Update - 2nd March 2015
Accompanying notes (PDF): page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4
Since August 2006 - and
in-between gig commitments, I have been administering private guitar
tuition full-time across Cambridgeshire. I currently have 10 clients
and I provide everything from stringent, rudimentary mentoring for
beginners, to ideas and inspiration for intermediate-advanced players
over a few cups of tea! These lessons/sessions encompass weekly and
fortnightly meets either at my home, (but mainly)at the homes of the
pupils. Because I travel around so much, I have now decided to extend
this service (within relative geographical reason) to just about
anywhere in England & Wales. My local rate is £20 per hour, but
for any 'distance' lessons, I have fixed a rate between £30-£40 PH
depending on where it is eg. a commute to London outside of gig
parameters would be £40, whereas, to call in to somewhere in Sheffield
on my way to a gig in Leeds would attract£30 PH. If anyone reading this
is interested in any lessons/sessions/therapy etc. please do not
hesitate to contact me (leave a message if I am out or away) either
through the site or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Conversely you could phone me on 01354 651396.
Included in this browsing section are a few open-tunings for guitar. Some are very common and much used and understood, whilst others are a little more esoteric. I have good reason to believe that I may have invented the Am7 tuning, but I await the distant cries of 'No you bloody didn't!'
If anyone is interested in more information on tunings and general guitar techniques (or just wants a good argument!) feel free to e-mail me.
Anyway, some tunings vicar: bottom to top - as it were!
DADGAD Very popular and much utilised eg. Bert Jansch, Martin Carthy, Dick Gaughan, Pierre Bensusan.
CGDGAD Allows fingerstyle playing in three keys. Very 'user-friendly'. Keep to two fingered shapes.
DGDGAD Good for Celtic tunes; similar to above.
DGDGBD Tuned to 'G' chord; all major chord are barre chords. Good for simple folk tunes and bluegrass. Used by Joni Mitchell and Keith Richards.
DADF#AD Tuned to 'D' chord - similar to above - shapes moved across.
EACGAD Tuned to Am7 - good for chordal and fingerstyle work - Nice chords are barres with the middle finger a semitone above on the bottom 'E' string.
CGCGCD This is a modal C tuning most notably used by the legendary Nic Jones on 'Penguin Eggs' - although I had been meddling with it by default before I was aware of that fact. It is primarily a fingerstyle tuning of fifths with an added natural ninth at the top. This makes it very conducive to some of the more plaintive folk melodies as it has lots of rich harmonic voicings and a couple of compulsory ringing strings at the top end to give that melancholic drone - but in a much more rounded way than say, the whole guitar being tuned to fifths eg. D,G,D,G,G,D. Most of the shapes tend to be two-fingered and work (as you would guess) in different combinations around the fretboard. For example you could play bass couplets on the A(G) & D(C) strings whilst letting the top strings drone away, or you can play bass and melody couplets on the E(C), D(C) & top E(D) strings whilst letting the open middle strings ring sympathetically etc. Fingerstyle playing asks you to play open strings to form the major scale, but if you prefer to strum or flatpick, stick to the two-fingered shapes mentioned above (and shown in the chord diagrams below).
The following is an article regarding open tunings that was published in Paul Brett's Acoustic Power magazine @2015.
'DROP THOSE STRINGS' - A General Guide To Open-Tunings On The Guitar.
Established players will certainly know what I am referring to, but ‘open-tunings’ for the guitar may or may not be unknown territory for many guitarists, particularly those at the start of what can be a wonderful journey.
In this article I will list several open tunings, some common and some not so known, but I will endeavour to explain their origins, why they were/are used, their overall efficacy in the grand scheme of things and any potential difficulties encountered in achieving them.
We know the guitar is ‘orchestrally’ tuned in a kind of system of ‘4th note in the scale’ intervals (with a middle 3rd) and we know this as STANDARD tuning - from 6th string to 1st string EADGBE. This is the tried and tested universal tuning for many good reasons. It is thought to have evolved from the lute maybe in the 15th century but it’s (known) configuration allows the most varied and expansive system of chord ‘voicings’ (notes played together) and step-pattern (distances between notes) note sequences outside of the piano. In many ways, it is the mobile piano.
