• OVERVIEW •
Open E follows the interval structure of a Standard-tuned Emaj chord (‘0-2-2-1-0-0’), thus making it a whole-tone-higher transposition of Open D – a general pattern sometimes known as ‘Vestapol‘ (after its use for an earnest 1854 folk song about the Crimean War, popular in ‘learn guitar’ manuals of late-19th-century North America: full tale below).
Given Open E’s radically raised tension vs. Open D (~12% higher on the same string set: mainly due to the 5+4str each being >25% tighter), it is often seen as the latter’s ‘electric counterpart’ (on steel-string acoustics, it’s probably snap-safer to just capo the former at 2fr). It has long enjoyed particular popularity amongst electric slide guitarists, with many legends of the instrument using it as their ‘home zone’ tuning.
Like Open D, it presents a logical ‘first step away from Standard‘: as the Emaj chord it mirrors is surely the guitar’s most hyper-familiar major voicing (I’d say something similar also applies to Open Dm/Em, both of which mirror the good ol’ ‘0-2-2-0-0-0’ shape). Add to this reassuring resonance with ‘straight-line’ power chords (6-5-4str) and major triads (4-3-2str) – as well as powerful parallel octaves (6-4-1str & 5-2str).
Harmony: Emaj | 1-5-1-3-5-1
• TUNING TONES •
• SOUNDS •
The ‘Vestapol‘ pattern – undoubtedly one of the world’s A-list tuning shapes – has a strangely specific history. Blues historian Jas Obrecht explains the origins of Open E’s more acoustic-friendly Open D ancestor: “During the latter 1800s, the Lyon & Healy company in Chicago pioneered the mass production of acoustic guitars…Many of these catalog-bought guitars arrived with a tutorial pamphlet featuring tuning instructions and music for rudimentary instrumentals. Two of [them] – Spanish Fandango and The Siege of Sebastopol – predated the Civil War”.
The latter melody – written by a schoolteacher named Henry Worrall in 1854 – specifies tuning to Open D [whereas Spanish Fandango calls for Open G: credit to Mr. Worrall for putting some peg-winding on the beginner’s curriculum!]. In the reckoning of global fingerpicking legend John Renbourn, this material became highly influential: “In the early recorded blues…the harmonic language, right down to specific chord shapes…is straight from parlor music…Fascinating stuff, and fairly controversial, but it fills in the missing gap between the steel-string guitar coming into circulation and the highly developed styles that appeared on recordings in the 1920s” [listen to more of this history in my main Open D article].
- Siege of Sebastopol – Elizabeth Cotten (1978):
“It wasn’t until 1958, [aged] 64 years old, that [Elizabeth Cotten] released her first LP: Freight Train & Other North Carolina Folk Songs. Cotten originally taught herself how to play [aged] seven, and developed a unique style of fingerpicking…[but] after her marriage and the birth of her daughter, the pressures of her church and family life caused her to part ways with [the] guitar for nearly 40 years…After releasing her first EP, Cotten continued to [play] into her 80s.” (Claire Donzelli: Ageism in the Music Industry)
Many of Open E’s most famous showcases have come on the electric slide guitar. Countless pioneers of the ‘singing finger-cylinder’ have favoured it as their main tuning – notably including Duane Allman and Derek Trucks: two Allman Brothers guitarists with intertwined careers and styles. Both favour ‘closed-end’ glass slides, worn on the ring finger: in the former’s case, an empty Coricidin cold medication bottle, and for the latter, a Dunlop recreation of similar dimensions.
In fact, discovering my dad’s copy of the Allman’s 1971 At Fillmore East album was a major catalyst for me to first try out open tunings as a teenager (so if you’re getting any joy from this project, credit to them too: also a shoutout to Nick Drake, Robert Johnson, Michael Hedges, José González, and, of course, Joni). As per Andy Aledort in Guitar World, “Duane fingerpicked exclusively – using his thumb, index, & middle…a major element in the uniqueness of his sound was his pick-hand muting“.
Tragically, his life was cut short by a motorcycle accident in 1971, just a few weeks after the release of At Fillmore East (…13 months later, drummer Berry Oakley would also succumb to a similar crash, just three blocks away). Despite his brief stardom, Duane left countless Open E highlights, including some of the electric slide’s all-time highest moments – e.g. Statesboro Blues, Done Somebody Wrong, Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’, One Way Out, Standback, Drunken Hearted Boy, and Little Martha: inspired by a dream-vision of Jimi Hendrix teaching him how to play it, and once described by Leo Kottke as “the best song ever written on an acoustic guitar”. [n.b. He also used Standard for a fair few tracks – e.g. Dreams, Trouble No More, Midnight Ride, Mountain Jam].
