars” in standard, it sounds stupid (and MUCH too high to sing in the chorus), And  “One More Chance” doesn’t work at all in standard tuning, but both of those song are lovely in D Standard— listen.


SONGWRITING: Altered tunings

Some people out there get tired of playing the same old chord shapes, when they write songs with guitars. Even with a capo, things can get old if you have an arguably cursory knowledge of chords and chord shapes (C, G, D, Am, Bm, Em, F, etc).

So why not try out altered tunings?

Some common altered tunings include:

DADGAD (pronounced “Dad Gad”)

Low E tuned down to D, B string tuned down to A, and high E tuned down to D. Used on Third Eye Blind’s “The Background” (I think… but also, the song could be played in the following tuning..)

open D (DADF#AD)

Closely-related to DADGAD. Totally useful tuning. I believe Johnny Marr of The Smiths has used this tuning (with a capo) on many Smiths songs.

double drop D (DADGBD)

Kind of like a Dsus4add13… I can’t think of many songs that use this tuning, but it’s completely cool.

drop high D (EADGBD)

The only song from my current memory that uses this tuning is Coldplay’s “Sparks”, with a capo at the 6th fret (I love that damn song)

And…. the inspiration for this post….

open G (DBDGBD)

Alan Sparhawk of Low mentions in this live KEXP performance that he has played his guitar in open G tuning since he was 19 (in the last 4 minutes or so of the video). I knew Low used altered tunings (possibly open D or DADGAD, to my ears), but I didn’t really know exactly which tuning until I saw this video just now. Awesome, gorgeous tones from his guitar and chord shapes… that’s one huge advantage of altered tunings… the harmonic richness that you can’t simply achieve from playing in standard tuning.