If you’ve been playing the guitar for a while now, the standard EADGBE tuning might feel a bit like a musical straitjacket. If you want to go beyond standard tuning however, you’ll need to get off the beaten path. Open tunings open up a whole new world and can make playing guitar feel like an adventure again. “You’re forced to learn how to play guitar from scratch again,” says fingerstyle guitarist Hans Laduc.
- Fresh Options
- Astonishing Results
- Open Chord Tunings
- Open A
- Open B
- Open C
- Open D
- Open E
- Open F
- Open G
- See Also
Who wouldn’t want to get praised into heaven for writing stunningly melodious compositions, playing lightning-fast riffs or having a unique signature sound? Break free from the notion that standard tuning is the only way to success and start playing around with one of the many open tunings. In fact, a lot of the licks and melodies you hear in songs and imagine to be impossible to play without either uber-flexible or extremely long fingers are based on open tunings. Take Ben Howard for instance. If you listen closely to his music, you’ll notice the secret to Howard’s signature guitar sound lies in his ability to experiment with open tunings. Practically all of his tunes have been written in an open tuning to enhance the dynamics of the music, which isn’t all that surprising considering the fact that open tunings are popularly used in Celtic music, a style Howard has always been fond of and uses as inspiration for his folk-and-rock repertoire. The same is true for Mumford & Sons. They too use open tunings more often than standard tuning. Blues, jazz and country music artists love their open tunings too, not in the least because it allows them to use a slide.
Open tunings offer every guitarist that fingerpicking feel. Since you literally tune your guitar to a specific chord (e.g. D), there’s no need to grab a chord using your fingers, leaving them free to pick strings or figure out experimental chords. With new options and different sounds at your disposal, the results can be astonishing. According to finger-style specialist and excellent guitarist Laduc, who recently released his latest album ‘My Way to Nashville’, the first steps towards using an open tuning are small and easy. “Simply start by tuning the low E string to a D,” he explains. “Dropping the E string to a D suddenly gets you an extra low pitch and adds an extra dimension to your guitar sound. It’s beautifully ambient, almost ballad-like.”
“If you want to keep using standard chords here, you’ll naturally want to bear in mind that the low E string is now a D. As such, to play an E chord for example, you’ll need to play the E string at the second fret. To play a G chord, you’ll have to play the E string at the fifth fret instead of the third. What you can also do is tune the A string down to G for even deeper bass. By the way, going with an open tuning always means ‘dropping’ the strings, since tuning ‘up’ would put too much tension on the strings.”
Hans: “There are two ways to play in open tunings. The first way is by tuning your guitar to a specific chord while the second way is to come up with the pitch yourself – for instance by dropping the low E string to a D. The latter is called an alternate tuning which, while it doesn’t ‘represent’ a chord, is more than usable nonetheless. In an actual open tuning, the guitar is fully tuned to one of the major chords. Both very popular and first used over a century ago, Open D (also known as the “Sebastopol tuning”) is made up of D – A D – F# – A D, while Open G requires tuning the strings to D – G – D – G – B – G. That said, you can turn any chord into various other major tunings, so feel free to experiment.
To play in any open tuning, it’s important that you first learn how to play scales. After all, changing the tuning changes the place on the fretboard where the various notes can be played. Hans: “Try to really understand how your guitar and scales work. This will help you learn to play chords in an open tuning. The best way is to listen to your most-loved tunes first. If a lot of those are played in the key of D, drop your guitar into an open D tuning and then look up the chords you need to play them. Once you’ve learned the scale of any chord, you’ll know exactly which strings and frets to play as well as which ones are best avoided. Slowly but surely, you’ll then discover the potential offered by a non-standard tuning. Start off experimenting with one or two open tunings and go from there, training your brain and fingers to get the hang of new chord grips.
