Open Tuning Tutorial/Reference

Introduction

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.

Joni Mitchell has said that she used 51 different tunings in her music over the years!

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.

Another good article on Open Tunings is Pat Kirtley's article on Alternate Tunings for Guitar.

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 that's final!

Tuning Reference

The Open Tuning Tutorials will open up as a separate window with its own navigation bars.   They require a browser that supports frames.

 

Skill Level Required For These Tutorials

I have tried to tailor these tutorials to the following type of guitar player.

  • Someone who is already a fingerstyle player, either classical or contemporary
  • Someone who already is familiar with the chords and note positions in the standard tuning and is ready to move further
  • Someone who has a basic understanding of TAB notation or Standard notation

DefinitionsGo to Top

  • Open Tuning - An open tuning is defined as one that forms a major chord when all the strings are played open (no strings fretted by the left hand).
  • Alternate Tuning - An Alternate tuning does not form a major chord when all strings are played open, although the open strings may form a chord.

General Tips for Learning Open/Alternate Tunings

Tip 1Don'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.

Tip 2Memorize or write at least one piece in the tuning and learn it to perfection.

There isn't 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 learning process.

Tip 3Run 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. 

Tip 4Attempt to learn an alternate key in each tuning. Go to Top

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.

 

Composing in Open Tunings

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.

Tip 1First 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.

Tip 2Most (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.

Suggestion: 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:

soundbtn.gif (1343 bytes) "Theme A" soundbtn.gif (1343 bytes) "Theme B"
soundbtn.gif (1343 bytes) "Theme C" soundbtn.gif (1343 bytes) "Theme D"

Tip 3So 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.

Example: 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.

soundbtn.gif (1343 bytes) "Theme A" soundbtn.gif (1343 bytes) "A variation"
soundbtn.gif (1343 bytes) "Intro"

Tip 4Setting 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.

Example:

"Joey" was 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.

Tip 5Capture 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.

Example:  Here is the song "Joey" and its TAB in its entirety:

soundbtn.gif (1343 bytes)  "Joey", by Paul Kucharski TAB for JoeyTAB 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.
  • All the 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. 

Good Luck!

 

Kucharski's Fingerstyle Guitar copyright 1998 Paul Kucharski.Go to Top
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