My very first guitar lessons were jazz and classical. I didn’t know any better. I signed up for lessons at the local mom-and-pop guitar shop, and they gave me to the older teacher (by older, I mean, probably late 30s, early 40s). All of the other teachers were early to mid-20s.
Now, he was a great player, a helluva nice guy, and a terrific teacher. But he wasn’t a rock guy. I was disappointed because my friends were playing rock licks and riffs and I was playing Sor, Carcassi, and Giuliani. The triumvirate of beginning classical guitar composers.
I didn’t know that, in the year that I studied with him, I would learn enough about music and music theory that would carry me through till today. I owe him a particular debt of gratitude.
His name was Joe, and, amongst many other attributes, he was a curmudgeon and a trickster. Upon hearing The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” I immediately wanted to learn it.
He barked at me, “I’ll teach you enough about music that you’ll be able to figure it out on your own and not pester me with your foolhardy proclivities.” Yes, he was also a wordsmith.
Nonetheless, he did listen to the song and offhandedly noised, “Open-G tuning.” It wasn’t much, but it was enough, and it was a start. But, what is Open-G Tuning?
What is open tuning?
Before we get to open-G, we need to discuss open tuning. It’s also referred to as alternate tuning in some circles. In general, both terms mean anything other than standard tuning.
But, more specifically:
- Open tuning means that when you play all of the strings open, they form a chord. The chord formed is major, minor, or suspended in most cases. For example, Open-D, Open-A, Open-Dm, Open-Am, Open-Csus2, etc.
- Alternate tuning means that you begin with standard tuning and retune one or more strings. And in this case, it does not form a chord when all open strings are strummed. For example, Drop-D, Double-Drop-D, Drop-C, etc.
An entire subculture of guitarists dedicates themselves to exploring open and altered tunings. Many of them explore and create new tunings based on their specific needs when creating a song arrangement or discovering different sonic possibilities. You’d probably be surprised to find out that many of your favorite players use other tunings.
Brief History About Open Tunings
Before the 19th century, the guitar followed the lute-tuning standard. This was basically the same as standard tuning with the third-string tuned down a half step, from G to F#. So, from lowest to highest, the notes are tuned to E-A-D-F#-B-E. During the 1800s, the standard that we have come to know and use today is E-A-D-G-B-E.
That being said, guitar pieces in open-tunings were published in the 1800s in two popular open-tunings:
- Vestapol Tuning: Better known as Open-D, D-A-D-F#-A-D.
- Spanish Tuning: Better known as Open-G, D-G-D-G-B-D
These open-tunings became favored for many reasons, but I’ll narrow it down to the three most tangible:
- They allowed the player to execute chords and chord changes with relative ease. It’s also easier to create a pleasant-sounding chord by barring with one finger than coordinating two or more fingers.
- One- or two-finger-chord combinations with open strings create interesting sounds.
- In the case of blues players, they could use a slide across all six strings to create chords and mournful single-string, vocal-like melodies.
Many players explored open-tunings during the 20th century and created richer-sounding tunings with suspended open-chord textures.
We’re going to dig into the magic created by Open-G Tuning. Let’s get into it.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Open-G Tuning
Open-G tuning has quite a history. As I mentioned in the previous section, Open-G is also referred to as “Spanish” tuning. This comes from a 19th-century piece in Open-G tuning called “Spanish Fandango.”
During the 1800s, open-G gained popularity along with the parlor-sized guitar movement. The parlor-sized guitar is a smaller-sized, steel-string acoustic. These guitars were fashionable for their comfortability and playability. They also provided a balanced tone across all six strings when plucked by the fingers.
Blues players of the early 1900s also accepted this tuning for its adaptability to the slide. Open-G has also transitioned nicely into the 21st century with the popularity of 1992’s Unplugged (Eric Clapton album), which uses open-G tuning on several songs.
Tuning from Standard to Open-G
Getting into Open-G tuning is easy. Three strings stay the same, and three get retuned. The three strings that stay the same are the 4th, 3rd, and 2nd strings. This leaves the 6th, 5th, and 1st strings, and they all get retuned down a whole step.
Take a look at the chart below for a string-by-string breakdown.
|1||E||Lower one whole step||D|
|2||B||Stays the same||B|
|3||G||Stays the same||G|
|4||D||Stays the same||D|
|5||A||Lower one whole step||G|
|6||E||Lower one whole step||D|
Many players will simply retune the guitar to itself. And players who are exploring open-tunings for the first time will use this method as they are already familiar with this system.