So, why change it?
To answer this - or at least debate it, we need to look loosely at the many folk traditions around the world (blues, calypso, Celtic, Arabic etc) and their related stringed instruments, songs and tune structures. For the guitar to mimic the sound of certain ‘folk’ instruments, tunings become a necessary tool in achieving that simulation.
So, I will start by saying there are (fundamentally) three types of guitar tunings (other than STANDARD):
CHORDAL - Where the whole guitar is tuned to a chord so that played without fretting anything, it produces the sound of an open chord. The most well known of these are the open chords of G (DGDGBD - DGB remain the same as standard tuning but all the other strings go down one whole tone - or two frets) C (CGCGCE) D (DADFsharpAD) and A (EACSharpEAE). In all these tunings the essential ‘voice’ of the major triad is the key thing eg. ACsharpE are the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes drawn from the A major scale that makes the chord. Similarly, you could tune down to create minor chords eg Gm (DGDGBbD) or Dm (DADFAD). These are the 1st, flat 3rd and 5th of the scales (if you looked at any natural minor scale starting on the 6th measure of it’s sister major scale). Another nice, rich-sounding one is one that I invented called Am7. This is EACGAE (1st, flat 3rd, 5th and 7th)
It is thought that the chordal tunings became prevalent in the 19th century and they are probably most closely associated with Hawaiian music and the Blues. Certainly because some of the primitive guitars built or acquired by lowly 19th century Mississippi sharecroppers had very high actions, they were difficult to fret using conventional chords. It was far better to just play a single bar to give you your major chord. Or, better still, find something cylindrical (bottleneck, metal bar) and slide it across the strings holding and vibrating at set intervals to get the authentic sound of the Delta blues (ish!). Hawaiian music is based around the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 6th notes of the major scale, so in the case of G for example, the guitar would be tuned DGDGBE and single barre chords would be (mainly) utilised.
The most common users of chordal tunings in the modern era would be Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones who uses a 5-string guitar tuned DGDGB (think of ‘Honky Tonk Women’ and ‘Brown Sugar’) and perhaps Joni Mitchell whose most famous early songs ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ and the ‘Circle Game’ were written in DGDGBD.
Apart from playing single, index-fingered barre chords, most of the shapes in these chordal tunings tend to use two fingers - mainly either the index and middle, or index and ring - and can be picked or strummed as they pick up the open-string vibrations from the strings around them. They can be quite effective for allowing other strings to ‘drone’ whilst two-fingered sequences are played around them.
These tunings are great for the solo folk-style songwriter as they produce a big fat open sound.
They can however be limited in the sense that you have a consistent tonality running through them so writing all your songs in these tunings may make you sound one- dimensional - and perhaps over-reliant on the capo!
In terms of access, they are all fairly easy to tune to but it is worth remembering that you should always think to tune down first and, if you are tuning up, don’t go up more than a semi-tone or half-step. If your instrument is concert-pitched (to a piano - as most tend to be) you don’t want to apply too much tension in tuning strings beyond where they should be.
This maxim would apply to any tunings.
MODAL - This is where the guitar is tuned to the 1st and 5th notes of a scale with possibly an added 2nd (9th) interval or an added 4th. This creates an unresolved or suspended sound if played open and tunings like this are linked to the step patterns of modes eg. if C is the major scale Ionian mode on the (white notes of the) piano, then these tunings take a lead from the step patterns going from D to D (dorian), E to E (phrygian), F to F (lydian), G to G (mixolydian) A to A (aeolian) and B to B (locrian). This is simply to observe the step patterns (distances between notes) if only the white notes are played, and this can then be applied to any key.
These tunings can be dated back to the very earliest stringed instruments and are common to the Moroccan or Turkish oud. The modes generally omit the 3rd note in a normal major scale so any folk-type melody can be woven over what is effectively a drone. These tunings are great for everything from medieval music to heavy metal (same thing?!).
