Exploring the world of open tunings on guitar

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In How to Write One Song, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy argues that inspiration has to be invited.

Rather than wait for lightning to strike, he encourages readers to develop and engage with a regular creative process, with the ultimate goal being ‘losing yourself’ in the work (something akin to being in a flow state).

For many songwriters, picking up the guitar is easy. Developing your sound, approach, and relationship with your instrument is where it gets complicated. Regardless of skill level, finding ways to reimagine the fretboard can offer a healthy perspective shift and keep you curious.

‘Alternate’ or ‘open’ tunings (any tuning that deviates from ‘standard’ tuning / EADGBE) have long served as a strategy to inspire new thoughts, deviate from ingrained picking patterns and chord structures, and infuse risk into your playing.

Below, we’ve spoken with five modern guitarists to uncover how, when, and why they utilize alternate tunings. You’ll be fully ready to dive in yourself by the time you’re done reading.

Resonance and counterpoint

William Tyler is a Nashville-based guitarist and composer. He cut his teeth recording and touring with Lambchop, Silver Jews, and many others before developing his own version of instrumental guitar music. Following an original score for Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow (2020), Tyler released New Vanitas, his latest EP for Merge Records showcasing his aptitude as both a multi-instrumentalist and a composer.

Does being in an open tuning shift the way you approach the instrument and / or your songwriting as a whole? How so?

Marisa Anderson has a great saying along the lines of “play the song, not the tuning.” I have absolutely found melodic shifts and moves that I never would have found if I was navigating standard tuning. The middle eight in my song “Sunken Garden” is an example of that. Joni Mitchell is my all-time hero in this field. The tunings guide you somewhat, but you still have to hear where the music is going.

What do open tunings allow that standard does not?

First of all, resonance. Sympathetic string resonance – it’s like going into HD from standard. Secondly, you get increased counterpoint without classically-trained dexterity; you can play the bass and treble melodies with more ease. Very few keys in standard tuning yield themselves to this – first position C is one, first position G is another. Standard tuning is actually a pretty odd way to teach someone music. It’s much less intuitive than the keyboard.

Tuning the guitar to some chord or chord variant liberates you to be more than just one player. The new language or grammar of each new tuning was a great and illuminating challenge to me.

Do you invent new tunings of your own?

Yes, but usually it’s a variant of a pretty tried-and-true one. I have one that is basically DADGAD but the high E remains the same, so it’s DADGAE.

How do you manage a live performance where you’re switching between many different tunings?

I hate when the logistics of limited guitars in a live setting dictates things. You can only have two or three guitars and the stress you put on the tuners, strings, and neck by shifting tunings a lot is just not feasible for a gig. I’ll use lighter strings and if it’s a more drastic tuning shift, the electric guitar is somewhat more sympathetic to it. I typically end up structuring the set around tuning up or down so to speak – from E down to C, or vice versa.

Pick one song from your latest release. Tell me which tuning you’re in and describe the mental image you have in your head as you listen back.

“She Swims in Hidden Water” off of New Vanitas is one of the rare tunes I wrote in standard. It’s a sad love song that has a kind of a swirling, plodding rhythm that you could be counting in 6/8 or 4/4. I try to play it by letting the bass strings ring out as long as possible like anchor notes, but the flow of it is like sailing a boat where you catch the wind just right and don’t have to paddle so much.

The rhythm in your right hand

Marisa Anderson is a composer and guitarist living in Portland, Oregon. Anderson’s playing is a remarkable combination of technicality and borderless creativity. Her work applies elements of minimalism, electronic music, drone, and 20th-century classical music to compositions based on blues, jazz, gospel, and country music, re-imagining the landscape of American music. Anderson’s most recent effort is The Quickening, an improvised duo album with drummer Jim White.

How did you first learn of open tunings? What drew you in?

I think I first found out about open tunings from studying the playing of Davey Graham and John Renbourn in a Mel Bay book. I was not curious about it at first, so I just tried to learn the tunes that were in standard or in drop D. Years later, I became interested in the playing of Blind Willie McTell and started playing in open D to learn a few of his songs.

I’ve come full circle and these days I primarily play in open D or D minor. I’ll also sometimes do a tuning that is EADF♯AD, which is the bass notes of standard tuning combined with the treble notes of open D. I use this tuning when I need a I – V relationship in the bass, or if I want to play in a key that requires a low E in the bass (A, Am, E, Em).

Do you associate certain tunings with specific emotions, moods, or genres?

Not really. I think all emotions, moods, and genres are accessible in whatever tuning you might find yourself… Those things live in the hands, not in the instrument. My left hand is only half of the equation. The right hand is my rhythm section, and it doesn’t care what the tuning is.

Pick one song from your latest release. Tell me which tuning you’re in and describe the mental image you have in your head as you listen back.

I listened to “The Lucky” from The Quickening. The mental image is of clouds gathering and rain starting to fall on a roof or into a bucket of water.

