Apr 12, 2011

Open Tunings ~ a quick guide

Slide guitar playing is almost synonymous with open tunings, and so, anyone experimenting seriously with a slide or bottleneck should consider switching to an open tuning.

Why so you may ask? Well, for starters, you cannot bend a slide like you can bend your finger. Sure you can hold it at an angle and not parallel to the frets but it's not the easiest thing to strum two notes on different frets with a slide, let alone 3 or 4 notes. An open tuning can give you alot more same-fret notes on different strings to chord with than the standard tuning.

Also, most players will also need to play some chords with their free fingers. Without a slide you have 4 fingers available and they allow for alot of handwork on the fretboard. With a slide, however, you're down to 3 free fingers - that's a 25% decrease! An open tuning helps you with that because it allows you to use your open strings more and so you can make chords with three fingered and one open string.

That's not to say standard tuning is impossible for slide playing. On the contrary. Let's see:

Standard Tuning (E A D G B E):
Probably its strongest advantage is it works great for beginner sliders because everything they know about guitar playing is still there. You don't have to re-learn each chord or think about where each note is before you play it so, in theory, this leaves you with spare brain capacity to concentrate on your actual sliding technique.

The downside is you quickly reach your limits. There are some slide riffs that will forever remain out of reach for you if you stay in standard tuning. I've heard some people who have developed incredible technique in standard tuning. However, their phrasing remains pretty much the same as when they're playing without a slide which makes it a bit awkward. Surely those riffs could have been played faster or with a clearer tone had they been using their fingers instead of the slide.

If you are a beginner slider one good place to start at with the standard tuning is a simple 12bar blues track in the key of E while using your slide to play riffs on the 2 high strings only (B and E). If your key is E then there is no harm in hitting those strings free (your 5th and root notes respectively) which is going to help you alot with developing some basic slide phrases, especially if the last notes of your riffs are either one of those free strings.

Open E (E A E G# B E):
Open E is great for electric rock and blues. It's my personal favorite, however, that's only because I'm too lazy to practice as much with other tunings.

One benefit of open E is your 1st (low) string is E, in other words your root note, which is how we're used to looking at bar chords in standard tuning. So this makes for an easier transition from standard tuning.

Another great thing about open E it is you can hold down all strings in one fret and you get a solid chord. Not so with every open tuning out there (see below "dropped D"). Very helpful with slide playing.

Then there are the minor chords. Because open E is bar-like you can easily make minor chords with 3 fingers (they look like major chords in standard tuning). Btw, when I experimented a bit with minor tunings I found them to be very restrictive; though I am by no means an expert on minor tunings, I think the best compromise is being in one of the standard open tunigs - like open E - yet being able to easily form a minor chord when it comes up here and there in a song.

Finally, because of high string tension (3rd and 4th strings are tuned upwards) open E produces great tone for electric setups. Which is why people like Derek Trucks are often in open E.

An important downside of open E is exactly that, however: The tension it will exercise on your instrument for pitching those strings too high. With a .13 gauge string set the stress may be too much for some delicate instruments. Some people suggest tuning below standard A 440 to get around this open E tuning issue. Myself, I'm not sure why you wouldn't go straight to open D if you're facing a tension issue.

Open A tuning (E A E A C# E):
A is generally a nice country key and so many lap or pedal steels will be tuned there. Also, more singers will be comfortable in keys between A and D so it might work better in a band than open E (although capo helps alot with that).

On the downside, your 1st (low) string is not your root note (A) but your 5th (E) which feels a little upside down compared to standard tuning positions. And of course this holds for all the chords you'll be making on the fretboard, not just the free-strings A.

Open G tuning (D G D G B D):
Open G is one of the most popular tunings out there, you can find plenty of players, video lessons and riffs for it. It works great for acoustic setups in blues and country, not only because of finger positioning but also due the low tone which - in my opinion - generates a serious moody feeling.

Cons - again you start with your 5th, so the transition from standard tuning may be a bit more difficult. Also, I don't know too many people preferring it for electric setups and there is probably good reason. I suspect it has to do with that low tone of open G which is a pro for acoustic but may not work too well with electric.

Open D tuning (D A D F# A D):
This is a tuning favored by many of the greats, including Ry Cooder, Roy Rogers and more. Bob Brozman says he is into open G and open D. Ry Cooder says he prefers open D because "it brings out the darker side of the blues".

Pros: Well, open D presents almost all of the pros of open E without its major con - the high string tension.

Cons: I really can't think of any serious problems with open D. If I had to find something I'd say switching back 'n' fourth from standard tuning is not too convenient because you have to lower the root string and then the rest may fall out of pitch a little. Which, come to think of it, is probably why I'm more often on open E instead of open D. Ok yes, lame argument.

D modal tuning (D A D G A D):
I haven't had much experience with this one, it's a variation, or rather, a progression of open D that I've heard some people are happy with. Apparently it works great for some world music stuff like Celtic or Arabic (it's also called the "Celtic" tuning) as it is neither major nor minor. Will add more on this soon.

Dropped D tuning (D A D G B E): 
I never play this. Once I tried it and the B and E felt really awkward once you're spoiled with open E and D where everything is in nice vertical order. I hear heavy metal players prefer this because it gives you fast power chord transitions in the low strings (D A D) and standard tunung scales for the high strings (G B E). I doubt it's very practical for slide though. I never put much effort in this tuning so I can't give you much more insight at the moment.

Anyway, hope this quick guide helps you make your choice and get started with open tunings. Comments and additions are greatly appreciated.


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