Open Tuning Part I – Look, Ma, No Hands!

Nov30

About the time that I started playing guitar, one of my brothers bought himself an autoharp. If you’ve never seen or played one before, an autoharp will make you instantly envious of its owner. As long as it is tuned properly (a nightmare in and of itself), all a person has to do to play it is press a button marked with the appropriate chord and strum. Instant rhythm and chords. Very little could be much simpler. Or more misleading.

But it made me think, “Hey, couldn’t I tune my guitar so that when I strum it, I’ll get a nice straight chord as well?” So I tuned the G string to G#, the D to E and the A to B and, yes indeed, I had a great E major chord at my disposal. Better still, all I had to do was barre any given fret to get another full major chord. Naturally I went and showed all my friends, thinking that I had discovered the next big evolution in music (my friends will be quick to tell you that I, like most people, never seem to be more annoying then those times when I think I’m being exceedingly clever). Three things kept me from fame and fortune, however. First, as I’ve mentioned before, I have small hands and was learning to play on a twelve stringed guitar with a very wide neck, so I could not barre any fret very well or for very long. Secondly, since I was tuned up on several strings, I was busting G strings and D strings with alarming regularity. Finally, I couldn’t play any minor chords and, being a true seventies folkie, at least eighty percent of my repertoire consisted of songs in minor keys.

Oh, yes, there was also the small fact that people had been using open tuning on guitars for centuries.

What we guitarists consider “standard tuning” has been around pretty much since the fifth and sixth strings were added to the instrument in the late 1700′s. And, artists being artists, “non-standard” or “alternate” tunings have existed for just about as long. For the sake of our discussions, we will divide guitar tunings into three categories – standard, open, and alternate.

Standard tuning is what we were taught from day one (low to high or 6th string to 1st):

E A D G B E

Open tuning is when we tune the guitar in such a fashion that results in our getting a major (or minor) chord when we strum the open strings.

Alternate tuning is when the guitar is tuned in a way that results in neither standard nor open tuning. And, yes, that’s going to cover a lot of things.

In this column we will look at various open tunings and how to go about re-tuning your guitar to achieve these tunings. Next time out we’ll explore “where we’ve landed,” so to speak. I’ll show you how to find chords and then we’ll go over some songs that you might like to take a stab at in open tunings. Then in the next two columns we’ll tackle alternate tunings in the same manner. I do want to warn you, though, I might take a break between the open and alternate tuning columns to start discussing song writing, especially since it seems to be a topic of great interest to some of you.

But that’s the great thing about Guitar Noise – you can go after the topics that interest you most and still have access to all the other stuff. Speaking of which, if there’s something that you’d like to see covered in an upcoming column, please feel free to write me or drop a line on the Guitar Forums. Okay, let’s get on to open tunings.

Important Note !!!!!!!

Open and alternate tunings should not be attempted on electric guitars with “floating” bridges. This is disastrous to the guitar’s intonation (the guitar will sound in tune when you play it open, but it will stop being in tune with itself). Many of today’s newer guitars, especially those with locks on the nut and “fine tuning” pegs on the bridge tend to suffer from this. If your electric guitar does not have a whammy bar, like a Les Paul or SG style guitar, or has a whammy bar that bends the tone only in one direction, you should be fine. Otherwise you are setting yourself up for hours of endless frustration.

Like most guitar techniques, it’s always preferable to become proficient on an acoustic before you start wailing away on an electric. It’s best for your guitar to pick one tuning and stay with it for a while. Don’t switch after every song. If you plan on working with a particular open tuning, then set your guitar and explore it thoroughly, and don’t forget to take notes (more on that next time).

Where Are We Going?

Open tunings have been making a “comeback” of sorts in the nineties, but they have always been a staple of serious musicians. Many fledgling guitarists are unaware that artists such as Keith Richards, Dave Mason, Richie Havens, Leo Kottke and Mark Knopfler have been using various forms of open tuning for years and years. Slide guitar players often tend to utilize open tuning; it suits their particular playing styles quite well.

As we stated earlier, open tuning is when we tune the guitar in such a fashion that results in our getting a major (or minor) chord when we strum the open strings. Remembering our lesson on how to build a chord, Theory Without Tears, we understand that the six strings of the guitar should be tuned to the I, III (or minor III) and V of whatever key in which we choose to play. I should add that it’s possible to add sevenths, ninths and whatever, but for now we’ll stay with the easy stuff.

Here are some basic open tunings:

Basic open tunings

You will note that all these tunings do indeed consist of the I, III and V of their given key. The open G 7th also includes the “F” which is the minor seventh in the G scale. It’s interesting to note that there is usually only one III, while the I and V is doubled (and tripled) up. As my high school theory teacher was fond of saying, “A little third goes an awfully long way.”

An important aspect of open tuning is that it almost instantly improves your fingerpicking. Since the root and fifth of the chord to which you are tuned almost always occupy the 5th and 6th strings, it’s ludicrously easy to develop what’s known as an “alternating bass line” (root, chord, fifth, chord, root, chord, fifth, chord, etc.) (and that’s another topic we’ll have to cover, isn’t it?). It’s also a fairly simple task to play in a “drone” style, much like a bagpipe or dulcimer. You play the bass root and fifth simultaneously with your thumb while plucking a melody on the higher strings.

