Alternate tunings for fretless guitar
Many fretless guitarists use alternate tunings and here I hope to explore and explain them.
Using Alternate Tunings
One of the key beauties of fretless guitars is using alternate tunings. Many fretless guitarists use this simple tuning trick to enable more complex chords to be played very easily. You may already know slide guitarists excel in using alternate tunings and vary rarely, if ever, play in standard tuning.
The following are the more commonly used tunings and the list is certainly not exhaustive.
E A D G B E
We all start on this one! It can also be described as “E tuning” if you lower every string by a semitone it would be described as “Eb tuning” – Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb.
D tuning (whole tone lower)
D G C F A D
Quite a popular tuning amongst the fretless fraternity, this slight slackening of the strings allows more control over individual notes and sustain.
C tuning (two tones lower)
C F Bb Eb G C
Mainly for baritone guitars. Further steps down would be “B tuning” B E A D F# B and “A tuning” A D G C E A
Tuned in fourths
E A D G C F
Adopted by many fretless guitarists as this makes all strings an equal fourth apart (five semitones). By doing this, all patterns and chords can be moved across the guitar neck, up down, high and low, without the need to worry about the (four semitone) step from the third to the second string in normal tuning.
Iraqi Tuning or Floating Bridge Tuning
F A D G C F
This is also the recommended tuning for the Godin MultiOud. Similar to fourths tuning but the sixth string is raised a semitone.
D A D G B E
The easiest quick fix as only the low E (sixth string) is detuned a whole tone, the low “D” can then act as a drone, the first string can also be dropped to D, sometimes known as “Double Drop D”- D A D G B D.
Drop D, G / G6
D G D G B E
No far away from Drop D, just drop the fifth string to a G, this leaves the top four strings untouched but does give you a D or G as a drone. Used by Ned Evett & Chet Atkins.
D Modal / Dad Gad
D A D G A D
Often called Celtic tuning due to its common use in that genre, though also called “Dsus4”. Popularised by Davey Graham from his adaptation of the guitar to play with the Oud. This is a great tuning for Glissentar, and having no F or F# it is neither major nor minor in the key of D.
D A D F# A D
A real favourite amongst blues slide players, often called “Vestapol tuning”
Open D minor
D A D F A D
Just by dropping the third string one semitone and Open D becomes Open D minor.
E B E G# B E
Tuned so the open strings play the normal guitarist’s E chord, which means any barred chord across six strings plays that same chord voicing with the root on the sixth string. (may require a little practice).
D G D G B D
Often referred to as Spanish Tuning, popular amongst blues players and commonly used on the Hawaiian guitar.
Sometimes the second string is tuned up one semitone from B to C making the tuning “Gsus4” D G D G C D
G B D G B F
When I made the glass capo for a glass necked Fender Stratocaster it had to be restrung with a set of strings that would be progressively flat in relation to the capo itself. The strings from treble to bass were 0115-016-022w-028w-034w-040w, now this means the bass is a little light, so I tuned the 6th string up three semitones and the 5th string a whole tone, raising the 1st string a semitone to F. This gave the the overall tuning G7 open, which works very well. In fact this lighter tuning seems to suit fretless guitar very well, balancing sustain across the strings on the instrument.
Open G minor
D G D G Bb D
Also a common tuning among Celtic artists. This is a great atmospheric tuning for fretless.
E A E A C# E
Lovely bright open sound.
Open A minor
E A E A C E
Nice and mysterious, interesting chords available.
C G C G C E
Great and full soundung, easy chords.
Open C minor
C G C G C Eb
Similar to the above Open C with the first string dropped a semitone to Eb, slightly harder chords.
C G C G C D
One of the most interesting oddball tunings and one of my favourites.
A sus2 sus4
E A D A B E
Just tune the third string from G to A for this very interesting tuning with some intriguing chord patterns. Ned Evett says he often uses this tuning, but also uses Drop D and Drop G.
D A D A B E
Similar to the tuning above, but with the sixth string tuned from E down to D. Very effective tuning for fretless.
Turkish Oud Tuning
E A B E A D
Quite interesting, other Oud tunings are: B F# B E A D, C# F# B E A D, D A B E A D, D G B E A D.
Arabic Oud Tuning
E G# C# F# B E
This is Arabic Oud tuning transposed so that it can be played on a fretless guitar, thanks to Sylvain Bouancheau for this tuning. (Arabic Oud would be tuned C E A D G C eight semitones higher)
New Standard Tuning
C G D A E G
Developed by Robert Fripp this consists of strings tuned in fifths with the first string a minor third. You will need special strings to achieve a balance on this, or use a guitar modeller, in which case the first string could be raised to a B making all strings a fifth apart, like a violin, cello and mandolin but with six srtings. This is a great tuning for fretless guitar but does not easily lend itself to chords.
All 5ths – Gmaj13 Tuning
G A B D E F# (G4 A4 B4 D5 E5 F#5)
Best achieved on a Baritone length guitar or a guitar with heavier bass strings. I have used this tuning on my Tim Donahue Fretless Guitar with the harp strings also tuned to a Gmaj13 – G4 A4 B4 D5 E5 F#5
Hans Bezemer (AKA Broomy) has a wealth of information about all fifths tuning on his website The Quintar Project which has chords, scales, arpeggios and help with building a guitar tuned in fifths.
5ths / 4ths
C G C G C G
This is a really great tuning for fretless guitar, the strings are alternatively tuned in fifths and fourths so patterns across the neck are repeated on every other string. You may have to change some string gauges for this and if the 1st string won’t tune up to a G use a lower tuning: A E A E A E if you have a guitar modeller that allows retuning a really nice set up would be D A D A D A (Dada tuning).
B F# B F# B E
Developed by Indian musician Vasant Rai who converted a guitar to fretless circa 1980 and used this tuning as a modified Sarod tuning. This is similar to the 5ths / 4ths above but the 1st string is tuned a fourth above the second string, not a fifth.
E maj 7
E G# D# G# B E
I’ve heard Turkish Fretless Guitarist, Cenk Erdogan, uses this tuning. Its a little tricky at first with the D# major seventh interval and it helps if the two G#’s are tuned to the natural major 3rd (14 cents flat).
D E G A C D
This is the tuning of the Chinese instrument, the Gu Qin, and the tuning is close, but even. From 6th string to 5th string the spacing is one whole tone, from 5th to 4th three semitones, and continues one whole tone followed by three semitones for the remaining pairs of strings. In relative terms you could tune to bass which would be -2 -5 -7 -10 -11 -14 from normal, or treble which would be +10 +7 +5 +2 +1 -2 from normal. So if you don’t have a guitar modeller you would certainly need to restring and chose your guitar strings carefully. The ambient fretless guitarist Frédéric L’Epée uses this tuning with all wound strings, so I guess he is using the bass tuning. I prefer the treble tuning and it sounds quite different and interesting. The closest chord would be D11 (without the third).
Alternative Tunings expressed as guitar chords
You might wonder what would these tunings look like if we reverse engineered them into guitar chords? Well here it is…. (the nut is shown as a double line in specified chord names and not present in general tunings like fourths, sus 4, etc.)
Here is a pdf version of the chart to download or print off…..
A great book for exploring alternate tunings is “The Complete Book of Alternate Tunings” by Mark Hanson
You can build chord charts for any of the tunings and print them with this great tool: Theo’s Chord Generator.Fretless Guitar Extras