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When starting out on your slide guitar journey, you’ll have no doubt bought your 1st slide, grabbed your guitar in standard tuning ready to blaze away like Son House. Then very quickly you’ll stop and think, ‘why the hell does this sound like a screaming cat?’, and ‘why is this so difficult?’ Well there’s probably a multitude of reasons, but lets start with the basics. Grab a seat as I’d like to talk to you about open tunings for slide guitar.

What’s the right open tuning for slide guitar?

Black Gorrilla Thinking; understanding which open tunings to use for slide guitar, has challenged even some of the greatest intellectual minds.
Since the dawn of time understanding which open tunings to use for slide guitar, has been challenging the worlds greatest intellectuals.
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Great question! The simple answer is there isn’t a ‘correct’ open tuning for slide guitar. Don’t worry though! There are a number of tunings that should make things easier to get that slide sound that you’re after. The first and probably easiest thing to understand about the open tunings for slide guitar, is that they do one particularly magical thing; they give you a major chord when you play all the strings in unison.

I KNOW, mind BLOWN right? So when you stick a glass slide, medicine bottle, beer bottleneck or knife* along the fretboard, you get a major chord. Pretty frickin’ sweet in my opinion. Try not to worry yourself too much about having to learn new scale patterns, or chord shapes, at least you have major chords nailed. Damn you probably know even more major chords now than you did in standard tuning, and that can only be a good thing.

*Blues slide guitar player CeDell Davis used a butterknife for his slide work.

Use open G tuning if you want to sound (a bit) like Robert Johnson

Open G tuning: D-G-D-G-B-D (low to high)…hint: it’s a G major chord

Yes it’s true Robert Johnson was a big fan of open G tuning, using it on a number of his recordings. To get to this tuning you need to tune the guitar as follows D-G-D-G-B-D (low to high). You’ll probably notice that this tuning makes use of an open G major triad (G-B-D). It’s also worth noting that the D is the bass note of the chord. Which makes for some interesting harmonic possibilities. This means that the root is now on the fifth fret of the 6th string (the lowest one) and the root of the chord is the open 5th string (G). Which means you can play some pretty darn tasty bass lines and do some widdly blues stuff with the melody lines on the higher strings, if you’re a guitar ninja!

Keith Richards is also a big fan of this tuning, using it on “Gimme Shelter“, “Honky Tonk Woman” and “Brown Sugar” to name a few. Open G tuning is also known as ‘Spanish’ tuning, don’t worry about this for now it’s just for reference. On my track ‘The Old B.C.‘, you can hear how I perform the bass line on the lower strings and pick out the melody on the higher strings.

Hey while you’re there you might as well make the most of open A tuning like a boss!

Open A tuning: E-A-E-A-C#-E (low to high)…hint: it’s an A major chord

Playing open A tuning like a boss...Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash
Playing open A tuning like a boss…Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

I’ll let you into a little secret; open A tuning and open G tuning are basically the same tuning, just with everything a tone higher! To get there you need to tune the guitar as follows E-A-E-A-C#-E (low to high). It’s like you buy one you get one free! I said you buy one…anyway you get the point.

Open D tuning is a great open tuning for slide guitar, giving you that swampy vibe!

Open D tuning: D-A-D-F#-A-D (low to high)…hint: it’s a D major chord

Nothing quite beats that deep low down dirty blues sound of open D tuning. The guitar is tuned to the same pitch as an open D major chord (D, F#, A), but unlike open G tuning the root of the chord is on the sixth string (lowest string). This opens up some great opportunities for some real deep and dirty sounding blues. Open D is an extremely popular open tuning for slide guitar. Being used by some of those old blues cats such as Elmore James, Tampa Red & Kokomo Arnold, even modern day artist such as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell made use of this tuning. This tuning is also know as Vestapol tuning. That deep naughty blues sound is all over my song ‘Devil At Your Door‘ available to listen to below:

Whilst you’re there open E tuning is just a (s)tone throw away…

Open E tuning: E-B-E-G#-B-E (low to high)…hint: it’s an E major chord

Open E is just a stone throw away, Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay
Whilst in open D tuning why not try open E? It’s just a (s)tone throw away after all… Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

Good News! Open D tuning and open E tuning are basically the same thing. Open E is just a tone higher but all the intervals are identical. This is great if your action is just a bit lower as it adds additional tension to the strings, and is more comparable to the tension of standard tuning. Interesting fact; Bo Diddley’s self penned song of the same name made use of open E tuning. Duane Allman used open E tuning for the majority of his slide work, and if it’s okay for Duane, it’s okay for you!

Now all you need to do is master the other stuff like new chord shapes, scales, intonation, proper slide technique. Sorry I didn’t say this stuff was easy did I?…shucks.

Thanks for reading, please subscribe and comment!

As always thanks for reading my Lawless Luke blog.  If you like the post please subscribe here for regular updates.

Thanks for taking the time to read my latest Lawless Luke blog. Let me know if you’ve had much success with open tunings for slide guitar, or which are your favourite. As always please leave a comment below. If you like the post please subscribe here for regular updates. Don’t forget to check out my music and merch, and feel free to buy some stuff if you want to support me!

Take it easy, Lawless Luke.

16 Responses

  1. Open D is also just a tweak away from open D minor and DADGAD, two other very useful tunings.

    1. Spot on Dave! I toyed with adding these tunings in, but I didn’t want to overload people starting out. I’ll probably do a blog on these ones in future. Thanks for the comment.

      1. Is there point to tune guitar to most used personal fav. scale /degree, if it’s not common tuning?

        I’ve been more into electronic music my whole life, but in recent years more interested towards so called “real music” and thus being total beginner with guitar skills.
        Anyhow, I have unfinished F#min based tracks and I propably use only that scale and it’s modal variations for a while…

        So I tuned my 4-string guitar to F# A C# F#.
        Is there any point on that? I guess it’s called “open F#min” then?

        Other than that how most lessons and tutorials made by others will be confusing as shit bc they use different shapes and scale patterns.

        Ofc I could get another guitar and use it for learning, while keeping this F#AC#F# tuned one as is, as long as it is needed.
        Might be good idea to have one guitar with most common tuning there is?

        1. Hey, if you’re starting out I would recommend starting with standard tuning. From there you can look to learn pentatonic scales, then major and minor before moving onto modes. If you have mastery of the guitar fretboard, it shouldn’t matter what key you want to play in as long as you have the technique and theory down. You can of course tune your guitar to whatever you want, but it just depends what you are trying to achieve with the instrument.

  2. If tuning an acoustic guitar to open E just know that the increased tension can be a little much depending on the bracing of the guitar, and scale length. If it’s a standard 25.5” scale I would stay with the open D. If you do use open E, I wouldn’t leave the guitar sitting around tuned up to that tension all the time. I hope this is helpful to someone.

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