To only play your guitar in standard tuning is to severely limit the sound and possibilities you can get from the instrument. However, many players tend to avoid tunings other than standard falsely believing it’s too hard. Gone are all the familiar shapes and patterns you spent so much time learning to visualize, leaving you with a fretboard that feels the way it did to you when you first picked up a guitar, or so it seems.
This type of thinking is unfortunate, as alternate tunings will massively expand the sounds you can get from your guitar and are in fact easy to play in providing you already have some basic technique.
The kind of tuning I want to look at today is open tunings. These are when you tune some of the strings of your guitar to certain notes so that when you strum them all together they sound a chord.
For example, one very common tuning is open G tuning. To get your guitar tuned this way simply lower both the high and low E strings to D notes, and your 5th string to a G note. Once done, strum all your open strings together and you will have a G chord:
G chord = G B D
Open G tuning (low to high) = D G D G B D
* Strings that have been adjusted are in bold
There are in fact many varied tunings you can play your guitar in, you can even make up your own, including dropped tunings, modal, and instrumental.
It’s way beyond the scope of this article to cover all these, so our focus will be with open tunings and 5 things you need to know and can be doing right now, to sound great instantly when playing your guitar in an open tuning.
1. Forget The Notion That Different Tunings Means Learning Your Guitar All Over Again.
Due to this one false belief, I avoided playing my guitar in any kind of alternate tuning for years. To me, it was enough keeping on top of standard tuning. I wasn’t prepared to let go of all the common chord shapes and scale patterns I had come to know so well, for a completely new fretboard.
Unfortunately, I had the view of many guitarists that learning to play your guitar in any kind of tuning, other than standard, means having to start all over from the beginning.
This just isn’t true! So don’t let it stop you, as it did me, from exploring the awesome, cool, and unique sounds available to you when playing in open tunings.
What you need to realize is that a lot of open tunings are closely related, not just to each other but to standard tuning too. Let’s see how an open G tuning compares to standard tuning for example:
Open G Tuning – D G D G B D
As you can see, 50% of standard tuning remains unchanged with only the 6th, 5th, and 1st strings being altered. Therefore, much of the fretboard will still be familiar to you.
What about tunings that aren’t so closely related to standard? Well, keep in mind learning in an open tuning does not cause the technique you have already developed to play the guitar to disappear. So regardless of how the new tuning relates to standard, it can never be like having to start playing from scratch as you still have your technique, which is a big part of your guitar playing.
Furthermore, open tunings set your guitar up to actually make things EASIER to play, not harder. If you ever try to play something written in an open tuning, in standard tuning, you’ll see exactly what I mean.
2. Sound Great In Open Tunings Instantly!
Always remember that open tunings exist to make certain things on your guitar easier to play. Don’t get me wrong, this does not mean that standard tuning is redundant as each tuning has its place, and unique characteristics of course, but try playing a bar chord in standard tuning versus an open G tuning and tell me which one is easier to play.
If you have at least basic techniques down such as strumming, chord changes, etc, you can sound great straight away in an open tuning.
For example, playing melodies on the top string while droning the low D string in DADGAD tuning sounds great! You could improvise forever on this idea alone. You can also extend this idea to other strings, not just the open top string.
Harmonics are also very effective in open tunings such as DADGAD.
3. The Symmetry Of Open Tunings.
Many open tunings are very symmetrical making riffs and scale runs easy to play, as they fall nicely under your fingers.
One such tuning is Csus2 tuning:
Csus2 Tuning – CGCGCD
This tuning is quite symmetrical with alternating C and G notes with the exception of the top D. Not only this, but you only have 3 strings to learn C, G, and D. Compare that to the 5 strings of standard tuning E, A, D, G, and B.
4. One Open Tuning Leads To Another.
Many open tunings relate closely to each other, making it easy to switch from one to another with minimal fuss. Becoming familiar in one particular open tuning will often make it easier to play in other open tunings.
Check out Open D tuning compared to DADGAD tuning as an example:
Open D Tuning – D A D F# A D
DADGAD Tuning – D A D G A D
* DADGAD tuning is sometimes referred to as Dsus4 tuning
As you can see, you would only need to make tiny adjustments to play something from an open D tuning, in DADGAD. This is pretty handy as both these tunings are among the most common ones used.
5. Drop D Tunings Are A Great Pathway To Open Tunings.
If you are a little hesitant jumping into open tunings, or you want to take things a little slower, drop D tunings can be a great way to do this. With drop D tunings you simply drop either the low or high E strings of your guitar down to a D note.
Dropping the 6th string down to a D note is the more common of the two, and considering that open tunings such as open G, open D, and DADGAD all have D notes as their low and high strings, exploring drop D tunings first will make the transition over into open tunings a much smoother and even easier one.
Don’t feel like you have to become an expert in open tunings to use them in your playing. You may only want to use them here and there, which is fine. On the contrary you may really get into them and use them all the time.
Whatever you do, don’t avoid them altogether as I did, believing they are too hard and complicated. There’s just too much you leave on the table regarding the sounds and possibilities that come with open tunings for your acoustic guitar playing if you do this.