By far the two most popular open tunings are Open D and Open G. But the great thing about open tuning is that you can pretty much set your guitar for all sorts of keys, depending on your personal preference.

How Do We Get There?

A couple rules of thumb: (1) Try to tune downward whenever possible. Too much stress on the strings is not good for the guitar or the strings (or you, for that matter). If you do tune up to a note, try not to go higher than three half steps. (2) Use a capo. You’ll note that I didn’t include an Open E or Open A. It’s much easier on your guitar to tune to Open D and then put a capo on the second fret to get your Open E. Ditto with Open G to get Open A. If you listen to the Rolling Stones’ Happy, you’ll find it’s in the key of B. Richards uses Open G tuning with a capo on the fourth fret. (3) Remember that nothing is set in stone. Virtually every diagram you’ll see for Open A tuning, for example, will be listed as such:

E A E A C# E

I actually prefer to have the III (C# note) lower down, on the 4th string instead of the 2nd:

E A C# E A E

As long as you have all the notes of your chord somewhere, it will sound fine. But having said that, I will add that it is preferable to have your two lowest notes be the root and the fifth of your chord. Likewise, the third is the one note you really don’t have to worry about doubling (sounding on more than one string). Try out different ways. Write out the notes of the chord to help you figure out what’s the best way to get there.

The easiest way to retune your guitar is to use a keyboard (which is hopefully in tune to start with). Most electronic tuners will allow you to tune to specific notes as well. However, if you do not have access to either of these, re-tuning is still not a difficult process. I am going to use the Open C tuning as an illustration, but the general principle will remain the same regardless of which tuning you choose to try. First I make sure that my guitar is in tune to start with, then I look at where I am and where I plan to go:

Open C tuning

Okay, I see that two of the strings, the G and high E, are not going to change at all. This makes matters a bit easier. Since I already have one G, I decide to go after the other one first. I tune down the A string while playing the G string until they have the same pitch (even though it’s actually an octave apart). I can double check the tone by playing the 12th fret of the newly tuned A string – it should sound the same as the open G string. Now I can tune the D and B strings to C by matching them to the 5th fret of either G string and then finally get the lowest C by use of octaves again.

If I decide to use an open tuning that shares none of the open strings of standard tuning, then I have to be a little more creative (and patient).

Let’s try the Open F:

STANDARD: E A D G B E

I have a couple of options here. I could actually use an Open D with the capo on the third fret or the Open C I just demonstrated with a capo on the fifth fret. But I personally prefer this particular tuning:

OPEN F: C F C F A F

I like the sound of the I on the 1st string along with the V’s on both the 4th and 6th strings, so I’ll go with this one. I usually start with the middle strings, so first I retune the G to F by matching the tone to the third fret of the D string (remember that F is 3 half steps from D – I told you that scales would be important) and then I get the other Fs by tuning to octaves. The A is now achieved in the same way I get the B in standard tuning – 4th fret on the 3rd (now F) string. Likewise the 4th string can be tuned to C by matching it to the 5th fret on the 5th string. Finally I use octaves to get the 6th string set to the low C. It’s nowhere near as complicated as it sounds. And it’ll sound wonderful.

While you experiment with open tuning you will probably find that, at least initially, your lower strings will tend to raise a bit in pitch until they settle down. This is normal. Minor adjustments are to be expected and if you stick with it, your patience will definitely be rewarded.

We’re going to stop here to catch our breath before moving on to the next column where we’ll put our open tunings into practice. It’ll be called Here There Be Monsters and you can find it here.

In this article, we’ll look at how to put together a “fretboard map” so we can figure out how to make chords with our open-tuned guitar. And, as a bonus, we’ll take a quick look at two pieces in open tuning: Bob Dylan’s Shelter From The Storm and an open-tuned arrangement of the Police classic Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.

Plus, we also have a number of song lessons here at Guitar Noise that employ open tuning: Happy by the Rolling Stones and Coldplay’s God Put A Smile Upon Your Face on the “Easy Songs for Beginners” page and another Dylan Classic, Simple Twist of Fate, on the “Songs for Intermediates” page. And over on our “Christmas Songs” page, there’s even an arrangement of Silent Night done in open D tuning. So go have some fun!

And I’d like to take the time to thank those of you who have written with comments and questions. I really appreciate all the feedback. The best way for this column to serve you is to have your input. I try to answer each email I get (and that’s not as easy as I thought it would be!). I know we try to cover a lot of ground here and for every new thing we learn, usually three more questions come up. One of my philosophies (and I could write for ages about the philosophies of music and teaching) is that it’s is more important to show why things work rather than to just show you what works. This way you’ll be able to start putting pieces together yourself. And once you start to realize that you can figure out a lot of things by applying what you learn here, there’ll be no end to where you can go. Keep asking questions. The day we stop asking questions is the day we stop learning and the day we stop learning is the day we should hang up our guitars for good.

About David Hodge

Since joining Guitar Noise in November 1999, David has written over a thousand articles, lessons, interviews and reviews. He also serves as the site's Managing Editor, supervising all content in addition to the continued writing of his own lessons and articles. In April 2013, David joined the writing staff of Answers.com, heading up their Guitar Pages. And if that wasn't enough to keep him busy, David contributes to regularly Acoustic Guitar Magazine. He is also the author of six instructional books, the most recent being Idiot’s Guide: Playing Guitar.

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