Whether you love them or hate them, no one can really say that 7-string guitars are just a fad anymore.
In fact, they have been around for centuries in different iterations throughout Europe, Russia, Brazil, and Mexico.
But nowadays they are of course most well-known as electric guitars with a low B string added resulting in the standard B-E-A-D-G-B-E tuning.
And you have Steve Vai to thank for that as it was his signature 7-string guitar (late 1980s?) that made them widely available and paved the way for them as instruments for rock and metal in the mid-1990s and beyond.
There are a lot of tunings available on a 7-string guitar from down-tuned styles for rock or metal to open tunings and even esoteric ones from the past. So 7-string guitars and these tunings can be used for styles of music from classical to jazz to rock. Just make sure to get a setup before your press “record”.
Just like their six-string cousins, we can experiment with different tunings on 7-string guitars to tweak the sound and playing style.
But if you don’t own a 7-string guitar yet and are just thinking about getting one, there’s something to keep in mind.
If you plan on playing it in a band, you should probably make sure that your bass player has a 5-string bass or at least an interest in getting one since that will make life much easier by matching the tuning.
Remember: no man or woman is an island.
Unless you just want to play with a looper pedal.
All you need to know about 7-string alternate tunings
Of course, since 7-string guitars really gained traction in the 1990s they ran parallel to another trend: tuning lower and heavier.
This is of course going to account for a lot of alternate tunings that you will encounter but we will try to cover some outliers too, based on the international history of the instrument.
After all, if you are interested in alternate tunings, I think there’s a good chance you may be interested in something that actually sounds alternative and maybe even a little exotic.
Are you ready to throw your guitar’s neck out of alignment? Let’s dig in.
7 must-know 7-string guitar tunings
1. Drop A
Chances are good that this should be very familiar to you if you have ever experimented with Drop D tuning on a 6-string guitar or 4-string bass.
Tuning your 7th string down a full step will give you A-E-A on the top three strings. Now you’re set up for power chords and adding some distortion will give you a nice crunch.
You can play many songs that are written for Drop D this way, you will just be playing them in a different key.
And of course, you can do this with all of your strings tuned down to a different standard as well, but we won’t be specifically covering things like Drop G for A Standard.
2. Drop D (with B Standard)
Or…you can tune only your 6th (E) string down to D giving you B-D-A-D-G-B-E.
The hardest part about this tuning is probably not accidentally hitting the low B string if you’re playing really aggressive riffs on the 4th – 6th strings.
Still, it’s another quick tuning that you can try in a matter of minutes.
3. Double D Tuning
You can also adjust both of your top strings to get it.
Now you don’t have to worry about accidentally hitting the 7th string like in Drop D (with B Standard). This is done by tuning the 7th string 1 ½ steps up to D and tuning the 6th string one step down to D.
Congratulations…now you have two open D strings.
This is popular for bands that play in a heavy style but tuning a string up 1 ½ steps is personally an unattractive option for me.
Anyway, feel free to check it out and tell me how wrong I am.
4. A Standard
All strings tuned one step down to A-D-G-C-F-A-D.
This could also be called Korn Tuning as they popularized this sound.
It’s not for everyone and you will probably need some pretty heavy strings to do it.
Tuning to F, F#, G, G#, or A# standard can be done easily too as long as you follow the intervals between strings and use appropriate string gauges.
5. Drop E
Meshuggah Tuning is a big hurdle to jump.
This uses a note line-up of E-B-E-A-D-G-B.
I believe that the name comes from the standard tuning of an 8-string guitar which is F#-B-E-A-D-G-B-E, but with the F# top string dropped to E and since we are talking about a 7-string instrument the high E string is omitted altogether.
Obviously, this one requires some super heavy strings and an equally super setup to pull off.
6. Open C Tuning
This style uses the notes G-C-G-C-G-C-E. Because it is an open tuning, this one would sound awesome for slide guitar or acoustic 7-string instruments.
This is the type of thing that would need a good setup afterward to play well and thus should be used as permanent tuning on a particular guitar.
7. Treble A
Now it’s time to dig up the bones of the past with an exploration of a tuning that was experimental and led to what is commonly manufactured today.
In the early part of the 20th century, a few jazz players used semi-hollow or hollow-body seven-string guitars with the 7th (top) string tuned to A.
And eventually, some players tried to use E-A-D-G-B-E-A instead, using the extra string space for what I will call a high Treble A Tuning.
This was also the planned design for Steve Vai’s signature 7-string guitar but the string required for the treble A was too easily snapped in both cases.
Thus the 7th string became the low bass B string on the instruments that we commonly know today.
However, Treble A Tuning still gets an honorable mention although I don’t recommend you try it.
Some of the tunings that I gleaned from the history of 7-string (acoustic/classical) guitars at Wikipedia are worth mentioning as they could interest you if you really want a unique sound.
For example, Russian / gypsy 7-string guitars were tuned to a standard Open G of D-G-B-D-G-B-D, C-G-B-D-G-B-D (some kind of Open G with Drop C?), G-C-E-G-C-E-G (another style of Open C), etc.
Brazilian 7-strings are tuned similarly (standard classical style) to modern-day ones but the thickest string was often a C instead of B so C-E-A-D-G-B-E.
Should you set up your guitar every time you change its tuning?
Drop A, Drop D, A standard, and maybe even Double D tuning should be achievable to at least try out with not too much work as long as you have sufficiently thick strings on your guitar.
However, if you plan on leaving your guitar in any of these tunings, then a setup would be advised and at least it wouldn’t hurt.
And before you make any extreme changes to the tuning of your instrument you should really be sure that the nut slots on your guitar don’t have any snags and are well lubricated with graphite or something so the strings don’t get caught in the nut.
A problematic nut can easily snap strings during tuning.
If you want to try tunings like the Open C or Drop E (Meshuggah), you will almost certainly need a setup and the nut of your guitar cut or replaced for the appropriate string gauges.
And in regard to the Treble A tuning? I don’t recommend trying it at all as no one ever got it to work reliably on normal scale length guitars.
It’s included more as just an interesting bit of history.
A brief guide to alternate tunings and string gauges
For using tunings like Drop A, A Standard, or Drop D, I recommend that you opt for a heavy pair of strings to ensure sustain and avoid fret buzz.
There are even some signature Dunlop strings now for bands like Korn (.010 – 0.65) and Trivium (.010 – .063). It seems like there are signature things for everything these days, doesn’t it?
The Double D tuning presents a problem that might best be solved by two medium top / heavy bottom packs of 6-string guitar strings such as D’Addario NYXL1156 (.011 – .056), using the same string for both top strings.
As for the Drop E tuning used by Meshuggah, since it is basically a tuning borrowed from an 8-string guitar you can buy a set of strings for that type of guitar and use the seven thickest strings (after your nut is filed to fit them).
Lastly, Open C should be attainable with a medium top / heavy bottom set or I might even try that Dunlop Korn signature set since the top string is getting tuned all the way to G.
I swear to you that I’m not a huge fan of Korn but they did have a lot to do with making 7-string guitars and 5-string basses popular.
And if you are going to have a professional tech do the work for you, then be sure to ask for recommendations on the best strings for your money.
Just remember that some of these tunings are best if they are done permanently on an instrument so be sure that the way you feel about a tuning is love and not just infatuation!
Hello there, my name is Ramiro and I’ve been playing guitar for almost 20 years. I’m obsessed with everything gear-related and I thought it might be worth sharing it. From guitars, pedals, amps, and synths to studio gear and production tips, I hope you find what I post here useful, and I’ll try my best to keep it entertaining also.