Introduction To Open Guitar Tuning
Open guitar tunings have been around for a long time and probably originated in the Mississippi Delta, where the blues were born. Strangely enough, many guitar players think it’s an advanced technique, something to get into when you’re an accomplished player, but this isn’t the case.
The early blues players used it because it was a simplified way of playing guitar. It was easier to tune and keep in tune in the hot, humid conditions in the American Deep South, and it also lends itself to playing slide guitar, a tradition handed down from a time when guitars were home-made and very poor quality.
In those days a guitar might be slung together using an old wooden cigar box and a broom handle. Add a length of wire from the screen door, nail it down and your done! Such a one-string instrument was known as a ‘Diddley Bow’ and probably had its origins in Africa.
Open G is probably the easiest tuning for a beginners to play around with. Once the guitar is tuned, you need just three incredibly simple chords to create a song! When punk rock bands discovered this in UK back in the 1980s, it was a revelation.
Angry and anarchic groups didn’t want to waste precious time learning music – they wanted to create a raw and powerful sound quickly. Open G was perfect for the job.
More recently, Keith Richards used it extensively in the past couple of decades. He loved it so much, that he transcribed old hits to the tuning for live performance, but more of Keith later.
How To Tune A Guitar To Open G
The good news is that open G tuning is a piece of cake and probably the easiest to use. Re-tuning affects just three strings:
- Take the low E string down two steps to D
- Take the high E string down two steps to D
- The 5th is also tuned down, this time from A to G.
You’ll notice that we now have 3 ‘Ds’, two ‘Gs’ and a B, and if you strum across all of the strings you’ll be playing a G chord. (Strictly speaking, you should damp the sound of the bottom bass note with your fretting hand thumb.)
Use the simple tuner below and you’re ready to play:
Keith Richards and Open G Tuning
You’ve probably heard modern songs played in this tuning without realising it, mostly by The Rolling Stones
- Brown Sugar
- You Can’t Always Get What You Want
- Honkey Tonk Woman
- Monkey Man
- Before They make Me Run
- Can’t You Hear Me Knockin
- Start Me Up
- Jumpin’ Jack Flash
Many seasoned guitar players have stated that they played some Keith Richards songs for years and they never sounded quite right. It wasn’t until they tuned their guitars down that it all fell into place. He wasn’t playing in standard tuning!
You can really drive that rock rhythm with a sound full of similar harmonics, because of all the Ds and Gs. Whoever came up with this all those years ago gave Keith the means of producing the sound behind most of The Rolling Stones hits across 40 years of playing.
Instead of trying to play like other rock icons, like Clapton, he focused on simplicity and the raw power of basic repetitive riffs. The good news is that it’s easy to copy, so we can all have fun.
The chords used in open G are much simpler than in standard tuning, often comprising a simple barre, or two-finger shapes. Richards realised that the 6th string sometimes got in the way and sounded discordant with some chords, so he just took it off and played like that. Very practical!
Let’s take a lot at the basic riffs for Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and you’ll see just how easy it is – you’ll be playing this endlessly once you get the feel of it. I don’t have an electric guitar, being an acoustic blues specialist, so I’m playing my Martin against a backing tape in the video below.
I used a plugin for Audacity, a free audio editor, to create the fuzzy electric guitar effect.
As you can see from the chord diagrams below, there’s nothing difficult about it at all:
Other Basic Chord Shapes
Most songs can be played with three chords, and in open G it couldn’t be easier – try these on for size:
- Just strum across all of the strings open and you’re playing a G chord.
- Barre all of the strings with your forefinger on the 5th fret and you have a C chord.
- Do the same thing on the 7th fret and you’re playing D.
Of course, there are many more chords, and some are described below. The wonderful thing about open tunings is that you can also make up your own. Advanced finger-style guitarists often do this to get the exact sound they’re looking for.
Open G is unusual – it’s incredibly easy to start playing basic songs quickly, so it’s good for the beginner. As you progress, you’ll naturally explore more possibilities and ways of playing within the boundaries. You would think that having several strings tuned to the same note reduces the variations possible, but it’s not the case.
The wonderful thing about playing guitar is that the learning goes on and on. Even very advanced players find new things every day, and it’s often the simpler things that surprise and delight us. Tune down and rock on!