Ask Charlie...

Open Up!

Hello Troubadourians! Have you ever experimented with open or non-standard tunings? While this is mostly the domain of guitar players, other instruments such as bass guitar are also candidates for non-standard tuning. Guitarists have been using open tunings for almost as long as the modern guitar has been around. When the guitar took its modern shape and string count it became easier for guitarists to experiment with tunings. Classical guitarists would retune one or more strings in order to have reachable fingerings so that they could accommodate the requirements of certain pieces that were originally written for other instruments. This wasn’t open tunings as we now think of them nor was the guitar left in an altered tuning for reasons other than for a specific composition. Classical guitars with nylon strings are still not often used for open tunings. For whatever reason, open and altered tunings seem to be more suited to steel string guitars as we will explore…

To begin, an open tuning is one where the guitar is tuned such that strumming the strings without fingering any notes produces a full chord. One of the most common uses of open tunings is to accommodate slide playing for the blues. Since the slide is essentially a straight bar, it is difficult to form complete chords without an open tuning. Of course, you can make chords by fingering them normally—adjusting for the difference in tuning—but the efficiency of that effort is largely determined by which finger you choose to wear the slide on. If worn on the pinky finger then the first three fingers can function normally. If you choose to wear it on your third finger like Duane Allman, normal fingering is more complicated. If, like Joe Walsh, Bonnie Raitt, and me, you choose to wear the slide on your middle finger, you can at least play “power chords” and some simple leads. But the major point of open tuning in blues music is to support chording with the slide. Hammer-ons and pull-offs with the slide is an essential technique of the style and chording with the slide against an open bass note facilitates playing melody and riffs while maintaining the rhythm. While barely scratching the surface of the style, this gives you a general idea of where we’re going with open tunings. It is also possible to forgo the slide and play completely with the fingers on the fretting hand. As stated before, adjustments to fingerings need to be made to form “regular” chords, but sometimes new and previously unplayable chords are now possible with little or no adjustment. The song “She Talks to Angels” by the Black Crowes is played in open D tuning but uses standard chord fingerings to make the chords and melody, which is heard in the opening measures and throughout much of the song. Then there is Keith Richards who has created an entire style by using an open G tuning on a five string Telecaster. “Brown Sugar” and “Honky Tonk Woman” are but two of the songs that Keef plays in this manner.

This leads us to Hawaiian slack key guitar. While open tunings for blues playing often require some strings to be tuned higher than standard pitch—as in open E or open A—slack key guitar uses tunings that are exclusively tuned down from standard, hence the name. Open G and open D are very common as are many other tunings that feature minor and dominant seventh chords. One big advantage to using tunings that are lowered from standard is that the guitar sounds bigger and fills more sonic space, ideal when you are playing solo. Many modern fingerstyle players have adapted this approach to solo guitar as it facilitates right and left hand fretting techniques as well as being easier to finger due to the reduced tension. Players such as Michael Hedges, Kaki King, and Andy McKee have created amazing music with detuned guitars and hand percussion on various parts on the guitar.

Modal tunings are a variant of open tuning and often reflect an European influence. Jimmy Page wrote many of Led Zeppelin’s famous songs using modal tunings. Classic songs such as “Moby Dick,” “Going to California,” and “Kashmir” are songs that are written and performed in modal tunings. DADGAD is a common modal tuning and some players such as Lawrence Juber use it exclusively. Also common are partial open tunings for drones or key augmentation—such as dropped D—where the low E string is tuned down a full step to D. Neither open nor modal, this altered tuning is very useful to add an extended tonic bass note to songs in the key of D. Another variation is double dropped D where both the low and high E strings are tuned one whole step lower than standard. This creates an almost banjo-like sound and is usable in the keys of D and G, yet since the middle four strings are still tuned normally the notes and fingering remain familiar. “Black Water” by the Doobie Brothers is in this tuning and the recording demonstrates that it works very well for both normally fingered notes and chords as well as slide licks. I have a guitar set up exclusively in this tuning that I use as my main slide guitar as well as for standard fingering. And simply by detuning the A string a whole step to G, I’m instantly in open G tuning. Very versatile.

Open tuning for compositional purposes is also popular among fingerstyle players. Joni Mitchell is probably the most well-known and one of the most prolific proponents of creating a unique tuning for a specific composition or song. Pretty much 100% of her music is in some open or altered tuning, so much so that she has to tour with several guitars and a book that details which song is in what tuning, which must keep her guitar tech very busy during a show. A modern use of dropped tunings for composition is often employed by players of heavier styles. Sometimes tuning down as much as three whole steps—often only a partial detune to support riffing—is common among heavy bands. Combined with saturated amplifier distortion, it is a recipe for heaviness. I mentioned that sometimes bass players detune as well. This could be to match a bandmate with a detuned guitar or to extend the range of the bass without having to add a low fifth string. Open and altered tunings work with acoustic and electric guitars so don’t be afraid to experiment.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (

  • Categories

  • Archives