Have you ever wished you knew how to play that distinctive, opening riff from the Rolling Stones’ Start Me Up? Or wondered how they made it sound the amazing way it did? Or how that riff became so iconic? This lesson will help you achieve that sound on your guitar by using Open G tuning.
The Origins of Open G tuning
Over the years of music evolution, The Rolling Stones and many other performers adopted an alternate way of tuning a guitar, producing a different, more Rhythm & Blues guitar kind of sound quality. Open G tuning first appeared in many blues and folk music and soon found its way into blues-inspired rock and classic rock genres. Alternative tuning opens up a whole new realm of guitar sound.
Legends such as Robert Johnson and Joni Mitchell used open G tuning, and you can hear it used in the music of many classic rock artists like Mark Knopfler, George Thorogood, The Black Crowes, Led Zeppelin, and others.
Why There Are Alternate Tunings
The standard tuning for a six-string guitar is E, A, D, G, B, E. This arrangement of intervals makes it easier to play chords and scales in the most common keys. However, alternate tunings make certain chords even easier to play while also creating a distinct and unique sound.
There are many alternate tunings, such as Open C, Dropped D, and beyond (try out open d tuning, next). However, open G tuning is one of the most used alternate guitar tunings and especially lends itself to blues-inspired guitar music.
What is Open G Tuning?
Alternate tuning means changing the pitch interval between the strings away from the standard tuning. Open G tuning is based on the G major triad, the notes G, B, and D. By tuning all six guitar strings to pitches from the G Major triad, you can play a G chord without using your fret hand. Striking the strings in an open position will produce a G major chord.
It also means you can play most major chords across the fretboard using a simple barre fingering, barring one finger on exactly one fret. Moving by one fret changes the pitch by a semitone. As you move closer to the saddle and the sound hole, the length of the vibrating string shortens and produces a higher pitch. Conversely, moving closer to the nut and tuning pegs produces a lower pitch.
With the open G tuning done, using the standard fingerings (shapes) of chord positions, such as the most basic guitar chords learned here earlier, will produce the unique chord voicings you hear in songs like the Rolling Stones’ Start Me Up, and Honky Tonk Woman. Open G tuning and techniques are also useful if you want to get adventurous and try learning slide guitar.
How To Tune Your Guitar To Open G Tuning
Instead of the standard E-A-D-G-B-E intervals, the guitar strings are tuned to D-G-D-G-B-D. This means that only 3 of the strings, 6, 5, and 1, need to change.
Here’s how it’s done. The low E string (string 6) tunes down one whole tone, or step, to low D. Tune the next highest string, the A, (string 5) down a whole tone to G. Strings 4, 3, and 2, the D, G, and B strings, don’t need to change. This is good because all the scale patterns and chord shapes you’ve already learned will still apply here. Tune the high E string (string 1) down a whole tone to D.
Two Methods to Tune to Open G
You can achieve Open G tuning either by ear or by using a tuner. You can use an electric tuner, a tuning app, or match pitches from another instrument such as a piano, pitch pipe, or chimes.
Using an Electronic Tuner or App
Set the desired pitch on your tuner or app and have it play the sound aloud. Start with your low and high E strings, and set the tuner to a D pitch. Pluck your E strings, and tune them down by turning their tuning pegs toward you in a clockwise motion. This loosens the strings, thereby producing a lower pitch. Keep adjusting until the string matches the pitch from the tuner.
Do the same for your A string (string 5) by lowering its pitch to G. Set the tuner to a G pitch, and again twist the tuning peg toward you in a clockwise motion. Pluck the A string and continue adjusting until the sound matches the pitch from the tuner.
Pro tip: When first tuning a string down, twist the pegs a little extra to lower the pitch a little below the sound from the tuner. Turn the peg back slightly, (counterclockwise) to tighten the string, and adjust it upward until you match the tuner pitch.
This is how the expression “tuning up” came to be; it is much easier for the human ear to hear a “flat” pitch (a pitch below that of the desired one) than a “sharp” pitch (a pitch above that of the desired one). By starting from a lower pitch and adjusting upward, you will hear when your string is in tune much more accurately.
Tuning by Ear
Instead of an electronic tuner, you can use your other strings to tune to, since strings 4, 3, and 2 are already tuned to G, B, and D. Alternatively, you can play the tuning notes on a keyboard, or have a fellow player sound the notes. If you are playing with a group, it’s important to tune to each other if you don’t have access to a keyboard or electronic tuner.
If playing alone, tune your low E string (string 6) by plucking your D string (string 4). Adjust the E string tuning peg as above, until it matches the D string pitch. Similarly, tune your A string (string 5) down a whole tone to a G. Pluck your G string (string 3) and adjust the A string tuning peg until it matches the G tone.
Tune your high E string (string 1) down to a D by matching the pitch on your D string (string 4) as you did before. However, note that the low and high E strings, when tuned down to a D, will be an octave lower and higher than that of your D string, respectively.
As the last step, and overall soundcheck, match the newly tuned D strings to each other, listening for the octave intervals.
Good to Know
Like all musical instruments, guitars and their strings are subject to climate conditions. Metal guitar strings can expand and contract with heat or cold. In a hot or humid environment, guitar strings will expand and loosen, causing their pitch to go flat. The opposite happens when the strings get cold, and their pitch will go sharper. You may have to make ongoing tuning adjustments during a long performance as the surrounding temperature changes.
Also, be aware that brand new strings can be stiff and will need a break-in period to perform and tune well. If playing outdoors, don’t leave your guitar or any other instrument exposed to the elements if you can avoid it.
Playing A Chord Progression with Open G Tuning
As mentioned earlier, open G tuning can make a G and most other major chords on the guitar easier to play. The basic I, IV, V chord progression introduced in our guide to the best guitar chord progressions is easy to play in G with the guitar tuned to open G. Strumming the open position gives you the G chord (I). You then bar the fifth fret for the C (IV) chord and bar the seventh fret for the IV change to the D chord.
This brings us back to the topic of the blues influence giving rise to the open G alternative tuning. The I, IV, V chord progression is the basis for the standard “12-bar blues” pattern. Now that you know how to tune your guitar to open G, playing this time-tested classic style will be easier than ever.