Alternate Tunings for Guitar – The Easy Way

Alternate tunings have become far more practical – check out these four options

Under normal circumstances, alternate tunings are a PITA. Even when you’re recording and don’t have an audience waiting impatiently, it’s still a major hassle to re-tune completely, then return to where you were.

But that’s how it was—because four modern options make alternate tunings a practical reality. All of them let you create custom tunings, too. Here are some examples of what alternate tunings sound like with guitar; all strings are low to high.

Open E tuning (E-B-E-G#-B-E)
Dropped D tuning (D-A-D-G-B-E)
DADGAD tuning (D-A-D-G-A-D)
Open G tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D)


The notes you play end up as MIDI data that drives a synthesizer, so in mono mode (where each string goes to its own synth channel), simply transpose each string’s synth to create an alternate tuning. For example, tune the synths driven by strings 4-6 up an octave for “Nashville” tuning. Pros: You can transpose by insane amounts, have different sounds (not just tunings) for different strings, and retrofit an existing guitar with a divided (hex) pickup to feed a Roland, Fishman TriplePlay, or other MIDI guitar system. You can also use dedicated controllers like the Jamstik+ and You Rock Guitar. Limitations: MIDI guitar comes with tracking and latency baggage, and the notes you hear won’t necessarily be what you’re playing on your axe.


The Line 6 Variax guitars (see below) and Roland GR-55 (shown in the image at the top) both use this type of technology—where digital signal processing models the sound of a transposed string for each of the six strings. Pros: You can tune beyond how far you can tune with real strings, and changing tunings is instantaneous. Limitations: The notes you hear will not be the same pitch as what you play, you can’t retrofit existing guitars, and sound quality deteriorates with extreme transposition.

Picture of the Line 6 JTV-59 Variax guitar.
Line 6 JTV-59-US James Tyler Variax


If your guitar has a separate audio output for each string, you can record them into separate tracks in your DAW, then use the DAW’s ability to transpose signals in non-real time (or use a transposition plug-in, like zplane’s Élastique Pitch). Pros: Can give extremely high sound quality due to non-real time processing, can tune beyond how far you can tune with real strings, and offers multiple mixing options (e.g., separate delays, chorus, or envelope filters on each string). Limitations: Can’t be used live, and you can’t hear what it’s going to sound like until after you’ve recorded and processed the part.


This was the tuning system used with Gibson guitars; it never really caught on, and Gibson guitars no longer include it. However, the Tronical system is available as a retrofit for a variety of guitars. It’s the only system that physically retunes your strings, and while I first thought the automatic tuning feature was silly (“c’mon, I know how to tune a guitar”), it’s a huge time-saver…for example, I take only Gibson guitars with automatic tuning when doing workshops and seminars, because I can re-tune in seconds. Pros: There’s no disconnect between what you play and what you hear, no alteration to the tone, and tuning down makes the strings easier to bend. Limitations: You can’t do tunings beyond how far you can tune a real string, it typically takes around 5-10 seconds to tune, the system uses a custom rechargeable battery, and you sometimes have to tune twice because it doesn’t settle on pitch exactly after one tuning.