QUICK HIT: Guitar teacher and blues specialist Jim Bruce takes a look at the open G tuning, covering its history, use, technique, and a handful of practical examples. Checkout Jim's "From Texas to the Delta Blues" course.
The first instruments to be used to play blues music were always home made out of whatever materials were at hand, such as broom handles, cigar boxes and screen door wire. If the instrument had one string, it was called a Diddley Bow, which was made by simply nailing a length of wire onto a short plank of wood and tightened over a bottle, which served as an amplifier.
There were no frets and the player searched for the note by sliding a tube along the string until it sounded right. Depending on the maker’s skill, instruments with more strings were made, but were generally low-quality with no frets. Using a slide or bottleneck was essential to getting a reasonable sound out of these early guitars.
Even when cheap factory-made 6 string guitars with frets became available, they were notoriously difficult to keep in tune, particularly in the hot and humid conditions of the Deep South. The open G tuning was favored precisely because of these tuning problems.
The Benefits of Open G Tuning in the Early Years
It was much easier to keep the strings in tune and additionally, a basic blues song could be created without needing to use complex chords, thereby reducing the skill level needed to learn guitar basics and some great songs. This is still valid today and many relative beginners find it’s a good way to quickly learn some cool-sounding songs.
Although the bottleneck style of playing guitar in open G was born out of necessity, the technique was developed by the early blues men, such as Robert Johnson, into an art form that is used extensively today in modern blues and rock.
CHECKOUT JIM'S FULL BLUES GUITAR COURSE
From Texas to the Delta Blues Guitar Course
How To Tune a Guitar To Open G
Tuning your guitar to open G is very easy, only requiring adjustment of 3 strings. The first and 6th string tune down to D, while the 5th is brought down to G. Now we have 3 strings tuned to D, 2 tuned to G and one left as it was at B.
This arrangement creates a lovely melodic blues chord when played open, and the common notes give it a unique feel.
If your guitar is tuned to standard tuning, it’s very easy to tune down to open G by ear, as there are so many common notes. Take down the 1st and 6th strings first, followed by the 5th. Of course, if I’m performing I always use a clip-on strobe tuner for accuracy, but tuning by ear is fine for practice.
D - G - D - G - B - D
Buying The Right Bottleneck For You and Which Finger To Wear It On
There are many different kinds of bottlenecks available, from real bottlenecks to stainless steel or brass tubes. As with many things, it’s often a matter of personal taste when choosing the one that works for you, but there’s a couple of things to consider.
It needs to fit over your finger quite snugly. It’s quite unnerving for a player and the audience if it flies off during a recital - I know from bitter experience. Fortunately, there are some designs on the market that give a really comfortable and secure fit.
Different materials and wall thickness do affect the sound produced. Guitarists tend to use glass for electric guitar and either brass, stainless steel or even copper for acoustics. Lovers of Delta blues try to capture that ‘dirty’ slide sound that came out of the Mississippi and make their own slides.
I favor a straight glass tube with a thick wall, and as I tend to play blues from the Delta, a slide long enough to span all of the strings is essential.
The glass creates a mellow tone, particularly when vibrating the tube over a fret to find the correct note. Ceramic slides are popular too, providing a tone similar to glass, giving good control due to the extra weight.
Many blues guitarists wear it on the ring finger, as I do, while others prefer a smaller one worn on the pinky. Once again - the good choice is the one that works for you. It will also depend to what extent you want to use your other fingers to form chords. If your guitar has a slightly rounded profile, it might sound better if you buy a concave bottleneck, specially designed to improve contact for this type of neck.
How To Use A Bottleneck - The Technique
It’s been said that bottleneck is the easiest technique to learn and the hardest to perfect, and there’s a lot of truth in this. Even a rank beginner will get the basic idea and moves very quickly, but refining the action to create those sweeter sounds take some practice. The tube should be resting lightly on the strings so that the strings don’t touch the frets. Don’t worry, you’ll know if you get it wrong - the strings will buzz horribly.