Confidence booster

Virginia’s Yasmin Williams is an experimental, acoustic fingerstyle guitarist. Her intricate use of alternate tunings, percussive hits, and lap tapping makes for a dynamic listen often missing from solo acoustic performances. Her second album, Urban Driftwood, was recently released on Spinster Sounds and has garnered high praise from NPR, Pitchfork, and The Washington Post.

What do open tunings allow that standard does not?

A common use of open tunings is to play drones, which is much easier to do in an open tuning. Open tunings are also quite useful for playing slide guitar. They allow for more open chords, which I use pretty heavily in my songs. The open chords like D or G are quite beautiful and are easy to play in terms of the physical action of moving between chord shapes. They also allow for more flexibility in creating melodic ideas with harmonics. Not only do harmonics sound amazing in open tunings, but they are also easier to play (i.e. slap and harp harmonics).

It also allows you to explore using capos in new ways, like using banjo capos to create a new tuning within the open tuning. Even playing scales can be more interesting since the open strings in certain tunings allow the player to play cascading scales or scales that use the open strings instead of the traditional scale fingering patterns found in standard.

Do you prefer open tunings or standard when collaborating with other players?

I usually use open tunings when collaborating with others since that’s what I’m most comfortable with. I rarely play in standard so I don’t think to use it in most situations unless I’m given a chart or a lead sheet. Even then, I would probably switch to an open tuning after studying the chart a bit to come up with more interesting chords to use or leads to play.

How might open tunings expand a novice guitarist or songwriter’s mind?

I didn’t know how to navigate standard tuning when I first started playing the guitar and, eventually, I learned before moving on. That’s how I think of open tunings – learning one just adds to your skillset. They don’t require extensive knowledge, or even any knowledge, of music theory and are no more challenging than standard tuning.

In fact, open tunings can open up many more avenues for playing in terms of adding unique colors to your chord progressions, so that beginners can sound good without much effort. The chord shapes in most open tunings are rather simple, sound great, and, when switching between tunings (i.e. from open D to modal D to open D minor), the chord shapes stay basically the same; simply strumming the open strings creates a chord.

When I was a beginner, it gave me a bit of a confidence boost to realize that it was pretty difficult to “sound bad” in open tunings, which is not necessarily the case with standard tuning. However, the tricky part, especially as a novice, is to figure out ways to create compelling compositions and not have songs start to sound alike (which can be a relatively easy trap to fall into with open tunings).

How do you manage a live performance where you’re switching between many different tunings?

I group songs together that have the same or similar tunings. For example, if I’m playing songs in open D (DADF♯AD), open G (DGDGBD), open D minor (DADFAD), and an F tuning (FACGBE), I’d play the open D songs first, then play the open D minor tunes, then the open G songs, ending with the song in the F tuning and making sure to tell some stories or jokes during the quick re-tunings. I also use GHS Silk and Steel strings, which have a light gauge and are very flexible with re-tuning.

Pick one song from your latest release. Tell me which tuning you’re in and describe the mental image you have in your head as you listen back.

In “Urban Driftwood,” I use open D minor (DADFAD) with a capo on the 7th fret. With the capo, this tuning matches well with the kora, a West African harp-like instrument I also play in the song, which uses a tuning called Silaba (similar to a western major scale). While listening to the song, I imagine relaxing in a calm state of mind, meditating on the past while planning for the future.

Discover your approach

Ryan Dugré is a freelance multi-instrumentalist living in Brooklyn, NY. He has been an active performing, recording, and touring member for Cass McCombs, Rubblebucket, Landlady, and Eleanor Friedberger. His solo music is composed of minimalist, guitar-led instrumentals that are patient, open, and free of unnecessary guitar bravado. Three Rivers, his latest LP, was recently released via 11A Records.

How did you first learn of open tunings? What drew you in?

If my memory serves me correct, it would be from Led Zeppelin. Like many guitarists my age, I had a Zeppelin phase. I liked it all but was particularly drawn to the understated acoustic numbers they had. Trying to figure out “Bron-Y-Aur” or “Rain Song” introduced me to the possibility of different tunings. I was attracted to the sound and the ability to use open strings in a new way.

Does being in an open tuning shift the way you approach the instrument and / or your songwriting as a whole?

Yes and no. Yes, because while using an alternate tuning, there are really no learned shapes. I am able to come at the guitar somewhat like a beginner and let my ear guide me. I can’t really use muscle memory or licks; it is more of a “discovering” kind of approach.

And no, because the way I write is more or less the same on any instrument. I improvise until I land on something that sounds interesting, and then I start developing the idea from there. This could be on the piano, in standard, or in any tuning. What I’m drawing from is all the music I’ve learned and listened to over the years.

How might open tunings expand a novice guitarist or songwriter’s mind?