So, while guitarists need to learn the basic principles of chords before they can play in open tuning, thankfully, the internet is filled with open tuning song tabs and parts played by Ben Howard, Keith Richards, you name them. Not every tab is as accurate as the next, but tabs are nevertheless a great starting point from which you can get to grips with the chords and notes of any open tuning. Once you’re able to play a handful of existing songs, the next step is to write your own tune using matching chords and melodies. This is what Hans Laduc does himself: compose songs based on open tunings. “I like to twist the tuners until I find a beautiful chord after which I try to find a fitting melody for it. This always gets me something fresh. The only problem is that you have to write down and record everything, but that also applies whenever you’re figuring out the chords and melodies of existing songs. Either way, note it all down in tabs. Whether you’re writing something entirely new or not, each song is a time-consuming puzzle. With open tunings, it’s like learning to play the guitar all over again.”
Repeatedly playing in various open tunings requires a lot of tuning. Here, a tuner is your best friend. What’s more, since these handy devices are great at detecting pitch, they’ll tell you exactly what key you’re in when you’re experimenting and trying to discover your ‘own’ fun tuning to use – something that’ll also help you learn chords and keys. After a while, you might even be able to tell open tunings by ear. Hans: “Just bear in mind that even with a perfectly tuned guitar, the notes higher up the neck can sound a little off. Play a couple parts at the higher frets to check the pitch of the strings. Or tune the strings again but at the 9th fret.” Constantly changing the tuning of the strings wears them out faster and leads to breakage sooner. “I’ve also learned that strings break much sooner when the holes of the machine heads have rough edges, so I file these until they’re smooth. Either way, regularly changing the tuning ultimately causes metal fatigue.” Another tip Hans points out is to file the grooves of the nut just a little wider so that the string doesn’t get ‘caught’. He also advises to use a pack of .012 gauge strings as your go-to, since, in most cases, playing in an open tuning means playing strings tuned to a lower pitch than standard. “The thinner the strings, the better the playability. The thicker the strings, the better the sound. Also, with open tunings, thinner strings tend to start fluttering a little at the cost of tone. Try a few different packs of strings from various makers and see what works best for you.” Hans keeps four guitars around that are each tuned differently. Before any live performance, he always makes sure there are various guitars in various tunings ready to be played. As his final piece of advice, Hans says: “When it comes to both open tunings and finger-picking, it’s all about practice and repetition. That’s what great players like Tommy Emmanuel do. Take small, one or two bar bits and polish these time and time again before you move on to the next step. Record yourself too, so you can size up your performance afterwards without having to worry about the technical side of things.”
Open Chord Tunings
Open tunings are mostly about major chords. Sure, there are minor variants too, but those are what’s called alternate tunings. Below, we’ve included a list of major open tunings.
E- A – C# – E – A – E (alternative: E – A – C# – E – A – C#)
B – F# – B – F# – B – D# (alternative: F# – B – D# – F# – B – D#)
C – G – C – G – C – E
D – A – D – F# – A – D or the alternative version, D – A – D – A – D – D. Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi is played in open D and Mumford and Sons used the tuning in Little Lion Man. The alternative version can be heard in the Rolling Stones classic Jumpin’ Jack Flash, as played by Keith Richards.
E – B – E – G# – B – E. Unlike most other open chord tunings, open E requires tightening three of the strings so it’s best to use light gauged strings. Brian Jones, for example, slid up and down the fretboard in open E on No Expectations, while Keith Richards uses it in Salt of the Earth and You Can’t Always Get What You Want.
F – A – C – F – C – F or the alternative version, C – F – C – F – A – F. The latter can be used if you don’t have light strings on your guitar right now; Led Zeppelin uses this tuning in When the Levee Breaks.
D – G – D – G – B – D or the alternative version, G – B – D – G – B – D. Next to open D, this is the most popular open tuning.
» Chords: Theory and Chord Symbols
» Learning To Play Guitar Chords For Beginners
» How to Play Great Solos Over Chord Progressions
» Guitar in Drop D Tuning: how and why
» Playing Guitar Without a Plectrum: Fingerpicking
» Open G Tuning: The Key to the Rolling Stones
» Guitar Chords: CAGED Major
» Learning to Read Guitar Tabs