One of the best ways to bust out of a rut is to take a break from standard tuning.
Open tunings—tunings that are tuned to the notes of a chord, most commonly a major chord—not only force you to approach the guitar from a different perspective but also provide interesting chord voicings that are unattainable in standard tuning. They also offer some intriguing soloing possibilities.
In this lesson, we’ll look at ways to approach two of the most popular open tunings: open D (low to high, D A D F# A D) and open G (D G D G B D). So grab your tuner and get ready to explore some sweet lines and riffs.
Open-D tuning has been popular with many singer-songwriters, like Joni Mitchell and Richie Havens, who have used it for droning chordal work. It’s also been popular with slide players like John Winter, Duane Allman and Jerry Douglas. For these examples tune your guitar as described above, to (low to high) D A D F# A D.
FIGURE 1 demonstrates open D’s attractive ringing sound. The lick here sounds best on acoustic, but it works fine on electric as well. Use your 1st and 3rd fingers for the 5th- and 7th-fret hammer-ons and pull-offs, being careful to come straight down on the strings. You want to let all the notes ring together. For the arpeggios in measure 3, align your fret-hand fingers in the shape of a standard open-E grip.
The double-stop moves in FIGURE 2A are based on the phrasing of many slide players. Notice that all the dyads here are placed at the 5th, 7th and 10th frets. This gives the lick an A-based tonality. (A one-finger barre at the 7th fret produces an A major chord.) The dyads at the 5th fret are slices of a G chord, while the 10th-fret dyads come form a C major chord. Combining these three sounds produces a major/minor pentatonic effect.
FIGURE 2B is crated from a finger-friendly two-notes-per-string pattern in which nearly all the notes fall on the 5th and 7th frets. Those on the G string fall on the 5th and 6th frets. This pattern produces tones from the G major pentatonic scale (G A B D E) with an added 4th degree (C). Transposing the pattern to different keys is a cinch—for example at the 7th fret you’re in A, and at the 12th you’re in D.
The open-D solo (FIGURE 3) is in a folk vein and works quite well on either electric or acoustic. Based on I-IV-Vsus (D-G-G/A) changes in the key of D, all the notes are from the D major scale (D E F# G A B C#).
The solo opens with an arpeggiated open D voicing, followed by a legato D-major sequence. (Use your 1st and 3rd fingers for the 2nd- and 4th-fret notes.) Measure 2 answers this phrase with a D chord that is similarly articulated, except for its top portion, which is played as a harmonic triple-stop at the 12th fret. (Lightly touch the top three strings with your 1st finger, directly above the 12th fret.)
Another legato-enhanced D-major melody follows, this time voiced higher up the neck. Here’ a tip for crafting similar melodies elsewhere: For strings 1, 2 and 6, which are tuned down a whole step, visualize E major scale patterns from standard tuning. The D and A strings remain in standard tuning, so you can think D major scale patterns there. The tricky string is the 3rd, which is tuned a half step down. There’s no special tip here—it just takes getting used to.
Measure 3 moves to the IV chord (G) with a cascading chordal figure arpeggiated along the top four strings. For maximum sustain, fret the 6th string with your 2nd finger, the 4th string with your 3rd, the 3rd string with your 4th and the 2nd string with your 1st.
Measure 4 moves back to the I chord (D). Play the initial D-string slide with your 3rd finger, which is already in place from the previous measure), and hammer onto the 3rd string’s 1st fret with your 1st finger. Grab the D string’s 4th fret with your 4th finger and hammer onto the 2nd fret with your 2nd finger.
The maneuvers in measure 5 are based on an interesting grip: your 1st, 2nd and 3rd fingers fret the 2nd, 3rd and 4th frets of the 4th, 3rd and 2nd strings, respectively. Grad the top-string pull-off with your 1st finger, and perform the ascending slide with your already situated 2nd finger. Keep your 2nd finger on the 3rd strings and fret the 6th string with your 1st finger. From there, measure 6 is just a matter of precision picking.
In measure 7–8, the solo goes out the way it came in, with an open D chord followed by a D-major legato lines. Use this fret-hand fingering: 1st and 3rd fingers for the 7th- and 9th-fret hammer-ons and pull-offs; 2nd finger for the 3rd-string slide; and 1st finger for the D-string slide.
Some of Keith Richards most famous riffs are played in open-G tuning. (He removes the 6th string for this.) For the examples in this section, tune your guitar (low to high) D G D G B D.
FIGURE 4A shows an example of his patented two-part grip in action. The fundamental voicing is simply a 1st-finger barre draped across the top five strings. (At the 12th fret, this produces a root-position G major chord—G D G B D.) The secondary grip involves keeping the barre in place while planting the 2nd finger one fret up on the 2nd string and the 3rd finger two frets up on the 4th string, as if playing a 5th-string-rooted minot-7th chord in standard tuning. (At the 12th fret in open G, this produces a G6sus4 chordÚG E G C D.) Note how the example uses both grips, in syncopated rhythms, along the fretboard. Listen to the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” and “Start Me Up” for prime examples of these types of riffs.
Keep in mind that in open G tuning, the D-G-B (4-3-2) string set remains in standard tuning. This means you’ve got familiar territory for creating jangly passages such as the 6th-based FIGURE 4B. Open-G is also heard in kiler slide-guitar songs like George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone.”
Similarly, FIGURE 5 combines some slide-like moves with a few standard bends over a I-bIII-IV power-chord progression (G5-Bb5-C5).
The open-G solo (FIGURE 6) is over a Stones-style groove in the key of G. Although the chords seem convoluted, they’re based on the two-part grip of FIGURE 4A and follow a basic IV-I-IV-I (C-G-C-G) progression. Measures 9–12 provide a bVII-IV-bVI-bIII (F-C-Eb-Bb) bridge, and the progression ends on the I (G) chord.
There are a few highlights in this solo. The sliding double-stop moves in measures 1–3 and 14 are based on the principles set forth back in the open-D section of this lesson, in FIGURE 2A. They provide chord-tone anchors (5th-fret notes for the C chord and open strings for the G chord), as well as passing notes (3rd-fret notes for the C and G chords). (Feel free to use your 1st finger for all of the fretted dyads.)
The intervallic action in measures 7–8 springs from the standard-tuned ideas described in FIGURE 4B, while the chord maneuvers in measures 9–10 and 12–13 are derived from the Keith Richards riffing tactics explained in FIGURE 4A. Finally, the bends in measures 6 and 11 demonstrate the subtle alterations that can occur when you apply standard soloing moves in open-G tuning.