Open Tunings: Unlock Your Potential with Three Alternatives to Standard

Open tunings often make it easier to access colorful chord tones that are too difficult to fret in standard tuning.
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Guitarists often become complacent after they learn plain-old open and barre chords.

If you find yourself in this very rut, open tunings can be a great way to spark creativity. Not only do they result in relatively simple chord shapes, but they often make it easier to access colorful chord tones that are too difficult to fret in standard tuning.

Before playing through the examples here, take note of the tuning legends. In each, the guitar’s open strings are ordered from lowest to highest.

Our first example is open E tuning, which has the exact same notes as the basic open E chord (E-B-E-G#-B-E). After completing the tuning process, strum the open strings, and you should hear a big, ringing E chord.

In FIGURE 1, the first measure demonstrates one of the major perks of open tunings: one-finger barre chords. These are a snap to play, and they allow you to add color tones with your free fret-hand fingers. 

In the first bar, for example, an Aadd9 chord results from simply barring the 5th fret with your index finger and adding the 1st string’s 7th-fret B with your 3rd finger. FIGURE 1 also reveals another cool thing about open tunings: familiar fingerings can be used to create new sounds. In bar 2, the basic open E chord shape now makes a colorful F#m11/E chord.


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Our next tuning, open-D, is the same as open-E, only down a whole step. FIGURE 2 is a nice study of open-D based on arpeggios. It’s capped off by a pair of one-finger power chords, which should be familiar to those of you who have used drop-D tuning.


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To obtain our final tuning, open-G, start with standard and then tune both the 1st and 6th strings down a whole step, to 6; next tune the 5th string down a whole step, to G. FIGURE 3 should have a familiar ring to it; the opening two-chord pattern is a Keith Richards trademark, featured in such classics as “Start Me Up” and “Brown Sugar.” (The figure also recalls Led Zeppelin’s “That’s the Way.”)


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FIGURE 4, also in open-G, introduces a fingerstyle pattern. Use your thumb to pluck the 5th and 4th-string notes, and your index, middle and ring fingers to pick the higher notes. Also, take the bluegrass-approved single-note lick that closes the piece slowly at first, making sure the slurs are executed cleanly, crisply and in time.


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