If you want to dial in a killer blues tone, I would recommend experimenting with E flat tuning.
This is one of the simplest changes that you can make to your guitar setup. Yet it is a change that has a number of benefits. And it can make a profound difference to your tone and to the way you play your guitar.
In this article then I will be explaining a little bit more about what E flat tuning is, and how you can tune your guitar to E flat.
I will also explore the 5 main benefits of E flat tuning, and how these can contribute to improving both the tone and playability of your guitar.
So let’s get into it! Here is how to use E flat tuning, and why you should experiment with it if you are looking to improve your blues guitar tone:
What is E flat tuning?
Before we look at the benefits of tuning your guitar to E flat, I think it is important to understand exactly what it is and how it works. And the good news here, is that it is pretty straightforward.
This is because E flat tuning is very closely related to standard tuning. It just involves tuning down (or flattening) the pitches of each of your strings by a single semi-tone.
In music, when pitches are flattened, this is denoted by the sign – b. As such, you may also see E flat tuning written out as Eb tuning.
In standard tuning, the pitches of the strings on your guitar are as follows:
By comparison, in E flat tuning, the pitches of the strings on your guitar are as follows:
The only difference between the two tunings then, is that in E flat tuning, all of your strings are tuned to be one semi-tone lower than they are in standard tuning. You can see this again by looking at a comparison table showing the pitches across the 6 strings in each tuning:
|6th String||5th String||4th String||3rd String||2nd String||1st String|
|E Flat Tuning||Eb||Ab||Db||Gb||Bb||Eb|
This means that if you play any note in E flat tuning on your fretboard, you will find the same note, just a single fret lower in standard tuning. For example, in E flat tuning, you will find the note of A flat (Ab) at the 5th fret on your 6th string. In standard tuning you will find this same note on the 4th fret on the same string.
There are two important points to deduce from this:
The first of these, is that E flat tuning is very similar to standard tuning. There is just one semi-tone separating them. So when you use E flat tuning, you are not experimenting with a wildly different tuning. You are in fact just altering the pitch of your standard guitar by the smallest amount possible.
The second and more important point, is that the relationship between the different strings on your guitar is exactly the same in E flat tuning as in standard tuning. This means that you can play all of the same licks, scales and chords that you use in standard tuning, when you are playing in E flat tuning. And you can do this without having to adjust your fingerings at all.
This is significant, and also a little unusual. Normally when you use altered tunings, the relationship between the guitar strings changes. And this means that you have to learn new patterns and connections across your guitar fretboard to use them properly. That isn’t the case here. And this makes E flat tuning one that is very easy to use and accessible.
Why you should use E flat tuning
Given the close relationship between standard and E flat tuning, you might be wondering why it is worth even experimenting with this new tuning. After all, how much of a difference can just one-semi tone make?
The answer is in fact quite a lot. For although just one fret separates it from standard tuning, this semi-tone has an impact on both tone and playability. Here are the 5 key reasons it might be worth experimenting with this new tuning. You can use E flat tuning to:
1. Sound like your heroes
Over the years, a huge number of famous blues and rock guitarists have tuned their guitar down to E flat. Within a blues context, Stevie Ray Vaughan is arguably the guitarist best associated with this tuning. And in fact to my knowledge he almost never played in standard tuning. Instead he always opted to tune down a half-step. This was largely to accommodate his vocal range, as Vaughan found it easier to sing in a slightly lower register.
However, as I will cover in more detail below, tuning down to E flat had an impact on the set-up of Vaughan’s guitar, as well as his tone.
And by no means is Vaughan the only guitarist to tune down a half-step. Slash always plays in E flat, and both B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix also tuned down for a number of their songs. Inspired by the tones of these early players, modern blues and blues rock guitarists like Philip Sayce and Dan Patlansky also use the same tuning.
As such, if you want to recreate the tones of these players, I would recommend tuning down to E flat. On a simplistic level, using the same tuning as these guitarists will help you to recreate their specific sound more closely.
