An introduction to alternate tunings: CGDGCD, CGD#FA#D and Hejira Tuning
In the first instalment in this series we looked at drop D, D major and DADGAD. This time, we’re digging deeper into the world of tunings for acoustic guitar, beginning with the mighty Csus2 or Orkney tuning.
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The Csus2 tuning boasts many of the benefits of DADGAD. Once again, it’s a suspended chord, in this case, a gorgeous sus2, with no third, which allows you to play easily in both major and minor keys.
Begin by taking a moment to appreciate the low rumble of an open C against your chest. It’s an intoxicating feeling. We’re only a whole step away from a baritone guitar range here, which gives us scope for some colossal-sounding chords.
It’s important, however, not to let your bass end get too muddy here. Luckily, where Csus2 excels is in underpinning existing melodies with radiant chord textures.
You may notice that, because your strings are now slacker than usual, you may be accidentally pulling notes sharp when you fret them. That’s normal. Just take some time to listen to what you’re playing and make any necessary adjustments.
Open tunings are often used to make big chord voicings more accessible. In our next example, we’ll look at that approach in detail.
This tuning was used effectively in John Martyn’s iconic song Solid Air. It’s based around a C minor chord on the bass, with the extended seventh, ninth and eleventh notes on the remaining strings, which grants you a truly huge and evocative-sounding minor eleventh chord with just one finger. Beat that, standard tuning!
You’ll also find that, in this tuning, you’re able to apply smart, generous ideas with minimum effort. This is a wonderful tuning for soulful, textural playing that leaves plenty of space for vocals.
Many of the pioneers of altered tunings have been singer-songwriters and there’s arguably no one as creative in the arena as Joni Mitchell. Let’s take a look at one of her most famous tunings.
In 1976, Joni Mitchell released Hejira, a masterpiece that features a host of other legendary musicians, including Jaco Pastorius. The album’s title track features a haunting chord sequence based around an unusual low-slung tuning, BF#C#EF#B. This tuning grants immediate access to extremely rich textures while working the bass and leaving the open treble strings ringing.
You can learn as much from Joni Mitchell’s creative, exploratory approach to tuning as you can from the notes she plays.
Employing alternate tunings can be immensely rewarding. We hope this video encourages you to explore some in your own music.
Have fun and remember: there are no rules. Whether you want to get experimental with extended chords, explore strange dissonances or even tune every string to the same note, if it sounds good, it is good.