Once they’ve mastered the basics of guitar, many players decide to start experimenting with their sound – and one way to do this is by working with alternate tunings. Open tuning, which allows you to generate the sound of a major or minor chord when you tune all six strings, adds a completely new dimension to your sound.
Although there are plenty of open tuning sounds you can create, a popular one amongst guitar players is open E. This allows you to strum a sound that resembles the major E chord. Here’s everything you need to know about how to tune to open E and how to use this unique sound to your benefit.
What is Open E Tuning?
Although we touched on it above, open E tuning on guitar means tuning three of your strings to get a sound that mimics the major E chord. Blues and rock musicians often rely on open E tuning, and classic rock fans may recognize the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter as being in the tune of open E.
Experienced guitarists often compare open E to open D tuning, and while they’re both similar, the notes on open D tuning are moved down by one tone.
To tune your guitar to open E, you’ll be tuning three of your strings – the third, fourth, and fifth – up. Some guitarists may hesitate to tune their strings up rather than down, but the most you’ll be moving them up is by two semitones.
Guide to Achieving Open E Tuning
With tips for how you should handle every single chord on your guitar, here’s how to tune your instrument to open E.
Quick tip: You’ll want to tune your strings slowly. Since you’re tuning to a higher octave, moving too fast or with a heavy hand could result in a few broken strings.
- Step 1: Make sure you understand which string is which – for tuning to open E, you’ll only need to work with your fifth, fourth, and third strings. You can leave your first (E), second (B), and sixth strings (E) as-is.
- Step 2: Begin by tuning your fifth string (or A) up to B. If you’re not sure if you’ve done it correctly, you can check your tuning against the seventh fret on your sixth string – you should have the same notes on both strings.
- Step 3: Move on to your fourth string (D), and tune it up to E. Once again, you can always check the tuning against your open sixth string. If the notes are the same, you haven’t tuned it correctly – they should be an octave apart.
- Step 4: End with your third string (G), which will move up a semitone to G#. You can check your work against the fourth string’s fourth fret – it should sound the same.
Keep in mind that if you’re tuning to open E for the first time, you may need to make a few adjustments before you land on the right sound. And changing your tuning at any time always shifts the tension on your guitar neck, so even if you’ve done it correctly, your sound may not feel right until the neck adjusts to the new tension.
It’s also worth noting that tuning to a higher octave is going to increase string tension – which can make it a little more uncomfortable to play. If you plan to tune to open E frequently, you may want to use a lighter gauge of strings.
For visual learners, your standard tuning looks like this:
Once you’ve tuned it to open E, your chords should be:
While this is the standard method for tuning to open E, some guitarists find that it’s actually easier to tune to open D (which is only two semitones higher than open E) and then just place a capo on their second fret. With the capo, the sound you get from open D shouldn’t be any different than open E.
Your open D tuning would look like this:
Of course, tuning to open D may not be any easier for you – rather than working with three strings in E, open D requires you to alter the tuning on four strings.
While tuning to open E may be easy to master, some guitarists might wonder why they should. Well, there are a couple of benefits to using open E when you play.
Perhaps the biggest benefits that come with open E are for slide guitar players – all you need to do is lay your first finger across those six strings on a fret, and you’ll easily be able to play the major chords. This can be a shortcut for guitarists that are fans of slide playing.
Whether you’re holding your finger down or using an actual slide, you should be able to create some of the deep vibratos and various pitches that you hear in the classics. If you’re curious which famous songs use open E tuning, there are quite a few:
- Jumpin Jack Flash by The Rolling Stones
- Shelter From the Storm by Bob Dylan (Dylan originally recorded most, if not all, of his Blood on the Tracks album in open E, but some of the songs later got rerecorded in standard tuning).
- She Talks to Angels by Black Crowes
- Statesboro Blues by Duane Allman (Allman was a big fan of open E tuning, so many of his songs feature it).
Like any open tuning, learning open E on guitar allows you to experiment with your sound and play with variations on some of the major chords. At first, it may feel awkward to tune your strings to a higher octave. But playing on open E can add a unique element to your sound that standard tuning just doesn’t have.