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Open Tuning

Article from Making Music, May 1986

Alternative routes to funny fingerings. Tuning is not cheating, we say.

Everyone does it, it's not cheating, and you'd be surprised what you could achieve with... open tuning. Jon Lewin tortures his machine heads in search of alternative twangings.

MASTERING the dark intricacies of the traditional EADGBE tuning is a long and arduous task. While educating your fingers to this shape is undoubtedly rewarding to the player, it can tempt you away from the more important business of making a good noise.

It's the guitarist's job to make the best sounds possible for the particular piece of music he or she is playing, whether it means setting the guitar alight (J.Hendrix), tuning all the strings to one note (L.Reed) or playing rapid flurries of 11ths (D. Reinhardt). Where can a poor guitarist go?


The EADGBE tuning gradually gained general acceptance in the first half of the 19th century, when the addition of the sixth (bottom E) string formalised the configuration of the guitar as we know it. Tuning to EADGBE offers a broad tonal range, and a wide selection of manageable fingerings for basic chords, plus a few complicated ones contorted enough to give your hand a hernia. So what about trying non-standard tunings?

By doing so, you'll be following in the footsteps of guitarists from the earliest blues men like Robert Johnson, up to such contemporary noise-mongers as John Carruthers from the Banshees (see triffic interview elsewhere in this issue); if you think deviating from EADGBE is cheating, you'll have Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Elmore James, Eric Clapton, Bo Diddley, Lowell George, Muddy Waters, Gram Parsons, Duane Allman, Son House, Ry Cooder, and Keith Richards (to mention but a few) to argue with.


The most common starting point for discovering non-standard tunings is realising that dropping the bottom E strings on your Rickenbacker 360/12 down two semitones to D makes 'Mr Tambourine Man' and virtually any other song in the key of D (not just those by The Byrds), suddenly sound fuller and warmer. There's a principle behind this: allowing the bass strings to drone while you play melodic phrases higher up the neck will fill out the sound, a trick which is particularly effective when you're unaccompanied by keyboards or second guitar.

But don't think this limits you to playing a D - it doesn't have to. You can either ignore the bottom string when playing other chords, or adapt your fingering to compensate: for A major, slip the thumb round the neck to grip the former E string at the second fret to add a bass E to the conventional chord. Playing G is a little more complicated, as you need to fret both the bottom and A strings at the fifth fret, as well as the top E at the third. See Figs 1 & 2.

Fig.1 A major

Fig.2 G major

Dropped tunings only require the lowering of one or two strings in pitch, while you retain most of the ordinary fingering. But who needs ordinary fingering?


Defined as 'tuning the open strings of a guitar to a particular chord'. Work out the notes that make up the chord, then tune down (to avoid snapping anything) to the nearest relevant note for each string. Open D is thus DADF#AD; open G or 'slack key' is DGDGBD (which Eric Clapton says he prefers for its countryish sound. However, open C is CGCGCE, with the B string tuned up a semitone, and regular open E (which Andy Summers used with The Police on 'Next To You' from "Outlandos D'Amour") and open A actually require the guitar to be tuned to the fingering of the basic chord shape - EBEG#BE, and EAEAC#E respectively. So there are no hard and fast rules.

With open chords, a single barre will give you any major chord - in open D tuning, the fifth fret gives G major, the seventh A major, and so on.

But open tunings are not just a lazy way of playing chords: play a downstroke on the open strings, emphasising the bass, then play the top two strings at the twelfth fret for the octave of the chord. Try sliding up to the octave from three or four frets below. Sounds familiar? That's because you're playing the great slides blues lick. It sounds even better when you use a metal or glass slide and add vibrato by wiggling the slide rapidly back and forth over the octave (don't actually fret the strings when you use a slide). The open strings and the octave should sound almost like call-and-response.

"P. Townshend: Sometimes with standard tuning, you're head gets in a rut. If you're writing and using open tunings, you can be taken somewhere you've never been before. It can make you feel like you're learning guitar all over again."


Although learning to play a series of new chord shapes over open tunings seems a bit self-defeating, there are useful fingerings you can easily learn. Figures 3, 4 and 5 concentrate on shapes that work with both open D and E, such as the 9th, for funk rhythm work (slide down into the figure from two frets above), the extra rockabilly 7th, and what looks like the E7th shape (which is in these tunings D6 sus 4, I think). The latter shape is a Keith Richards favourite from such rip-roaring classics as 'Street Fighting Man'.

Fig.3 D7

Fig.4 D9 (slide down from D major)

Fig.5 D6 sus 4

Talking of Mr Death's Head, he's best known for five string tuning (the bottom E is left off) to GDGBD - this means that he can play in open G, and still have the root note as the lowest in the chord. He also uses a number of country tunings taught him by Gram Parsons (compare 'Honky Tonk Women' with 'Country Honk', and hear the difference).

Fig.6 G major

Fig.7 A7

Figures 6 and 7 show inversions useable in the most common open tunings of D and G (remember that shapes for D also work on open E).

Open tunings also readily lend themselves to two and three finger harmonic runs - find the scales first, then mess them around for yer actual melody - see Figures 8 and 9 for two moveable shapes that can be slid around the guitar. Try the same principle with Figure 5.

Fig.8 Use at frets 2/4/9/11

Fig.9 use in conjunction with Fig.8 at frets 2/5/7/9/12


The first rule of experimentation is that there are no rules. If you are working on the guitar, writing a song/symphony/whatever and you find that standard tuning means you can't quite let a particular note on an open string ring through - just retune. Changing the tuning to suit your own purposes is not cheating. Jimmy Page was asked by the US journal Guitar Player if he ever used alternative tunings: "All the time: they're my own that I've worked out, so I'd rather keep those to myself really. But they're never open tunings; I have used those, but most of the things I've written have not been on open tunings, so you can get more chords into them."

One tuning Page used with the Yardbirds (on 'White Summer' from the "Little Games" LP) was BADGAD, a variation on DADGAD, the D modal tuning. Modal tuning is simply a major plus the fourth note, making a suspended chord; G modal tuning is hence DGDGCD, the C being the suspended note.

Pete Townshend is also reputed to use peculiar tunings, as well as the open D he wrote 'The Seeker' in: John McGeoch, formerly of the Banshees, currently of The Armoury Show, and also John Lydon's British band, stole EDADAD from a guitar of Townshend's - though how Townshend had the nerve to tune the strings up to that, McGeochpercouldn't tell.

Alvin Lee has used numerous set-ups, including DADDAD, and an interesting open A which runs AAEADflatE. But it's not just old farts who use peculiar tunings - Andy Gill of the late and much lamented Gang Of Four used DAEGBE, with the bottom three strings all tuned down to the note. Lou Reed regularly ended Velvet Underground sets by tuning all six strings to A, then leaning his guitar against the amp to feed back as the band left the stage.

Finally, watch out for those country licks - pedal steel guitars are normally tuned to E9 or C6, though there was a book available called '52 Tunings for The Steel Guitar'. A different tuning every week for a whole year?


If you're bored with conventional tuning, or just stuck for ideas, try fiddling with the tuning. Treat the guitar with a little less respect - make it do some of the work for a change.

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - May 1986

Feature by Jon Lewin

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