This is also known as relative tuning in that the guitar does not have to be perfectly in tune to concert pitch (A = 440 Hz). The guitar can be tuned to itself by using this method.
- Use the 6th string, 5th fret G note as a reference, and tune the 5th-string, open G to it.
- Use the 5th string, 7th fret D note as a reference, adjust the 4th-string, open D to it.
- Use the 4th string, 5th fret G note as a reference, and tune the 3rd-string, open G to it.
- Use the 3rd string, 4th fret B note as a reference, adjust the 2nd-string, open B to it.
- Use the 2nd string, 3rd fret D note as a reference, and tune the 1st-string, open D to it.
This system is favored by more seasoned players.
This is also a method for relative tuning. And many players will use octaves to get into open-G or check their tuning and make some last-minute adjustments if necessary. I’ll describe this beginning with a standard-tuned guitar.
- Use the 4th string, open-D note as a reference, and tune the 1st-string and the 6th-string, open to it. Remember, the 1st, 4th, and 6th strings are all D’s.
- Use the 3rd string, open-G note as a reference, and tune the 5th-string, open to it.
This gets you into open-G tuning. Use the chart above to check your tuning.
- The 1st, 4th, and 6th strings are all D’s.
- The 3rd and 5th strings are G’s. You can add the 1st string, 5th fret to this.
- The 4th-string open and 2nd string, 3rd fret are both D’s.
- The 3rd-string open and 2nd string, 8th fret are both G’s.
- The 6th string, 9th fret; 4th string, 9th fret, and 2nd string, 12th fret are all B’s.
- The 4th string, 12th fret and the 1st string, 12th fret are D’s.
You can begin using the octaves slowly to check your tuning, and soon you’ll find that they’ve become second nature.
Scales in Open-G Tuning
Scales are fundamental building blocks of your musical vocabulary and the perfect way to explore new tunings. Since you’ve retuned your guitar, many of your favorite finger patterns will need minor tweaking.
Here, I’ll share three popular positions that span the fretboard with you. These are finger patterns that cover:
- Position 1: The Low Part of the Neck
- Position 2: The Middle Part of the Neck
- Position 3: The High Part of the Neck
- Cascade: The Scale the Way the Pros Use It. This is the waterfall scale that begins in the middle area of the fretboard and works its way down to the G (5th string, open). The pattern takes advantage of the open strings. If you allow the open strings to ring out (as you continue the pattern), the result will create a waterfall effect.
G Major Major Scale Patterns
G Major Scale Position 1
Playing Tips for Position 1
Play in 2nd position (your 1st finger at the 2nd fret, 2nd finger at the 3rd fret, 3rd finger at the 4th fret, and 4th finger at the 5th fret).
I’ll write the fingering tips from the 6th string but feel free to begin from the 5th string, open.
- 6th string: Left hand fingers in 2nd position will be open-1-3, playing frets 0-2-4.
- 5th string: LH fingers (2nd position) open-1-3-4, frets 0-2-4-5.
- 4th string: LH fingers (2nd position) open-1-3, frets 0-2-4.
- 3rd string: LH fingers (2nd position) open-1, frets 0-2.
- 2nd string: LH fingers shift to 1st position (momentarily) open-1, frets 0-1.
- 1st string: LH fingers (shift up to 2nd position) open-1-3-4, frets 0-2-4-5.
G Major Scale Position 2
Playing Tips for Position 2
Play in 5th position (your 1st finger at the 5th fret, stretch your 2nd finger to the 7th fret, 3rd finger at the 8th fret, and 4th finger at the 9th fret).
- 6th string: Left hand fingers in 5th position will be 1-2s-4, playing frets 5-7-9.
- 5th string: LH fingers (5th position) 1-2s-4, frets 5-7-9.
- 4th string: LH fingers (shift down to 4th position) 1-2-4, frets 4-5-7.
- 3rd string: LH fingers (4th position) 1-2-4, frets 4-5-7.
- 2nd string: LH fingers (shift up to 5th position) 1-3-4, frets 5-7-8.
- 1st string: LH fingers (shift up to 7th position) 1-3, frets 7-9. Then shift up (10th position) 1-3, frets 10-12.
G Major Scale Position 3
Playing Tips for Position 3
This one is tricky and, if you’re experimenting with this, you may come up with your own pattern solutions. Position 3 includes multiple position shifts, finger stretches, and 1st-string position slides to execute. You can choose between the 1st and 4th fingers to execute the 1st-string slides.
