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Why open tuning?

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Previous page: Major Chord Tunings Next page: Guitar Chord Progressions - index

Why open tuning?

There are two main reasons for re-tuning and de-tuning the guitar: Sound and convenience. Convenience may be split into several element. Sometimes one will re-tune the guitar to play something that is not possible in standard tuning. In standard tuning, you cannot go deeper than the low E. If you tune it down to D or C, you have access to deeper bass notes. When you tune to a chord, it is easy to play the primary chords of this particular key. If you tune your guitar to Open-D, you have a D-major chord on open strings. If you will play the IV-chord, G-major, you can simply bar all strings in 5th fret. Move your barré up two frets to 7th fret, and you have the V-chord, A-major. This is why slide players usually tune to an open chord tuning: You get a chord by holding the slide across all strings.

It is not possible to go below the low E-sting without re-tuning. But apart from that, the line between the possible and the impossible is mainly drawn by our (lack of) technique. What is impossible to me might be a piece of cake for Al Di Meola or John Williams. But by re-tuning, some arrangements may be a little less difficult and cross the border from impossible to playable.

If you play a tune with a not too complex harmonic structure, an open tuning might give you the roots of the main chords on open strings. This will leave your left hand to finger the melody and some other voices. You can move around the neck without getting stuck.

A different sound is another interesting aspect of open tuning. When you play one string on your guitar, the other strings will sound as well unless you damp them out. Strings that are in harmony with the note played - in harmony meaning being part of the overtone structure - will resonate more than strings that are not in harmony. If you play an open A-string, the E-strings will give more resonance than the G and B-string. The D-string will be somewhere in between. When the basic harmonic structure of the guitar is changed by an alternate tuning, then you will get another resonance from your guitar. If you tune to an open chord, all the strings will be in harmony, and you will get a richer resonance.

A well chosen tuning will combine these elements. The fingering will be simpler, and the sound will be better. But you will have to balance the convenience of having a tailor-made tuning for the song against the inconvenience of having to re-tune your guitar between each song - unless you have one good guitar for each tuning.

Having said all this: It is not without reason that standard tuning is the standard tuning. An alternate tuning might work better in a specific context, but standard tuning is the best overall tuning. Martin Carthy, a creative and innovative English folk guitarist who mainly plays in various open tunings is often asked to show some chords in his favorite tunings. His respond is: "If you want to play chords, use standard tuning. It is better."

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Previous page: Major Chord Tunings Next page: Guitar Chord Progressions - index