The first thing you’ll notice is that the sound isn’t quite right. There’s just too much of it and the harmonics are a bit strange too. The reason is that sounds are coming from both sides of the bottleneck, from the tube to the saddle and also from the strings between the tube and the nut.
The unwanted sounds need to be removed and we do this by resting another finger lightly on the strings behind the bottleneck, effectively damping the sound. You can rest all the other fingers on the strings if you like, whatever it takes to mute the notes.
Do you need to make any adjustments to the guitar?
Depending on your playing style, it may be that the height of the guitar strings above the frets, or the action, is too low for bottleneck playing. When the action is low, it’s very easy to apply just a little bit too much pressure so that the strings touch the frets below, resulting in the dreaded buzzing. In this case, you have two options:
- Raise the action a little by changing the bridge height
- Keep another guitar for playing in open G tuning
If guitar adjustment isn’t your thing, if you’re not absolutely sure of what you’re doing, it would be best to let a professional do it. If you want to use the guitar in normal and open tuning, then adjust the action until it feels comfortable for both.
Raising the Action
You can always raise the action by shimming under the bridge saddle, or changing it out for a higher one. This is a quick fix and has the advantage of needing no adjustment of the neck. Simply slack off all the strings, remove the saddle, slide in the new one and tighten back up.
Although regular slide players often adjust the nut, it’s not recommended for the occasional player. Guitarists who play their guitar exclusively in open tuning and rest it on their knees like a lap steel guitar slack off the strings and insert a space over the nut to give that extra height at the headstock end of the fretboard.
Adjusting the Truss Rod
A professional performer would possibly have a technician adjust the truss rod to adjust the neck bend, which improves intonation. This is another ball game and for most of us it isn’t necessary.
Probably the best option is to keep a second guitar for playing open tunings. The good news is that it can be an old beater, as any inconsistencies in the neck can be compensated for by the simpler tuning used.
Using an Older Guitar
It’s a great way to use an old guitar that sounds great but nobody wants because the neck is warped a little. Some older guitar found in junk shops were quality instruments made in the days before truss rods were used to adjust neck straightness.
It’s worth noting that tuning the strings up and down regularly subjects them to metal fatigue where they wrap around the tuning peg, so they snap regularly, particularly the two highest unwound strings.
There’s no real cure for this, except keeping a separate guitar for open tunings. I have found that it tends to be the high E string 80% of the time, so keep a few of those handy.
The Best Strings For Playing Slide
Another reason I suggest keeping a second guitar is that bottleneck in open G works much better with thicker strings. As a fingerstyle acoustic player you are probably using 11s or 10s. A set with a 12 high E string will help reduce buzzing and produce a more mellow sound, so consider changing from light gage to medium-light, or even medium.
Older Strings Sound Better
String composition is a matter of choice and phosphor bronze gives a nice balance between string life and sound. Older strings sound much better with bottleneck. The dullness associated with used strings helps with the tone and reduces buzzing.
Avoid Flat-wound Strings
Logically, you might think that flat-wound strings would be perfect for slide playing, but very few pro guitarists use them. It’s true that they reduce that annoying rubbing sound when a finger or slide runs up the strings, but the overall sound is too smooth for the blues, much like a Hawaiian lap steel guitar.
CHECKOUT JIM'S FULL BLUES GUITAR COURSE
From Texas to the Delta Blues Guitar Course
Mini-lesson: Walkin’ Blues
Walkin’ Blues is an old song that has its roots in the Mississippi Delta and is perhaps the most widely known bottleneck piece played in open G. Legendary bluesman Robert Johnson is often associated with the song, but many singers performed it before him. Muddy Waters, although primarily an electric guitar player, recorded a stunning acoustic version showing his complete mastery of the slide technique.