Of course, the guitars, amps and pedals they use(d) also have a profound impact on their sound. So although altering your tuning alone won’t help you to immediately sound like your heroes, it will help you get closer, especially if you have recreated other elements of their rig.
More importantly though, is the effect that tuning down to E flat has on your guitar tone and set-up more broadly. I don’t think it is any coincidence that each of the guitarists listed above use(d) this tuning. They use(d) this tuning because of the impact it has on both tone and playability.
2. Use heavier gauge guitar strings
One of the main reasons that guitarists choose to tune down a half step, is that it allows them to use heavier gauge guitar strings. The topic of string gauge and how it relates to tone is one that remains hotly debated amongst guitar players. If you are new to the topic or want to develop a greater understanding of the differences between different gauges of guitar strings, I would recommend reading this article which I recently wrote on the subject: ‘Which Guitar String Gauges Are Right For You?‘
In short though, a lot of blues guitarists choose to play with heavier gauge guitar strings because they believe they produce a better tone.
As is often the case when it comes to guitar gear, I personally believe that the differences between heavy and light gauge guitar strings are exaggerated, especially within the context of a full rig that includes an overdriven tone and various different guitar pedals.
However, having said that, there are a number of benefits to using thicker gauge guitar strings. Most notably, when compared with thinner gauge guitar strings, heavy gauge strings:
- Sustain better
- Stay in tune for longer
- Have a wider dynamic range
These are significant benefits. And this is particularly true of the final point.
If you watch a guitarist like Stevie Ray Vaughan, you will see that he often uses a very aggressive pick attack. When he does this and strikes his strings hard, he instantly adds a power and intensity to his sound, which comes from the pressure that he applies to each string.
It is not possible to adopt such an aggressive pick attack on thinner guitar strings. As a result, the variation in tone that you can achieve using nothing but your strings and pick is more limited.
These benefits do however come at a price. And that is simply that heavier gauge guitar strings are harder to play. Everything from playing faster, to applying vibrato and even fingering chords is more difficult with thick guitar strings.
This is because there is more tension running through thicker strings. So you have to use more force to fret notes and to move the strings around. Tuning down to E flat reduces this tension. And this makes thicker gauge guitar strings easier to play, whilst allowing you to enjoy the benefits that they offer.
3. Make bending easier
Even if you are not playing with very heavy gauge guitar strings, tuning down to E flat will make string bending easier.
This is important, because string bending is without question one of the most important techniques in blues guitar playing. Yet it is also a technique with which a lot of guitarists struggle.
Typically this is because they lack the strength in their hands to bend their strings high enough. So instead of hitting the target pitch that they are aiming for, they fall just short. This turns what should be a beautiful bend into one that just misses the mark, and often creates dissonance as it clashes with any accompanying musicians or backing.
Even if you feel comfortable hitting single tone bends though, the same might not be true of two or even two and a half tone bends. And whilst there are not a lot of guitarists who include such big bends in their playing, there are a number of them who use this technique to brilliant effect.
Within a blues context, Albert King made huge, expressive bends a characteristic element of his playing. You can hear this in many of his songs, and particularly when playing live. Just listen to his performances of songs like ‘Roadhouse Blues‘ and ‘Blues Power‘ to hear the wide range of his bending.
In a rock / progressive rock context, David Gilmour also crafted amazing guitar solos with big, two tone bends. The guitar solo in ‘Another Brick In The Wall Pt.2‘ is just one obvious example which illustrates his bending style.
So if you struggle to hit bends in the way you want, or if you want to hit these big bends and don’t yet have the hand strength to do so, you have two options.
The first of these is to use lighter gauge guitar strings. This will reduce the tension across your strings and make them easier to bend.
The second option is to tune down to E flat. And it is this option that was -and still – is favoured by the various different guitarists listed above. This is because when you tune down – rather than using lighter gauge guitar strings – you get the best of both worlds. You can benefit from the sustain and dynamic range of heavy strings, whilst still being able to execute a variety of big, two tone bends.