Begin at the 9th Position for the 6th and 5th strings then shift down to 7th Position for the 4th and 3rd strings. Shift up to 8th Position for the 2nd string and up to 10th Position for the 1st string.
- 6th string: Left hand fingers in 9th position will be 1-2-4, playing frets 9-10-12.
- 5th string: LH fingers (9th position) 1-3-4, frets 9-11-12.
- 4th string: LH fingers (shift down to 7th position) 1-3-4, frets 7-9-10.
- 3rd string: LH fingers (7th position and stretch with the 4th finger) 1-3-4s, frets 7-9-11
- 2nd string: LH fingers (shift to 8th position) 1-2s-4, frets 8-10-12.
- 1st string: LH fingers (shift to 10th position) 1-2s-4-4-4, frets 10-12-14-16-17.
- 1st string: LH fingers (shift to 10th position) 1-1-1-3-4, frets 10-12-14-16-17.
G Major Scale (Cascade)
Playing Tips for Cascade
Begin at the 7th Position for 1st and 2nd strings. Shift to 5th Position for the 3rd string after the 9th fret. When you hit the 4th string, use your 1st finger to shift down to the 2nd position.
- 1st string: LH fingers (7th position) will be 3-1, playing frets 9-7.
- 2nd string: LH fingers (7th position) 2-1, frets 8-7.
- 3rd string: LH fingers (7th position) 3, fret 9. Followed by 1st string open.
- 3rd string: LH fingers (shift to 5th position) 1, fret 5. Followed by 2nd string open.
- 4th string: LH fingers (5th position) 3, fret 7. Followed by 3rd string open.
- 4th string: LH fingers (4th position, use the 1st finger to slide down to 2nd position) 1-1, frets 4-2. Followed by the 4th string open.
- 5th string: LH fingers (2nd position) 4-3-1-open, frets 5-4-2-0.
Final Scale Tip
Although you may want to work through these scales quickly, I suggest that you focus on one bullet point at a time. The devil is in the details. Your muscle memory will fight you if you’ve been playing in standard tuning for a while.
Take your time, use a metronome, and begin with one bullet point. Then work on two bullet points. When you can play them from memory to the metronome, add another bullet point and then another.
Chords in Open-G Tuning
Scales are one of your musical vocabulary building blocks, and we just finished discussing them. Chords are the other essential element of your guitar-playing foundation.
The beauty of chords in open tunings is the interesting sounds that you can create using a combination of fretted notes and open strings.
In this section, I’ll guide you through some must-know chord voicings that will make your exploration of the Open-G Tuning enjoyable.
Although all of the open strings form a G chord, this should not be the only G chord that you have available to you. Here are 5 popular G voicings that you should have at the ready.
A fun way to begin is combining different voicings and creating chord riffs. Have at it.
The major 7 sound adds mystery to the basic, major-triad sound. Again, mix and match these voicings with the major triads from the section above. Create chord riffs and have fun.
If the blues sound is what you’re after, then you’re going to need to arm yourself with these dominant 7 chords. The 3rd chord was a favorite of “The King of the Delta Blues Singers,” Robert Johnson.
Play that chord with the 5th and 1st strings ringing. Slide it down one fret and bring it back. That’s a signature Robert Johnson move, and it didn’t even cost you your soul.
Interesting Read: How to Find the Best Delta Blues Guitars.
Now that you have many chord choices to choose from, you’re going to need another chord to move to. This is where the IV chord comes in, and, in the key of G, the IV chord is the C chord.
Here’s a handful of C chords. And, as before, strum some G chords then switch to a C chord. Create your own chord riffs and hum a melody. Whatever comes into your head.
Let’s complete a cycle by adding a V chord. Here’s another handful of chords. In the key of G, D is the V chord. Play a G to a C to a D and back to a G; G–C–D–G. Now you have the makings of a song. Hum and strum along.
Adding the Em to your chord progression will give you the power to play radio-friendly pop tunes. Most pop tunes follow the I–IV–V-VIm progression or some variation and combination of these chords.
The I–IV–V-VIm translates to G–C–D–Em. You can use the Am as a substitute for C, and Bm as a substitute for G. Now, cancel your Netflix subscription and get to strumming.
50 Rock and Blues Tunes in Open-G Tuning
I figured you’d like to know what popular tunes are in Open-G Tuning. These will give you some ideas of what’s possible in this tuning. There’s a little something here for everyone, from traditional blues tunes to classic rock, modern pop, and everything in between.