In the video below, I’m playing the basic Robert Johnson version - listen to the song while observing the slide technique and then you can try it yourself using the mini-lesson I posted below it.
The key to creating the sound is to minimize buzzing with the correct damping action, keeping the speed down and accurate slide positioning. Each time you slide the bottleneck up to the target note try to apply vibrato at the right time, but this will improve with practice.
You get that lovely vibrato tone by moving the tube backwards and forwards over the target fret. Done properly, it just screams ‘Delta blues’. The flavor of the sound is affected by the slide material and also the wall thickness, so it’s a good idea to experiment with different types.
Walkin’ Blues by Robert Johnson - Guitar Lesson
Robert Johnson’s slide guitar style stands out because it’s an emotional mixture of finesse and attack. Sometimes the sound is sweet and melodic, then suddenly it’s sharp or percussive.
Other bottleneck specialists produced similar music, such as Charlie Patton and Mississippi Fred McDowell, but possibly the most distinctive sound of them all came from Son House. He always played in open G and it seems as though it was always the same signature riff. The video below features House playing ‘Death Letter Blues’.
Although open G is often associated with the old blues, present-day music lovers are probably familiar with it without even realizing it. The Rolling Stones have enjoyed huge success for decades, continuously coming up with fresh ideas. The music for many of their greatest hits was written by Keith Richards in the open G tuning:
- Brown Sugar
- You Can't Always Get What You Want
- Start Me Up
- Honkey Tonk Woman
- Monkey Man
- Before They make Me Run
- Tumbling Dice (capo 4)
- Happy (capo4)
- Beast Of Burden
- Mixed Emotions
- Can't You Hear Me Knocking
- Jumpin’ Jack Flash
This list of Rolling Stones blues songs in open G tuning probably isn’t exhaustive, but serves to illustrate the power of this tuning in the right hands. Richards likes it so much that he used to transcribe his earlier hits so that he could play them live with that special open G feel. It’s a much simpler approach for creating a driving rock rhythm that sounds full and fat, due to the abundance of Ds and Gs. It’s truly a stroke of genius.
Rather than compete with the lightning-fast fingers of other blues-rock guitarists, he carved out a niche with simpler structures that are immediately recognizable.
It seems Richards was looking for a simpler sound with more power than standard chords in normal tuning. While experimenting with open G, and listening to recordings of old blues guitarists, he decided to remove the first bass string so that the second bass string (G) became the root note for G major. The rest is history, as they say.
Here’s how it’s done. I’m playing a Martin acoustic in the video but the sound has been processed to give it a fuzzy electric guitar sound.
Here are the basic chords used to get Keef’s sound:
Some Other Useful Chord Shapes In Open G
If you need three basic chords to get you started, it doesn’t get any easier than this:
- Play the first 5 strings open, with the 6th string silenced with the thumb, and you have a G chord.
- Slide the same 5 string barre up to the 5th fret and you have C.
- Barring the 7th fret gives you a D chord.
The chart below shows some other basic chords. You can also have great fun inventing your own to create your own special sound.
You’ll find that some chord shapes are difficult if you are wearing a bottleneck on any other finger than your pinky. If you wear it on your ring finger, then you’re mostly limited to using two-finger chords, or a barre plus the pinky, as in the C7 chord on the 5th fret (shown above).
One of the great things about playing the guitar is that the learning never stops. Open G tuning is unique because it gives the beginner a chance to begin playing very quickly using barre chords or single strings, but also opens up many exciting possibilities for the seasoned player.
We've seen that open G really lends itself to the use of the slide or a bottleneck, but it can also be used for folk and rock. In the late 70s, punk rock took full advantage of its simplicity.
The music style was raw energy with a definite anarchic flavor and didn’t pander to complex guitar techniques that took a long time to learn. The use of barre chords in two or three positions often provided the only musical backing needed for their street-tough lyrics.
Whatever you style or playing level, I encourage you to tune down those strings and explore everything the open G tuning has to offer.