This goes back to the “discovering” approach to playing. There is something really freeing about not knowing what you are doing. I think as long as the guitarist has the basic technique to make a good sound on the guitar, then experimenting with tunings can open up a lot of things.

How do you manage a live performance where you’re switching between many different tunings?

Good question. This is something that I’ve found very stressful to deal with on stage. Over time I’ve settled on having two guitars, and arranging the setlist so I’m at most re-tuning only one string between songs. This saves a lot of time and the guitar is more apt to stay in tune. Another way I’ve managed it is by not playing certain songs that are difficult tuning-wise to change to and from. I’d rather cut a song and be more focused on the performance than scrambling to get the guitar sounding good, which can sometimes take minutes but feels like hours when playing solo.

Pick one song from your latest release. Tell me which tuning you’re in and describe the mental image you have in your head as you listen back.

I’ll choose the last track, “Glace Bay.” It’s tuned to D♭B♭D♭A♭D♭E♭. I imagine sitting at a particular kitchen table in the month of May, looking northeast to the cabinets above the sink.

Space is the place

Andrew Tuttle is a songwriter, composer, and improviser from Brisbane, Australia. He has shared stages with Matmos, Julia Holter, Steve Gunn, Ryley Walker, Calexico, and many others. Tuttle’s output across his four studio albums for Room40 serve as a conduit for ambient and folk music. His latest LP, Alexandra, is a reflection of his hometown on the east coast of Australia and was primarily developed on banjo, acoustic guitar, and synthesizer.

How did you first learn of open tunings? What drew you in?

I first encountered open tunings when starting to get into Sonic Youth in my early teens. I dabbled with them a bit at the time, but I really started to explore open tunings in my early twenties, after a couple of years consciously away from the guitar (I had an awful band breakup, discovered synths, and got into underground rave culture). Earlier, I had probably considered open and alternate tunings a curio if not a hassle, but upon falling in love with the guitar again, I also fell in love with the possibilities of new writing methods.

Does being in an open tuning shift the way you approach the instrument or your songwriting as a whole?

Absolutely! It results in songwriting and improvising that have a much stronger focus on one key, rather than naturally allowing for key changes. The tone and decay of open tunings allow me to develop music that can feel really full, but that also allows me to develop space – something I’m always trying to improve at!

For my music, in particular, open tunings allow me to create drones, massed melodies, and counter-rhythms with the right hand on the string instrument, and also allow me to process these sounds live and in real-time. Composition, recording, and performance all influence each other, and the open tunings give me the space and depth to more fully realize what I do.

Do you associate certain tunings with specific emotions, moods, or genres?

To an extent. My albums are largely — and performances are almost exclusively — based on tunings that are fairly warm – open G, variants on open D, double C on banjo, open D, open G, open C on guitar, etc. Open and double C are both beautiful droney, ‘old-time’ tunings, open G has a country and bluegrass feel, and the D variations are ones that naturally nudge me towards playing slowly and carefully.

I occasionally find myself drifting towards CFCFCF, as I love the drones. However, I don’t like to write with it, as it is a bit ‘moody’ for my liking for live performance.

How do you manage a live performance where you’re switching between many different tunings?

With nerves and tension, ha! In the live set I’ve developed around Alexandra, I do lump certain songs together to sound more cohesive, and re-write songs to fit with the tunings I’ll be using. In the current set, even with this, there are still two tuning changes for guitar and one for banjo. Fortunately, live looping, fading in field recordings, and incorporating selected isolated stems from studio sessions allow me to do this without having to stop the set.

In Australia, flying is pretty much mandatory for touring due to the distance between cities where it’s viable to perform; however, that is offset by extremely generous luggage allowances (60 kg per person) for musicians from both of the major airlines.

Pick one song from your latest release. Tell me which tuning you’re in and describe the mental image you have in your head as you listen back.

“Sun At 5 In 4161” is one that really interests me! I don’t know the name of the tuning, but it is EBBF♯BE. It’s the guitar tuning from Matmos’ “Sun At 5 On 152.” I was fortunate enough to play this track — one of my all-time favorite songs by my all-time favorite band — live with Matmos at Unsound in Adelaide, Australia in 2018.

I fell in love with the tuning, and wrote a song about it while lazing around on the couch during a sticky and sweaty summer. My song title directly references the Matmos one, as well as the twilight and post code (4151) of Alexandra Hills, the suburb where I grew up that Alexandra is about.

When I perform it live, I adjust it to be in open D, with no capo. This obviously makes it sound different in this context, but makes it flow better in the set.

Do you have a question about alternate tunings or one you think others might enjoy? Leave them in the comments below.

March 2, 2021

Jeffrey Silverstein Jeffrey Silverstein is a musician, writer, and educator living in Portland, Oregon. He is also the host of Felt Time, a bi-weekly show (Tuesdays 7 pm - 9 pm PST) on Dune Buggy Radio.