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Classical Guitar Tuning And Alternate Tunings: A Guide

classical guitar tuning

Did you know that if you tried to play the “Rain Song” by Led Zeppelin on your guitar using the exact same tabs as Jimmy Page, you wouldn’t be able to play it? That’s because Page uses a Gsus4 tuning to achieve the ethereal sound of this song. On top of that, this song employs chord shapes that are simply impossible to replicate with a standard tuning of EADGBE.

Check out the most accurate classical guitar tuners here.

The great thing about alternate tuning is that it opens up interesting sounds for classical guitarists that are otherwise inaccessible. For example, a simple lowering of the 3rd G string to F sharp will allow you to play early Renaissance compositions with much ease. 

Learn more about classical guitar techniques in this blog.

In this article, I’m going to discuss some classical guitar tunings. These tunings are simple yet effective. Let’s get started.

Falk Lademann from Neerach, CC BY 2.0

The Standard Tuning

Standard tuning is the one true tuning that is universally accepted by all musicians. Standard tuning, also known as EADGBE tuning, is the most commonly used tuning for the guitar. In standard tuning, the strings are tuned to form a series of consecutive fourths and one major third. If you play the E string 5th fret it will play the A note, which is the corresponding next string. 

The 6th string is the low E, the 5th string is the A string, the 4th string is the D string, the 3rd string is the G string, the 2nd String is the B string, and the last is the 1st string, the high E string. 

The standard tuning offers a rich harmonic palette. The combination of open strings and fretted notes allows for the creation of chords with different inversions, extensions, and voicings. This flexibility enables classical guitarists to explore various harmonic progressions, modulations, and counterpoint techniques in their compositions and arrangements.

Learn more about guitar harmonics just by clicking here.

Standard tuning is a solid foundation for classical guitar repertoire, as it is versatile, accessible, and suitable for a wide range of music. Many methods of tuning, techniques, and exercises are developed for it, and mastering it allows guitarists to explore the vast repertoire and develop skills to interpret the music. It is a fundamental tuning that enables guitarists to explore and excel in classical guitar performance and technique.

Alternative Tuning

Alternative tunings, also known as open tunings or non-standard tunings, are adjustments made to the standard tuning of a musical instrument, such as a guitar, to achieve different pitches and chord structures.

In standard tuning, the strings of an instrument are tuned to specific pitches, such as EADGBE for a six-string guitar. Alternative tunings involve changing the pitch of one or more strings to create new tonal possibilities, harmonies, and playing techniques.

Open Tuning

Open tunings are those in which the open strings of the guitar are tuned to a chord. This creates a rich, resonant sound that is often used for folk, Celtic, and bluegrass music. Some popular open tunings include:

The DADGAD Tuning

Do you know what Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” or Gaspar Sanz’s “Españoleta” all have in common? They’re complex pieces specifically written for the piano, but they can be easily played on a classical guitar using the DADGAD tuning. 

In fact, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Vivaldi’s classical pieces are well suited for the classical guitar when you tune your guitar to the DADGAD tuning. 

DADGAD tuning is an alternate tuning commonly used in fingerstyle guitar playing. In this tuning, the six strings of the guitar are tuned from the lowest to highest-pitched string resulting in D-A-D-G-A-D.

One advantage of DADGAD tuning is that it allows you to reach a wide range of chord voicings, particularly for chords with open strings. For example, a simple D chord in standard tuning requires three fingers to fret the notes on the second, third, and fourth strings, while in DADGAD tuning, the same chord can be played with just one finger on the second string. This frees up your other fingers for melody notes or other chords.

Another advantage of DADGAD tuning is that it lends itself well to modal playing. Due to the open strings and the perfect fourth tuning, it is easy to play chords and scales in various modes such as D Mixolydian, G Mixolydian, A Dorian, and E Aeolian. This allows you to play interesting and exotic chord progressions and melodies that may not be possible or as easy to achieve in standard tuning.

All in all, DADGAD is an excellent classical guitar tuning and probably the most useful on this list for classical guitarists.

Open D Tuning

Have you heard the beautiful composition “Barcelona” by George Ezra? If you have, it might interest you to know that it was created with an open D tuning. This song can sound exquisite on a classical guitar, and open D tuning, in my opinion, is one of the most commonly used classical guitar tunings out there. 

In this tuning, the guitar is tuned to a D major chord, resulting in the following tuning from low to high: D-A-D-F#-A-D. Use a guitar tuner for accurately tuning your nylon strings.

Open D tuning creates a rich, open sound that is well-suited to slide guitar playing but can also be used in classical guitar playing to create unique chord voicings and harmonies. The tuning allows you to play a D major chord by strumming all of the open strings, which creates a drone-like effect that is characteristic of many traditional folk and blues pieces.

Open D tuning can also be used to create new chord voicings and harmonies in classical guitar pieces. For example, the piece “In a Sentimental Mood” by Duke Ellington can be played in open D tuning to create a unique, jazzy sound that emphasizes the open strings and the drone-like effect of the tuning.

