Whenever I get stuck in a songwriting rut I bust out a new tuning. Gets me going every time. And maybe I've eaten too many magic mushrooms in my day, but I've come to believe that each tuning has its own unique disposition.
If you tune to dropped-D, for example (standard tuning with the bottom E string tuned down one step to D) you're likely to start churning out beefy riffs like Soundgardens Kim Thayil after hes had a couple of Met-RX bars. DADGAD, meanwhile, is inherently soulful and brooding -- its droning Ds and minor inflections attracted Jimmy Page, who was inspired by DADGAD to write "Black Mountain Side" for the Led Zeppelin album. (For more on this one, see our piece DADGAD: The Big Daddy of Alternate Tuning).
Open-E major, in contrast, feels like it's name does: open and sunny. When I wanted to write a song about conflict between mothers and daughters but didn't want it to feel too grim, I decided to mess around with open-E major.
To arrive at this tuning, you have to tune your guitar so that it plays an E major chord when you strum all of the open strings. All you need to do is retune three strings. If you're not accustomed to this, or need a bit of help figuring out which notes are which, check out the sidebar. Here's the short form, showing the string (low to high), the note it sounds in standard tuning, how to retune, and the note you get in open-E.
String Note in Standard Retune Open-E Note 6th E (low) - - E 5th A up 1 step B 4th D up 1 step E 3rd G up 1/2 step G# 2nd B - - B 1st E (high) - - E
Open E really lends itself to slide playing. The original blues players used both open-E minor (E B E G B E) and open-E major. Open E minor was named "cross-note" by Skip James. Son House, meanwhile, dubbed open-E major "cross-Spanish" tuning. Probably the most familiar slide riff that can be played in open-E major is the riff written by Elmore James (and loved by Robert Johnson) in the blues jam standard "Dust My Broom."
Whats really cool about open-E major is that by simply fretting straight across the neck, you are playing a major chord. When you just strum the guitar without fretting anything, you get an E major chord, so if you bar the third fret using your index finger or a slide, for example, you will be playing an G major chord. This means you can actually play major chords very easily with a slide.
I built my song "Wait For You" around this concept, as you can hear in the opening riff, which is basically just me strumming the open E and adding B major, A major and G major with a slide.
As with any alternate tuning, feel free to make up your own chords in open E. For the verses of "Wait For You," for example, I used this chord fingering and just moved it down each fret starting on the third fret.
For the bridge I stumbled across this chord because I was trying to finger a C7 shape and I did it incorrectly --but I liked how it sounded! Sometimes thats a good way to start playing with an alternate tuning -- try fingerings for chords that work in standard tuning and see what they sound like in the alternate tuning. You might even make a useful mistake. Sometimes error is the mother of invention.
Keep your attitude playful when working with a new tuning. Sure, the terrain is foreign, but thats what makes it exciting. Dont be afraid to screw around; you might stumble across something really fresh.
Once you get a feel for the character of different tunings, you can begin to choose them intelligently when you sit down to write. Now that I'm more familiar with alternate tunings I tend to know which one is going to work best for a given song idea thats been rattling around in my head.
Only trouble is, now my live set is composed of songs in standard tuning, dropped-D, DADGAD, and open E. At first I wasnt sure how to play my set live without hauling four guitars to every gig. After all, guitar necks dont respond while to drastic tuning changes. But then I rediscovered the capo. Not the stretchy cloth kind -- those are useless on an electric guitar -- but a good quality capo, which has a flat metal bar that lies across the guitar neck.
Now I just need two guitars: one in standard tuning and one in DADGAD. For the dropped-D song, I just drop the bottom E string on the guitar in standard tuning. For the open-E major song I use the guitar in DADGAD. I realized that if I capo it on the second fret, D A D G A D turns into E B E A B E. Wow, thats really close to open-E major, which is E B E G# B E. All I have to do is drop the 3rd string a step from A to G#. I can do that faster than my bass player can tell a bad joke.
Make Life Easy
One last thing. It might take years to learn all the notes on a guitar neck in standard tuning, and once you've retuned to open-E or any alternate tuning, everything goes blooey. The notes and chords you finger on the neck will no longer sound the notes you're used to hearing. Trying to read down a chart could be living hell. Our very professional and experienced advice is this: Forget it!
Even pro guitarists who play in open tunings don't knock themselves out trying to relearn the whole neck. They memorize finger positions and chord shapes instead of note names. It might mean you have to learn all new positions to play a song with a band, but once you're past that brief learning curve youre all set. Your keyboard player might not understand why you've forgotten how to play a minor7 chord, but aint it easy for him and his simple black-and-white life. Learn your notes and chords song-by-song to keep life simple.
Debra Devi is the lead singer/guitarist for the rock band Devi. [www.devi-rock.com]