How To Eliminate Slavery In Your Own Guitar Habits

Guitar TunerYour hands are like dogs, going to the same places they’ve been. You have to be careful when playing is no longer in the mind but in the fingers, going to happy places. You have to break them of their habits or you don’t explore; you only play what is confident and pleasing. I’m learning to break those habits by playing instruments I know absolutely nothing about, like a bassoon or a waterphone.” –Tom Waits

If your hands are like dogs, fetching the same old ball over and over again until it’s dark brownish-yellow and smells like a bog, it usually means you’ve become too attached to what you already know and love. Repeating those licks drains them of all meaning, doesn’t it? It’s a bit like typing [meatball meatball meatball meatball meatball meatball meatball meatball meatball meatball meatball meatball meatball meatball] until the word starts to look weird and meaningless.

So how do we bust out of a rut when our habits are so ingrained that they overpower us? What do we do when we want to quit playing that opening chord from “Foxy Lady” but find ourselves–once again–playing that chord from “Foxy Lady” like a true slave to habit?

Call Yourself Out

The trick is to drive yourself out of that comfy enclosure. Cut yourself off from playing all those moldy, worn-out melodies.

One way to do that is to play a new instrument, as the venerable Mr. Waits suggested above. But not all of us have a bassoon or a waterphone lying around the house. And even if you do, Mr. Moneybags, it’s not always realistic or desirable to master all the fundamentals of a new instrument within a reasonable timeframe.

Fortunately, there’s a simple way to turn your guitar into a new instrument; all you need is a tuner and one of the tunings below.

Cool Open Tunings to Try

“I’ve got a song called ‘Love Is Twisted.’ The tuning is A9: bass A, natural A, C, G, B, B (first and second strings in unison). And the night I wrote it, the sonority of the slide figure I used began to frighten me. Like the Devil was coming to get me unless I stopped playing his mating call.” –Jeff Buckley

One of the coolest things about open tunings is that they make all the riffs you usually play sound totally warped, like someone took them out into the driveway and ran them over with the car a few times. Once you’re in a weird tuning like DADGAD, your usual routines are not enough, old dog–you have no choice but to adapt and learn some new tricks.

A quick word of caution: if you tune strings too high-pitched, they will eventually snap. Usually breaking a string doesn’t cause any bodily injury, but one freakish time I had one poke me and it hurt my feelings, you know? So be careful–I don’t recommend tuning any string up more than a whole step in pitch. And, you know, try really hard not to rest your wide-open eyeballs directly against the vibrating strings while you’re twisting the pegs. Tempting, I know. But try not to. Here’s a good general rule:

“G up to E, snap a string. G up to A, you’re ok.”

On to the sweet tunings!

D-A-D-G-A-D

This tuning is a personal favorite of mine because it has no 3rd—so strumming the open strings in DADGAD gives you a sound that’s neither major nor minor. Not quite happy, not quite sad. The open strings form a sus4 chord. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Celtic music and very fun to play around with.

To reach D-A-D-G-A-D from standard tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E), tune both E strings down to D. Then tune your B string down to A. Easy, right?

D Tuning, aka Vestapol: D-A-D-F#-A-D

Vestapol tuning looks similar to DADGAD, but instead of forming sus4 sound, that G string is tuned just a half-step lower—forming a sparkling, rich D Major chord. The difference between the the two is shocking.

To reach D-A-D-F#-A-D from standard tuning, tune both E strings down to D. Tune your B string down to A. Tune your G string down just a half step from G to F#.

Alternately, if you’ve been playing in DADGAD, you can reach D tuning by simply tuning your G string down to F#.

Lute Tuning: E-A-D-F#-B-E

I had to include this one, because c’mon–how cool is it to be able to tune your guitar like a Renaissance-era lute?

And it’s dead simple: just loosen your G string (snicker thbbbbt hee hee) a tad from G to F#. Presto. Lute.

This one’s not as dramatically different from standard tuning as the others listed here, but it’ll still play havoc with anything that includes a G string (snort HA HA HA). Ahem. And it’s used by some classical players to play ye olde repertoire, so be sure to dress extra fancy when you use lute tuning.

Go Deeper & Invent Your Own

Anyone can twist their knobs and enjoy playing around with a new tuning. It’s quick, it’s easy.

But to really explore and understand open tunings to their fullest, read up on music theory and harmony. Not only will it help you navigate these new tunings, it’ll also allow you to design your own tunings based around your favorite chords.

Alright—pull out your tuners, grab your knobs, and start twisting!

Nicholas Tozier (82 Articles)

Nicholas Tozier is a book hoarder and songbird from the woods of Maine. In 2012 he made a small cameo in Songwriting Without Boundaries by Berklee professor Pat Pattison, and was named one of CDBaby’s top 10 Songwriting Resources to follow on Twitter.