Open G Tuning

If you have even the slightest interest in or knowledge of classical music, you’ll have come across the piece “Asturias (Leyenda)” by Isaac Albéniz. What you didn’t know is that most guitarists use open G tuning to create a unique, Spanish-style sound that emphasizes the open guitar strings and the drone-like effect

What is open G tuning? And why is it so popular among classical guitarists?

Open G tuning is a method of tuning popular in blues, folk, and rock music, but can also be used as a classical guitar tuning to create new chord voicings and harmonies. Like open D tuning, it creates a drone-like effect that is characteristic of many traditional folk and blues pieces.

To tune your G major chord, you need to tune it from low to high. The series is like this:

D-G-D-G-B-D.

You can employ Open G tuning in a number of ways. For example, you can use it to play traditional folk and blues pieces, such as “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” or “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” which make use of the open, droning sound of the tuning.

Dropped

Dropped tunings are those in which one or more strings of the guitar are lowered in pitch. This creates a heavier sound and makes it easier to play certain chords and melodies. Some popular dropped tunings include:

Drop D Tuning

Drop D can be the starting point of classical guitar tuning for anyone, especially if you’ve started tweaking the tuning of your guitar. In this tuning, the low E string is tuned down one whole step to D, while the other strings stay in standard tuning. 

This results in the following tuning, from low to high: D-A-D-G-B-E.

By lowering the low E string to D, the guitarist can create a lower pitch that can add a fuller sound to their playing. Additionally, it allows you to play power chords with just one finger by barring the lowest three strings. This can make playing certain pieces of music easier and allow for different chord voicings and bass lines that aren’t possible in standard tuning.

One example of a piece that can be played in Drop D tuning is “Koyunbaba” by Carlo Domeniconi. This is a popular classical guitar piece that is commonly played in standard tuning but can also be played in drop-D tuning. By using this tuning, you can create a fuller, richer sound that emphasizes the low bass notes of the piece.

Another classic example of a piece that employs Drop D tuning is “Blackbird” by The Beatles. While this is not a classical guitar piece, it demonstrates how this tuning can be used to create unique chord voicings and melodies. By tuning the guitar to Drop D, you can make a unique fingerstyle arrangement that puts more emphasis on the lower notes.

Want to learn more about guitar fingerstyle? Check out our article about guitar fingerstyle.

Double Drop D Tuning

If you have even the slightest interest in or knowledge of metal and hard rock music, you’ll have come across the piece “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin. What you didn’t know is that most guitarists use double drop D tuning to create a heavy, powerful sound that emphasizes the low notes of the guitar.

What is Double drop D tuning?

Double Drop D tuning, also known as “DADGBD” tuning, is another popular alternate tuning used by guitarists. It involves lowering the pitch of both the low E and high E strings to D, creating a unique and versatile tuning for the guitar. This tuning is often favored by both acoustic and electric guitarists for various musical styles, much like Open G tuning, but with a different sonic character.

Tuning your guitar to Double Drop D is relatively simple. You’ll need to adjust the pitch of the low E and high E strings to match a D note. Before making any adjustments, ensure your guitar is in standard tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E). 

To tune the low E string to D, at first play the open D string (the 4th string) and the 6th (low E) string simultaneously. Gradually turn the tuning peg of the low E string (the 6th string) while plucking both strings. Keep adjusting until the low E string (6th string) matches the pitch of the open D string (4th string). You can use an electronic tuner to help you get the correct pitch.

To tune the high E string to D,  play the open D string and the 1st string simultaneously. Gradually turn the tuning peg of the high E string while plucking both strings. Keep adjusting until the high E string matches the pitch of the open D string. Again, you can use a tuner to achieve the correct pitch.

Common Classical Guitar Tuning Methods

Tuning a classical guitar is essential to ensure that it produces the correct pitches for each string. Here are the common methods to tune a classical guitar.

Using a Piano or Keyboard

If you have access to a piano, you can use it to tune your classical guitar. To do this, simply play the corresponding note on the piano and then adjust the tuning peg of the guitar string until the two notes sound the same.

Image from Google’s free stock photo

String-to-string method

The string-to-string method is a simple and effective way to tune your guitar. To use this method, start by tuning the highest string (the E string). Once the E string is in tune, you can tune the other strings by playing the same note on the lower string and the fifth fret of the higher string.

For example, to tune the A string, you would play the A note on the E string and then the fifth fret of the A string. If the A tune is in tune the two notes will sound in tune. You need to adjust A string’s tuning peg if the two notes do not sound in tune.

You can continue using this method to tune the rest of the strings on your guitar.

Using a tuning fork

A tuning fork is a simple and inexpensive device that can be used to tune your classical guitar. Simply strike the tuning fork against a hard surface to use a tuning fork, and then hold it near the ear of the guitar. You can use the reference pitch to tune the guitar strings that the tuning fork produces.

Relative Tuning

Another way to tune your classical guitar is to tune all of the strings to a single reference string. This can be done using a tuner or by ear.

To tune all of the strings to a single reference string using a tuner, simply select the reference pitch on the tuner and then adjust the tuning pegs of all of the strings until they are all in tune with the reference pitch.

