Some people can sit down at a piano and play a song without resorting to sheet music.
These lucky people can “play by ear”. And though I call them lucky, it’s more likely that this skill is the result of countless hours practicing until every key on the piano is ingrained in their brains.
But the guitar is a little different.
There is no silver bullet that I know of to find a song’s alternate guitar tuning. But there are ways to narrow the possibilities and you can train your ear to discern common tunings. Finally, if you want to cover a song I think you should embrace the idea of doing it a little differently to make it unique.
While a piano can certainly be out of tune, I have never heard of someone using an alternate tuning on a piano.
So trying to play a song on guitar that was written in an alternate tuning can be tricky…very tricky.
I am referring to situations where there is no (good) tab available of course.
What I can do is offer my own strategies for pinning down an alternate tuning.
I hope these will be of some help to you as well, so put on your bravest face and let’s see what can be done.
1. Looking For Visual Clues
When there is no tablature information, and you can’t figure out how to play the song in standard tuning, try using your eyes.
Search for a music video or live performance where you can see the guitarist’s hands and choose a chord or even a note to work with.
From here you can tweak your tuning to try to match the sound to the fingered chord. Hey, nobody said this was going to be easy!
2. Find Tabs for Other Songs by the Same Artist
Just because you can’t find a decent tab for the song you are trying to play, don’t despair.
Looking at other tabs for the same band can alert you to alternate tunings that they have used before. This is kind of like a “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” approach.
Look for “repeat offenders” and try them out to see if you can match up the tuning for the song you want to play.
You can try playing or listening to the other songs too to determine if they have the same type of distinct sound to them.
3. Research the Artist
Sometimes you can find out tunings that an artist/band uses in general.
Looking at Wikipedia or something is fine but I suggest you dig a little deeper.
If the band is popular enough to have biographies written about them, you may find information about recording sessions in those books.
If not, search for interviews or gear information for the artist, where a tuning might be mentioned.
For example, Curtis Mayfield used a very strange guitar tuning on many songs: Open F# (F#A#C#F#A#F#).
Now, this isn’t a tuning that I would ever imagine trying so that is some very useful information.
The story goes that when he started playing guitar, he didn’t know how to tune it so he just tuned the strings to the black keys on a piano.
Sure, it sounds strange but Curtis Mayfield did some spectacular funk and psychedelic guitar playing in his time. You should check out some of his albums like Curtis and Superfly if you don’t know them.
And some Velvet Underground songs are another example of this with Trivial/Ostrich tuning (all strings tuned to different octaves of the same note) such as DDDDDD.
Even though it’s as simple as it can be, I probably wouldn’t think to try this tuning if I didn’t know that Lou Reed sometimes used it.
4. Lowest Note Approach
A common way of finding out if a song is played in a “drop” or lowered standard tuning is to listen to the lowest note in the song.
And if you did some research into the band’s equipment and know whether they use 6 or 7-string guitars, this will be much easier.
Basically, if you can’t match the lowest note that you hear in the song, tune down until you can do so and then listen to discern whether it sounds like drop tuning or standard tuning chords.
For instance, the band Type O Negative and many metal bands tuned two and a half steps down on 6-string guitars to BEADF#B.
I just hope you have some heavy gauge strings lying around if you need to go that low.
5. Training Your Ear
The more time you spend practicing the guitar the better your chances of being able to detect a tuning should be.
I would recommend getting comfortable with commonly used alternate tunings so that you can recognize their sound when you hear it.
And then there are courses to train your ears too like Youtube creator Rick Beato’s ear training course.
Here is a video of Mr. Beato talking about learning to play by ear if you think you might be interested in investing in a course like this.
But just like some people are colorblind, some people are tone deaf too.
So if you find playing by ear is just too difficult and you can’t figure out a tuning, don’t hesitate to ask a more-experienced friend or your guitar teacher to see if they have better luck figuring it out.
It never hurts to ask.
Screw It, You Tried Your Best
At this point, I would like to address the possibility of failure: you may not be able to find the exact tuning, especially if it is a really strange one.
For instance, a band like Sonic Youth is notorious for using dozens of different alternate tunings, and with two guitars and distortion, it can be almost impossible to hear the nuances.
But I want you to consider three points that should soften the blow:
1. A lot of alternate tunings are used because they make it easier to play a song
That doesn’t mean that you can’t play the song in a different tuning. Your fingers will just have to do a little more work.
So it’s completely possible to be in the “wrong” tuning and still play the song correctly.
2. A cover band is usually expected to perform songs that sound almost identical to the originals
But when bands or artists who play their own material do a cover song they are expected to put their own spin on it…to make it their own.
Otherwise, what’s the point of covering the song?
So if you can’t get a song to sound exactly like the recording, I suggest you embrace this mindset and just be proud of your reinterpretation of the song.
And you may have to change the tuning of the song anyway to match your (or the singer’s) vocal range.
3. Is your audience even going to notice?
If you want to play a cover song live and you have come up with a version of that song that is pretty close to the recorded version, is anyone going to know or care if it’s not exactly the same tuning or key?
Just be confident and do it your own way!
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.