These pages are being offered as
an introduction to the exciting world of Open Tunings. It is my intent
that these pages be a reference to those just starting out in open
tunings and those exploring new ones. Initially these pages will only
cover some of more frequently used tunings, but the number of tunings
possible are only limited by your imagination.
has said that she used 51 different tunings in her music over the
Anyone who has heard John Fahey,
Leo Kottke, Michael Hedges, and countless other contemporary guitarists
and marveled at the sound may not be aware that an Open Tuning was being
used. But all these artists have recognized the variety that is possible
from mastering non-standard tunings. In fact, I would go so far as to
say that anybody who is serious about playing or composing contemporary
fingerstyle instrumental guitar music would be doing themselves an
injustice if they did not explore what Open Tunings can offer.
So pick a tuning and go on in. I
hope you find this world as exciting as I have over the years and I
promise that if you learn to master these tunings it will add a whole
new dimension in your playing. But if not, you can't have your money back, and
Don't attempt to learn more than one
tuning at a time.
Pick a tuning
and stick to that one until you are fully comfortable with it. You are
likely get overly confused if you attempt to learn more than one
change in the fretboard at a time. This isn't much different than
attempting to learn a particular key scale in standard tuning.
Memorize or write at least one piece
in the tuning and learn it to perfection.
much point in learning the tuning unless you can go there and play
something in it. It will give you a sense of accomplishment when you
complete it and it will prevent you from getting bored during the
Run through the scales in a tuning at
least once each practice session.
I'm sure we all
know how boring scale exercises are, but knowing your way around the
fretboard is essential for improvisation. And composing new music in
many cases is 50% improvisation.
Attempt to learn an alternate key in
It may be
useful in composition to change the feel of a piece by modifying the
key. If you learn a companion key, you can use it to your advantage
when needed. In Open tunings, this is difficult because the tuning is
optimized for a particular key. But in alternate tunings such as
DADGAD, this isn't the case.
Writing your own music is not as
difficult as you think. As with most things, it requires some
discipline and forethought. It is definitely easier to play your
own songs than it is to play songs you've learned from books or friends
because while creating the song you improvise on your own skill level.
You may also think that to write
your own music you need to know all kinds of music theory. But
music theory, while essential for understanding musical construction,
isn't really required for creating
music. Music theory puts a logical structure on music which allows
us to analyze and categorize it, but by its very definition, it can
actually hinder the creative process. Its a left brain
function (verbal/analytical side of the mind) and the creative process
is a right brain function (spatial/holistic/artistic side of the
mind). If you go into the creative process without an analytical mind set, you are
free to find a musical expression "outside the box"; ideas you
may not have discovered otherwise.
Now that isn't to say that music
theory isn't important...it is. In fact, the more theory you
know, the better, but the more you can free your mind of it while creating, the better....just don't
use drugs to do it :) I will point out below were you could
use it to your advantage.
So let's give it a try. As
we go through the steps, I'll provide an example to help
illustrate each concept.
First we need to decide what tuning to create in.
Standard tuning can be a good
starting point, but since this is an Open Tuning tutorial, I propose
you try something in an Open Tuning, like DADF#AD. For one
thing, I think you'll find it easier to explore new musical ideas in
an Open Tuning. Open Tunings lend themselves quite well to free
form "musical discovery" as John Fahey has stated in his
writing on the subject (see Les
Weller's essay on American Primitive Guitar).
One reason for this is that
open tunings are optimized for a particular key and the music can
resolve itself to open strings in that key. Writing music
in standard tuning usually requires that you fret every note and open
strings are generally used sparingly. This usually means you
need to think more about
the key you are in and where you want to take the music; that music
theory thing again. In Open Tunings, the opposite is
frequently the case, and in fact, the open strings can offer some
surprisingly refreshing sounds.
Most (if not all) songs are built from sub-parts. Step
two is to build these parts.
This is were your creativity
comes in. Explore the new tuning. Some of your old
fingerings may work, but will sound very different. See if you
can "discover" five or six chords that you can use as basic
material; but try not to restrict yourself too much with this.
Use these chords to improvise from. Let your ears be your
guide. If it sounds
good to you, go with it.