To tune all of the strings to a single reference string by ear, start by tuning the highest string (the E string) to the reference pitch. Once the E string is in tune, you can tune the other strings by playing the same note on the E string and the corresponding fret on the lower string. 

For example, to tune the A string, you would play the A note on the E string and then the fifth fret of the A string. If the two notes sound in tune, then the A string is in tune. You need to move the tuning peg on the A string until the two strings sound the same if the notes don’t sound in tune.

You can continue using this method to tune the rest of the strings on your guitar.

Which tuning method you choose will depend on your personal preference and experience level. If you are a beginner, it is recommended to start by using a tuner. Once you have developed a better understanding of how to tune a guitar, you can try tuning by ear.

How to Tune Your Guitar by Ear

You can tune a guitar “by ear” if you don’t use any outside tools or gadgets, like electric tuners. Instead, you use your ears to make sure the strings are tuned correctly. 

Here’s how to tune your guitar by ear, step by step:

Recognize Standard Tuning

The majority of guitars are tuned to standard tuning, which goes from thickest (lowest) string to thinnest (highest), which is E-A-D-G-B-E.

Use a Reference Pitch

To begin, you will require a reference pitch. This can be derived from another tuned instrument, a tuning fork, or an internet reference pitch (for example, an online tuner).

Tune the low E string (6th string) as follows

Play the reference pitch and the thickest low E string together. Turn the tuning peg to adjust the tension of the low E string until the two notes sound identical. Tighten the string if the E string is too low. Loosen it if it’s too tight. When they are out of tune, you will hear a “wah-wah” effect, which will disappear when they are in tune.

Tune the A String (5th String)

Pluck the A string while fretting the 5th fret on the low E string. Adjust the tension of the A string until it sounds like the note generated when you push the 5th fret on the low E string. The A string is in tune when the two tones are identical.

Tune the D String (4th String)

Fret the A string at the 5th fret and pluck the D string. Adjust the tension of the D string to match the sound generated when you push the 5th fret on the A string.

Tune the G String (3rd String)

Fret the D string at the 5th fret and pluck the G string. Adjust the tension of the G string to match the tone generated by pressing the 5th fret on the D string.

Tune the B String (2nd String)

Fret the G string at the 4th fret, and pluck the B string. Adjust the tension of the B string to match the tone generated by pressing the 4th fret on the G string.

Tune the High E String (1st String)

Pluck the high E string while fretting the 5th fret on the B string. Adjust the tension of the high E string to match the tone generated by pressing the 5th fret on the B string.

Double-check

It’s a good idea to Double-check each string on your guitar to make sure they’re still in tune. Guitar strings can interact with one another, therefore, tuning one may have a minor effect on the others.

Tuning by ear might be difficult for beginners, but with practice, your ear will get more attuned to pitch, and you’ll become better at tuning your guitar precisely.

If your guitar is going out of tuning, check out these solutions. 

How to Tune Your Guitar Digitally? 

Tuning your guitar digitally means using a digital tuner to tune the strings to the correct pitch. Digital tuners are electronic devices that detect the pitch of a note and display it on a screen. They are much more accurate than tuning by ear, and they are also much easier to use.

There are many different types of digital tuners available, including clip-on tuners, pedal tuners, and phone apps. Clip-on tuners are the most common type of digital tuner. To tune your guitar digitally, you can use various electronic methods or software for precise tuning:

Electronic Tuner

Get a digital guitar tuner or use a tuner app on your smartphone. Select standard tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E), and play each string. The tuner will show if the string is in tune or needs adjustment. To fine-tune the string use the tuning peg based on the tuner’s feedback.

Guitar Tuner App

Download a guitar tuner app from your device’s app store, select standard tuning, and play each string. The app analyzes the pitch and indicates whether the string is in tune. Adjust the string’s tension according to the app’s guidance.

Online Tuner

Visit a reputable online guitar tuner website allowing access to your device’s microphone. Play each string, and the website will provide visual feedback on the string’s tuning. Adjust as needed following on-screen instructions.

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)

If you’re recording your guitar on a computer using DAW software, use the built-in tuning tools or select a guitar tuning plugin. Monitor and adjust your guitar’s tuning while playing through your computer.

Pitch Detection Software

Utilize pitch detection software or plugins when connected to a computer or digital recording device. Play each string, and the software will analyze the pitch, offering visual feedback for tuning adjustments.

Clip-On Tuner

Consider using a clip-on tuner that attaches to your guitar’s headstock. It typically features an easy-to-read display and works well in various lighting conditions.

Virtual Tuning Fork

Some smartphone apps and online tools simulate a tuning fork sound, which you can use as a reference pitch to manually tune your guitar.

Ensure you pay close attention to the visual or auditory feedback provided by these digital tools to achieve accurate guitar tuning. Digital tuners are highly precise and can simplify the tuning process, making it accessible, especially for beginners.

Classical Guitar Tuning FAQs 

Sharif Leen
Latest posts by Sharif Leen (see all)

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