4. Beef up your tone
Tuning down to E flat will make your guitar sound thicker and beefier. I appreciate that the science behind this statement is not quite so exact as the points listed above. But it is true.
I don’t know whether it is purely psychological, but to my ears (and I assume also to the ears of those guitarists who adopt this tuning), tuning down a semitone adds warmth and thickness to your tone. This is especially true if you are using a guitar like a Fender Stratocaster, which at times can sound a little thin and strident in standard tuning, depending on the rest of your set-up.
Again, you might argue or be tempted to just shift everything that you play down one fret. But there are two reasons I would advise against this option.
Firstly, when you do this, you aren’t able to use any open strings or open position chords. And this is problematic, especially if you want to play like Stevie Ray Vaughan, and make use of open strings in your guitar licks and solos.
Secondly, staying in standard tuning but shifting down one fret doesn’t seem to have quite the same impact on your tone.
Truthfully, I don’t know whether this is purely psychological, or whether the reduced tension across the strings, combined with some of the other factors mentioned above, alters the way you play. But tuning down to E flat makes a difference to your tone. And this difference is greater than just playing everything one fret lower on the neck of your guitar.
If you want to test this out for yourself, you can do so with ease. All you need to do is play a solo in E flat tuning, then tune up to standard tuning, and play the same solo but one fret lower. Record yourself – either through a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) like Garage Band, Logic Pro etc, or just with your phone. Compare your tone and see if you notice a difference.
5. Make singing easier
The final benefit of tuning down to E flat is not going to apply if you are predominantly playing your guitar alone. But if you are a singer, or if you are playing in a band, then tuning down a half step might make life easier on either you or the singer.
This is especially true if you are a male vocalist, or if you are playing guitar alongside a male vocalist. Depending on their range, reducing the pitch of your guitar down a semi-tone will make it a little easier for them to sing in tune. As noted above, it was partly for this reason that Stevie Ray Vaughan tuned down to E flat. And it was the same for Jimi Hendrix. They found it easier to sing with their guitars tuned down a half step.
So if you are trying to sing and play guitar at the same time, or if you are playing alongside a singer with a lower range, then it might be worth experimenting with E flat tuning.
Well there we go, some of the key benefits of using E flat tuning. As is true of everything when it comes to crafting your guitar tone, tuning down to E flat is not a magic bullet. It is not going to instantly transform your playing. Nor will it help you to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Slash overnight.
What it can do, is make a subtle difference to your tone, and a larger difference to your set-up. And it this second point which is of greater significance. For if you alter your string gauge, the way that you play your guitar will also change. And this will have a knock on effect on your vibrato, bending and pick attack.
So give it a go. It costs nothing to experiment with the tuning, and if you find that it isn’t for you, then it is a change that is easy to reverse.
Once you’ve tried it out, you can then decide the frequency with which you want to adopt the tuning. Some guitarists have their guitars always tuned to E flat. They set it up with heavier gauge guitar strings and really get into that style.
Others keep their main guitar in standard tuning, and then set up a second guitar with heavier guitar strings and a lower tuning.
Finally, there are of course a lot of players who decide that E flat tuning doesn’t work for them. And they either never use it, or just use it on occasion.
Which of these options you decide to go for, will depend on your playing style and the tone you want to create. But if you have never tried to play in E flat, then my first recommendation would be to give it a try. It might totally change your playing approach and set-up, and get you closer to the tone for which you are searching.
Good luck! Let me know how you get on, and if you have any questions at all please do get in touch. Drop a note in the comments section, or send me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to help!
