If you’re an Eddie Van Halen fan and are wondering about Van Halen tuning and what alternate tunings he uses, you’ve come to the right post!
I’m not the biggest Van Halen fan, but I do love Back to the Future and the references to him in that movie as a legendary guitarist.
So what is Van Halen tuning?
Van Halen used a few different tunings including:
- E flat standard
- E standard
- Drop C#
- and some slightly off-tuned strings to compensate for the guitar’s intonation issues
I’ll unpack this more in the sections below.
Van Halen Tunings
Eddie Van Halen is, without a doubt, one of the game-changing guitar players. There was no one like him when he appeared in the late 1970s. Generations of musicians owe a lot to him and his unique approach to the instrument and songwriting.
But what we’re interested in is the Van Halen tuning. In fact, there’s not only one but a few that Eddie used over the years. And, of course, there’s also a twist to some of them. But we’ll get to that later. So here are all of the tunings that the band used.
Starting with their debut album, Van Halen used the E-flat standard tuning. It was around the late 1970s and the early 1980s that the tuning saw more use in rock music. I would call it the most common shredder tuning, but that’s debatable.
Anyhow, the E-flat standard tuning is one semitone below the E standard. All you need to do is downtune all strings by a half-step. And that’s pretty much it.
The distribution of intervals is the same as with the E standard. It’s all perfect 4th intervals except for the 2nd and 3rd string where it’s the major 3rd.
This is what the tuning looks like:
Of course, the E-flat standard is practically the same thing as the D-sharp standard. It’s just what you prefer to use. If we go with D-sharp, it looks like this:
And this is the standard tuning that everyone is used to. As for Van Halen, they began implementing it on the “1984” album and onwards. Either way, it’s the same tuning that most guitar players use. It goes:
On some of the songs, Van Halen began implementing lower tunings. In particular, we’re looking at drop C-sharp tuning. The advantage of this one is that you get access to an extended range without detuning all strings. Additionally, you can play power chords much easier on the bottom two strings.
The C-sharp standard tuning is often associated with the doom metal subgenre. This is what we can hear on a lot of Black Sabbath albums. But here, you get the extended range into these heavy territories without much effort.
But the best thing about it is that your strings don’t completely feel like rubber. And, what’s more, you don’t have to use thicker string gauges. You can add a thicker 6th string, while the rest are regular .010-gauge. If you were to use a C# standard tuning, you’d either need a longer-scale instrument or .012-gauge strings.
One of the songs with such tuning is “Unchained” from the 1981 album “Fair Warning.” This one goes like this:
Once again, we have a tuning that we can write with flats instead of sharps. So drop C-sharp can also be drop D-flat. And then it looks like this:
Essentially, it’s the same thing as E-flat or D-sharp standard, just with an additionally detuned 6th string. All you have to do is lower all strings by one semitone and then lower the bottom string by two additional semitones. It’s as simple as that.
“As Is” Tuning
Now, Van Halen is one of the classic metal bands. Despite their innovativeness, they’ve mostly stuck with their classic formula, with some minor modifications. However, this doesn’t mean that they never wanted to experiment. After all, with a guy like Eddie Van Halen, you can expect the unexpected.
This is what we have in a song like “As Is.” This one comes from the final studio album “Different Kind of Truth,” released in 2012. But we have a bit of a mystery here.
No one has ever confirmed what the exact tuning is for this song. However, what we do know is that the bottom string is pretty low. Other than that, we have a few theories.
The simplest one is that it’s a drop B or drop A tuning. Drop B looks like this:
And drop A goes like this:
However, according to some sources, it’s some sort of a weird hybrid tuning. The bottom string is apparently B1. Meanwhile, the rest of the strings are one semitone higher than the E standard tuning. That’s pretty weird, right?
It would go something like this:
It seems that no one can confirm this. However, it’s likely this weird hybrid tuning. For this one, you’d have to use lighter-gauge strings, preferably a set like .009 or even .008. The only exception would be the bottom string. You could use a bottom string from a 7-string set.
But There’s a Twist…
Now, things have never been simple with Eddie. Above all, he was always a perfectionist. Meanwhile, a guitar isn’t a perfect instrument. As you move up the neck, the notes won’t be perfectly in tune. And this happens even if you perfectly intonate the instrument.
In order to have it all in perfect pitch for the 12-tone equal temperament, you’d need a different fretboard. This is what some guitar builders are doing with so-called true temperament guitars. Here’s what that looks like and how it compares to regular average guitars:
So what does this have to do with Eddie Van Halen? He never used these so-called true temperament guitars. However, he did purposefully put the B string out of tune, at least in most cases. He openly talked about this way back in the late 1970s.
Since he often played higher up the fretboard and on the top three strings, he noticed that things sound off. There are actually certain chords on the fretboard that will sound better if you slightly detune the B string.
We refer to this principle as sweetened tuning. Putting one or more of your strings slightly out of tune on purpose is not uncommon. And it can be more than just one string. Here’s a more detailed explanation of what Eddie did in practice.
I hope this article has clarified some of the different tunings Eddie Van Halen used.
And as usual, if you have questions or comments about this or another guitar-related subject, feel free to let me know in the comments below!