Monday, October 12, 2009

What Is Open Tuning and Why Use It?

I took up a project to learn some of the 29 titles making up Robert Johnson’s entire recording legacy. Most people know Robert Johnson due to the “selling his soul to the devil at the cross roads” legend. What threw me was reading about “The Tunings”; Open A, Open E, Open Em, Open G, and Aadd9 – “Mystery Tuning.” Isn't open tuning a shortcut to make it easier to play chords on the guitar? What was a groundbreaker like Robert Johnson doing messing around with open tuning?

Standard tuning that we are all familiar with gives you easy chord fingerings along with ability to play scales with minimal left hand movement; just think about our favorite Form 5 Pentatonic Scale pattern and all the licks you can get out of that! Open tuning on the other hand is simply tuning each string on your guitar to represent a chord without fretting any of the strings (one reason this tuning is popular with slide players). You can then play other chords by barring across each fret, which is why I previously thought open tuning is just a shortcut.

I started my open tuning adventure with Aadd9 (Eb-Bb-Eb-Ab-C-Eb) for “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and first thing I found out is a lot goes on in the Robert Johnson guitar style. If I were to play the bass string boogie patterns on one track and then record the high string licks on another track and mix them in Garage Band I could play these tunes easily using standard tuning. Playing both parts simultaneously is the point though and that is where open tuning comes into play.

The open tuning allows you to use one finger to bar across the fretboard to play double stops that would require two fingers with standard tuning. Harmonies in 3rds, 9ths, and 10ths are literally right at your fingertips. Use of the open tuning makes the piece actually playable, albeit with lots of practice; even for short fingered people.

If you want to take your guitar hobby in a new direction give some of these open tunings a try. It is a great way to experience the versatility of the guitar and gain a sense for the creativity of the artists that play it. This could be a shortcut to a new dimension to your playing instead of simply a shortcut for easy chords.


Kyle said...

I'll be sure to try some of those open tunings and experiment. Right now I'm only familiar with standard and open E but I'm always open to new ideas. Thanks

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