Strings Direct, YouTube, Menga, Music Radar
Feature Image of Philip Sayce – Clement Morin / Alamy Stock Photos
Image of Slash – Mike Bouchard: Flickr (The license for the image is here)
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Eb tuning is also called “Curtis Mayfield tuning”. You tune to the black keys on the piano. I have a few benefits i have learned from it. One is that my ear improved by playing in a flat key. Using all those flat notes was a new experience that sharpened my ear. It is especially good on Strats and Teles as the scale length is longer than on Gibsons, the string tension being higher on the longer scale length. Pro and semi pro players usually have more than one guitar, so tune one down a half-step. And have another in regular tuning if you are jamming with reluctant musicians. Lastly, i could never hit some of Bob Seger’s notes until i realized he probably sang in Eb tuning and then sped it up a half tone (called wrapping, because they used to wrap tape on the capstans of the recorder to increase the diameter and speed up the tape, as many studios due when finishing a track. Speeding it up also makes the music sound tighter and “more alive”. Listen to Hard Day’s Night and many other Beatle songs. You can how sped up it is). When i tuned down, I could hit the notes McCartney, Seger, Rod Stewart, sang on record. It was a revelation to me.
I was playing a simple song. “Simple Man” (Ive played it for over 20 years standard tuning) 3 chords. A buddy of mine purchased a baritone guitar. Man now I’m all mixed up since Skynard played the song in Eb tuning. I moved the capo all over the place! More easy to adjust my voice rather than the key. How stupid!
I think Marcus’s question answered this but I’ll ask anyway. I’m pretty new to this but I tried the Eb tuning and it’s much easier on my arthritic fingers and it just makes bends, barre chords everything a bit easier. But Oscar’s question made me wonder how do you approach this when playing with other people? The other guitar the base, everything needs to be tuned the same right? I play with a couple other basement players, I can hear the abuse now, nobody will retune for me. I could just capo up a fret to standard had still have the benefit of the softer strings.
Hi Ralph, thanks so much for the comment and I’m really glad to hear you’re getting on well with the tuning!
To answer your question, in short you have 4 options, which are as follows:
1.) Ask everyone to tune down with you
2.) Use a capo
3.) Raise everything that you play by a single fret
4.) Ask your fellow musicians to move everything they play down one fret
Abuse aside, options 1 or 4 are the best for you personally. In both of these cases you don’t have to make any adjustments and can enjoy the benefits of Eb tuning.
Using a capo would work, but truthfully I don’t much like using one when playing lead. The capo is likely to move around and potentially fall off, and it won’t respond so well if you are doing a lot of string bends. So if that is the case then I probably would not recommend this option.
You can also play everything you would in standard tuning but a single fret higher. In this way, you can play in Eb with freedom and also be in sync with the band. This can work but stops you from playing open strings and open position chords. If you are playing mostly lead work and are happy to use barre chords, then this could be a good option. However it can also be a little challenging to transpose all of the songs and scales you know up a semitone.
In short – there isn’t a single ideal option that ticks all of the boxes. However if you are in a trio, then I don’t think it is too much to ask the bass player to either tune down or transpose his or her bass lines by a single fret. Transposing is likely to be a little more straightforward, as they probably won’t be playing chords or solos.
And if that argument doesn’t work, then take some beers or snacks along to the jam as bribery! 😆
Happy bluesman I’ve read your article on the Eb tuning. That’s what I needed to get the higher strings a bit less tinging. I’m experimenting with my acoustic and so far like the thicker sound from my guitar. When I need to go back to standard tuning I put the capo on 1 half step and wahla its in standard. Thanks
Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and share your experience Marcus, I really appreciate it. I am very glad to hear that you’re enjoying Eb tuning and that it’s helped to beef your tone up a bit 😁 If you have any questions about the tuning or any other element of your rig, just send them over. You can reach me on firstname.lastname@example.org and I am always around and happy to help!
I figured out that the 6th & bonus advantage of Half Step Down Tuning (Meshggah uses it too) is that it makes it easier to play in Flat Keys, especially when you’re playing Church Gigs. It even makes Extended Range Guitars sound alot bigger & fuller. Jazz players would much prefer Half Step Down Tuning because horn players like to play in Flat Keys.
Thank you so much for the comment Oscar and you’re absolutely right! I hadn’t considered playing alongside horn players, but that makes perfect sense and is indeed a nice little bonus advantage of Eb tuning 😁