If you've decided to compose in Open D, look through the chord
charts and fretboard diagrams provided in the Open D section and
find something that sounds interesting, or go to
Mary McCaslin's page
and try some of the chords she lists there.
The goal is to find two themes
of about two or three measures in length that are different but have
something in common in terms of atmosphere. We'll call them
A and B.
Example: To help clarify the above
information, lets go through an example. I have broken down my
Open D composition "Joey" into its 4 basic themes. Listen
to each component:
So far so good. You can now use A and B as building
blocks for your song.
To create something that keeps
the listener on his toes, you will need to expand these themes.
Again, start improvising and create two or three variations on these
themes. The variations can be very small, a note added here, an
inverted form of a chord, a rhythmic variation, a transposed form,
whatever sounds o.k. Try slides, pull-offs and hammer-ons
and see whether they add something. Approach one of the
central notes in your theme in a different way. Do the same with
Theme B until you end up with two or three variations of A (A1,A2,A3)
and two or three variations of B (B1, B2, B3). Now pick the
theme that has the potential to serve as an intro.
Here is Theme A from "Joey" again and a variation on Theme
A. Also, I decided to make my intro from Theme A as well.
Setting the structure.
The structure of a song is very
important; it determines its emotional impact. One
form that works very well is A1-A2-B1-A1-B2-A3. Again the
form you select will depend on the material you have. The last
part should have enough power to make a convincing
statement. In some cases the last will be derived from A
in others from B. You may need to experiment with different
forms before finalizing your structure. Some of the themes will
fit together effortlessly, others may need some bridge notes to make
them fit. Another way to improve the result is to watch for
tension and release moments in your themes. If these
moments are lacking, you may have to adjust some of your themes to
create more contrast and more of a question and answer feeling.
organized as follows:
Intro - A1 - A2 -
B1 - A2 - C - D - A2 - B1 - A2
Note that I repeated
A2 - B1 - A2 again after themes C and D.
Capture or memorize what you end up with.
If your song has the right
length, you are ready to finalize it. If not, expand the
structure to stretch it. One way to do this is to repeat
the first section once: (A1-A2-B1-A1) repeat B2-A3.
If you don't already have one,
you should seriously consider getting yourself an inexpensive Tab
software package like Guitar
Pro or TablEdit and capture
what you've settled on. For one thing, you'll find that it's
easier if you don't have to keep the whole thing in your head.
It's not at all uncommon to come up with a theme during one session,
and find another theme to go with it a week or a month later. I
frequently combine themes that were "discovered" months
apart. Before computers and TAB software, I couldn't begin to
tell you how much original work I forgot because I didn't take the
time to write it down. Having it on paper and tweaking a section
here and there is considerably easier if you can just call it up on
the screen and make the adjustments to what you had. Once its on
paper or on disk (with backups!), you can store it away and not worry
about forgetting it.
Here is the song "Joey" and its TAB in its entirety:
"Joey", by Paul Kucharski
TAB for "Joey"
(58K. pdf format)
When you listen to
"Joey" or look at the TAB, here is a few things to look for:
Theme B provides a
bit of dissonance to add tension to the piece, but gets resolved
by returning to Theme A.
Themes A and B are
constructed from 4 chords, and each chord form uses open strings
to provide interesting voicings.
Theme's C and D make
a significant break from the basic chord progression and
allows the music to move someplace different.
theme's resolve back to the D chord on the open strings.
Have a listen to the piece played on
a Larrivee Baritone
One last note on
"Joey". I wrote this piece over
20 years ago when I was just starting to explore Open Tunings myself
and my theoretical knowledge wasn't very far along. After
I wrote it, other than I knew it was in the key of D, I couldn't
tell you what chords I was playing, what the "chord
progression" was, or what "chord inversions" I was
using. I just knew I liked how it sounded. So if you don't have a
lot of musical theory background yet, don't let that stop you from
trying to compose your own music. Music is a
lifelong learning process and I still learn or discover something new
every time I pick up the guitar.
Open Tunings is whole
new frontier that will give you an almost unlimited palette to draw
from in your creative exploration of fingerstyle guitar. I
hope you've found this process useful and I would be interested to
hear what you come up with.