The list is laid out as such: “Song Title” by Artist, Album
- “Rolling’ and Tumblin’” by Eric Clapton, Unplugged
- “Walkin’ Blues” by Eric Clapton, Unplugged
- “Running on Faith” by Eric Clapton, Unplugged
- “Terraplane Blues” by Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings
- “Crossroad Blues” by Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings
- “Walkin’ Blues” by Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings
- “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” by Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings
- “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” by Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings
- “Stones in My Passway” by Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings
- “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues” by Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings
- “Traveling Riverside Blues” by Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings
- “Milkcow’s Calf Blues” by Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings
- “Come On in My Kitchen” by Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings
- “Honky Tonk Woman” by the Rolling Stones, The Rolling Stones 1963–1971
- “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones, Tattoo You
- “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones, Let It Bleed
- “Tumbling Dice” by the Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street
- “Jumping Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones, The Rolling Stones 1963–1971
- “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers
- “Goin’ to California” by Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV
- “Dancing Days” by Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy
- “Black Country Woman” by Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti
- “That’s the Way” by Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin III
- “Romeo and Juliet” by Dire Straits, Making Movies
- “Hard to Handle” by The Black Crowes, Shake Your Money Maker
- “Jealous Again” by The Black Crowes, Shake Your Money Maker
- “Twice as Hard” by The Black Crowes, Shake Your Money Maker
- “Show Me the Way” by Peter Frampton, Comes Alive
- “Water Song” by Jorma Kaukonen, Burgers (Hot Tuna)
- “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood, Bad to the Bone
- “Gear Jammer” by George Thorogood, Maverick
- “Death Letter” by The White Stripes, De Stijl
- “Daughter” by Pearl Jam, Vs.
- “Fearless” by Pink Floyd, Meddle
- “Hello, I’m in Delaware” by City and Colour, Sometimes
- “Elephants” by Them Crooked Vultures, Them Crooked Vultures
- “Sedona” by Houndmouth, Little Neon Limelight
- “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” by Cage the Elephant, Cage the Elephant
- “A Day in the Life” by Jeff Beck, Performing This Week… Live at Ronnie Scott’s
- “Black Door” by The Black Keys, Magic Potion
- “Troubles Will Be Gone” by The Tallest Man on Earth, The Wild Hunt
- “Leading Me Now” by The Tallest Man on Earth, There’s No Leaving Now
- “Mercy” by Duffy, Rockferry
- “Watch Over You” by Alter Bridge, Blackbird
- “Wonderful Life” by Alter Bridge, AB III
- “Acorn Factory” by The Dodos, Time to Die
- “I Feel Like Goin’ Home” by Muddy Waters, King Bee
- “I Can’t Be Satisfied” by Muddy Waters, Anthology
- “Uprising” by Muse, The Resistance
- “Who’s Behind the Door” by Zebra, Zebra
There are two main categories of related tunings to Open-G Tuning.
- Modes of G: These alter the 2nd string. I’ve also added the G6 (sometimes referred to as Drop-DG) and Gm6 tunings. The latter two use an unaltered 1st string.
- Drop-CG or Low-C Tunings: These C-Bass tunings are Open-G and Open-G6 with the 6th string tuned down to C. These offer the root of the IV chord on the 6th sting, open.
|Tuning Name||Tuning (Low to High)||Category|
|Open-Gm||D-G-D-G-Bb-D||Modes of G|
|Open-Gsus4||D-G-D-G-C-D||Modes of G|
|Open-Gadd9||D-G-D-G-A-D||Modes of G|
|Open-G6||D-G-D-G-B-E||Modes of G|
|Open-Gm6||D-G-D-G-Bb-E||Modes of G|
If you want to explore these tunings, use this lesson as a roadmap. Here’s a quick review:
- Find the G major scale patterns.
- Chart out the I–IV–V chords and begin strumming.
- Add minor chords when you’re ready.
Well, I hope that you’ve enjoyed our exploration into Open-G Tuning. My goal was to introduce you to this tuning and provide scales, chords, and information that may inspire you to continue down the road of open tunings.
By the way, my teacher, Joe, fooled me. Many years after our lessons, I saw footage of Paul McCartney recording “Blackbird.” He was playing it in standard tuning and not Open-G Tuning. But, rather than be resentful of him, I smiled to myself and remembered our lessons.
He inspired me to explore the tuning, and I discovered that “Blackbird” is more accessible in Open-G than in standard. I wonder if he knew that!
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