The most common of these tunings is DADGAD which is thought to have been - at least propagated into popular Western music by the late, legendary guitar maverick Davy Graham. It is easy to hear how the neutrality of such a tuning can allow you to thread together Celtic melodies - as well as Eastern and Arabic ones - all under the same fingers. It is essentially a linear finger-style tuning and you should (firstly) try to play a (positionally-correct) major scale in D, followed by a D minor scale. This would involve moving across the guitar using open strings as part of the scale(s). Apart from anything else, this is very redolent of the tonalities of a harp and so a whole world of traditionally-based music can be opened up to you where open strings ring in the wake of the previous note of the melody. Often single fingers or two-fingered shapes will do the trick, but remember, much is there without you having to work too hard.
Also try to avoid strumming DADGAD. Yes, I know it can be great fun and people recommend it in backing Celtic/Irish tunes, but it rather overlooks two key things: DADGAD is primarily a finger-style tuning (think open, ringing strings) AND Celtic tunes can be very effectively strummed/backed in standard tuning.
Other popular modal-type tunings are variants of DADGAD and (from bottom to top, 6th to 1st as usual) some of these are DGDGAD, CGDGAD, CGCGCD, EADEAE, DADEAE and DGDGCD. All of these are primarily finger-style tunings and most are connected to the concept of modes. They are very effective when tackling traditional folk melodies from across the spectrum and can be very inspiring when writing songs as you can easily morph from major into minor due to the unresolved - or suspended - nature of the open strings.
Again we need to look out for everything sounding too similar. Other drawbacks mean that genres such as Jazz are difficult to approach because the sharp 9ths and flat 5ths common to much of what we classify as Jazz will clash with the open strings. However if you listen to French/Algerian master Pierre Bensusan, yet another theory goes out of the window!
If you DO have an appetite for knocking seven bells out of your guitar through strumming then it is also possible to simulate instruments such as citterns, bouzoukis, guitarras and mandolas by tuning your guitar to a chord of 5ths where you can strum away and flat-pick bits of melody at the same time. Some of these would be DADAAD, DGDGGD, EEEEBE, EAEEAE. All of these are great when simulating the Highland pipes but be careful not to use the capo too much or get stuck in a rut.
Again all these tunings are fairly easy to get to but remember - always think ‘will it go down?’ before you take it up.
INDIVIDUAL SUPPORT NOTES - These are basically all the tunings that would be difficult to readily fit into the above categories and many can be attributed to the new wave of percussive guitarists who are storming the Internet and beyond. Think Andy McKee, Antoine Dufour and Thomas Leeb amongst others. They are all very gifted players but (they) have tailored a percussive and harmonic approach to a new style of (mainly) self-written material that will sometimes be crucially built around one or two changed notes.
Having said all of that, the most common of the ISN tunings is good old dropped D where you simply take the bottom E down a whole tone to D. This facilitates playing better in the key of D as you now have a supportive low bass note. It is both conducive to picking and strumming - although picking will probably win the day, and there are even some classical pieces in this tuning.
There are many other variants: CADGBE, EACsharpGAE, DADGBD (double dropped D), EADGAE etc; and these are just the ones with one or two note changes!
There are many crazy ones tried and tested by some of the guys mentioned above so it might be an idea to check out their websites or just trawl around online for more information.
Here are some that I have come across/used/stumbled upon/found online etc etc:
DGDGBC, CGCGCB, BADGAD, BbFCGAE (three keys tuning!), CGCGBC, CGFFCD (John Martyn).
All I can say is that tunings are at their best when you are searching for a different ‘voicing’ or are trying to simulate the sound of traditional instruments or play the Delta Blues. Most tunings take to finger-style playing better than strumming, but hey, who am I to say?!
Experiment, take your time, try to LISTEN to everything and have some fun but remember, try to become as familiar as you can with standard tuning. Not only is it the ‘King’ tuning but if you can play well in standard, then noodling around in open-tunings will be a whole lot easier!
Phil Hare - Professional Acoustic Guitarist, Writer and Performer (January 2015)