The idea of open tuning confuses some of my Brooklyn students at first. This is die to the fact we’re fed the idea of standard tuning. In reality, standard tuning is nothing but a different open tuning.
Standard tuning could be considered an E minor 11 chord. When ewe consider that, the idea of tuning a guitar to an E major chord doesn’t seem so bad.
There are many parts of the world that6 don’t use “standard” tuning as a default. There are forms of music in America that don’t even use standard tuning as a default.
If we look at Delta Blues guitarists that play slide, we’ll notice a variety of open tunings.
Open tunings are great because they allow you to play all the strings open and hear a pleasing sound. When you play all six strings open on a “standard” tuned guitar, it doesn’t make your heart swoon.
One there reason Delta Blues guitarists gravitated towards open tunings is because of the slide. Placing your guitar in Open E allows you to place the slide straight over the strings and not have dissonant tones.
When you play slide in standard tuning, you have to be pretty careful about muting strings whose pitch may clash with the chord.
There are side guitarists that don’t tune to open tunings and prefer to mute. These guitarists are usually only playing on one or two strings at a time.
Because Delta Blues was primarily solo instrumentalists, they wanted a bigger sound. This means needing to play more strings at the same time.
Lets look at two guitarists that helped pave the way for slide guitar in Open Tunings.
Bukka White used open tunings and didn’t mute on his picking hand very much while he was playing.
Elmore James was another guitarists that made great use of all the strings resonating hits a slide. It is Elmore that was a big influence on Duane Allman’s style and tuning preference.
Father and Son
Duane used Open E tuning quite a bit. As far as intervals are concerned, the construction is very similar to Open D (Elmore James favorite tuning). Open E is all string tuned a whole step higher then Open D.
Here is Open D Tuning from low to high:
D A D F# A D
Open E Tuning low to high:
E B E G# B E
Let’s look at the intervals in relation to an E major chord. An E major chord is:
E G# B.
Now, let’s compare with the guitar tuning.
The Low E string is playing a root. The A string is playing a 5th. The D string is playing root. The G string is playing a Major 3rd. The B string is playing a 5th. The high E string is playing a root.
This awareness of the intervals in relation to the chord is going to come in very handy later when we’re playing over chord changes.
Most people are frightened by the fact they may have to relearn all the notes on the guitar neck. I can relate to this. It wasn’t an easy task the first time around. Who wants to repeat that?
Don’t stress too much. It’s to your advantage to learn the guitar neck in this new tuning, but that can be a project over time.
There are a few temporary shortcuts to get you jamming. It has to do with knowing the intervals of the chord. if you’ve developed some knowledge of theory, you’re going to put it to good use.
Over time I’ve made mental notes of the kind of sounds I like and the recipes got create them. Since I now the theory recipes, I can move them around.
For instance, there is a big interplay in rock, country and blues with the 3rd of the chord. Sometimes we play a minor 3rd against a major chord.
If I know where the 3rd of a chord is for an open tuning I can easily float back and forth between major and minor.
I can expand this to trace any chord on the guitar neck in a few easy steps.
Easy Road Home
It’s a misconception to think that tuning to Open E or any other tuning is cheating. There are sounds that simply can’t be achieved without an open tuning.
If you look closely at Open E, you will see interval relationships between strings that would not be possible without tuning.
For slide guitar, open tunings are your best friend. It’s possible in your career you may even learn to play in more then one. A lot of slide players also use Open G tuning. They each have their own distinctive sound.
Open E is definitely a requirement for getting some of that Allman Brothers “Duane” flavor. Even Duane didn’t exclusively use this tuning though.
Interested in digging deeper into slide guitar and open tunings? I offer in person, Skype or pre-tapped lessons.