- Welcome to the Fillmore – Allman Brothers (1970):
“Incredibly, Duane had been playing slide guitar for only about a year at the time of the band’s debut release. He recalled, ‘I heard Ry Cooder playing slide on Taj Mahal’s debut album, and I said, ‘Man, that’s for me!’…Gregg concurs: ‘He just picked it up and started burnin’…” (Andy Aledort)
Derek Trucks – named after Duane’s Derek and the Dominos duet album with Eric Clapton – grew up around the Allman Brothers (his uncle was longtime drummer Butch Trucks). In contrast to Duane, who first took up the guitar aged 14, Derek was already a slide sensation by the same age – touring locally as an 11-year-old, and opening for the Allman Brothers aged 13, before joining the band as a full member aged 20 (although he recounts that his odd teenage years “didn’t feel totally crazy. The thing where you did feel like an outsider…was [that] none of my friends at school or anybody gave a shit about Howlin’ Wolf…”).
Outside of searing stringwork on numerous Allman tours (e.g. Desdemona, below), he has led the eclectic Derek Trucks Band, as well as collaborating with fellow bluesy innovator Susan Tedeschi (also his wife) in the long-running Tedeschi-Trucks Band. Ever outward-looking, he has recorded in jazz settings (e.g. with Herbie Hancock & McCoy Tyner), as well as drawing fruitfully from global music (e.g. Sahib Teri Bandi: adapted from a Qawwali devotional song by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) – and even studied the Hindustani sarod (23-string fretless lute) for a while, reworking its complex legato motions back on the guitar.
To witness a truly heartwarming moment of inter-generational guitarology, watch Trucks receiving the highest possible praises of his childhood idol B.B. King, live on stage during a 2012 jam (John Mayer is also there). King – aged 85, but still singing with gusto – puts his hand on Trucks’ shoulder after the latter’s delicate slide solo, hailing it with the words, ‘that’s about as good as I’ve ever heard it’ (I’m impressed that he didn’t just melt instantly…). Undoubtedly one of the finest living guitarists, Trucks continues to expand the bounds of his art.
- Desdemona – Derek Trucks & Allman Brothers (2003):
“There was a quote from one of the Coltrane boxsets from Elvin [Jones, his drummer]: ‘To play the way we played together, you had to be willing to die for a motherfucker’. That’s exactly how they played, and I believe each one of them would’ve taken a fucking bullet for the other…That always resonated with me. It made me think of the Allman Brothers, because that’s the way those guys were. They’re all going to be buried together.” (Derek Trucks)
Open E has enjoyed broad acceptance throughout guitar history – e.g. older-generation Chicago bluesmen such as Tampa Red, and Mississippi innovator Bo Diddley (who set it on odd-bodied guitars for his distinctive ‘scratch-picking’ style: sometimes with a ~3fr capo). Also George Harrison (All Things Must Pass), Bob Dylan (most of Blood on the Tracks), Joe Walsh (Rocky Mountain Way), and Keith Richards on some of the Stones’ most iconic tracks (e.g. Jumping Jack Flash, Gimme Shelter: also check out Keef’s ‘banjoesque’ 5-string Open G variant) – as well as Joni Mitchell (on the original recording of Big Yellow Taxi: while Court and Spark & Chelsea Morning match the same tones with a 2fr capo in Open D).
Countless uses across the popular music of many countries: other prominent Open E explorers from England include Pete Townshend (Thunderclap Newman’s Something In The Air), The Faces (Stay With Me), Foghat (Slow Ride), Laura Marling (Ramblin’ Man), Jonny Buckland of Coldplay (Hurts Like Heaven, Strawberry Swing), and Johnny Marr of the Smiths (The Headmaster Ritual: watch him teach the track here) – plus Irish acts Glen Hansard (Say it to Me Now), My Bloody Valentine (Come in Alone, cp.3), and U2 (Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of), as well as singer-songwriters from Scotland (Donovan’s Colours, cp.2), France (Vianney’s Je Men Vais), and elsewhere.
And for a haphazard sampling from across the Atlantic: Canadian acts Rush (Headlong Flight), The Tragically Hip (Fiddler’s Green), and Ariel Posen (sometimes lowered to the Baritone register: hear his Open E musings in a chat with JustinGuitar) – and American artists including ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons (Just Got Paid), The Black Crowes (She Talks To Angels), Hoobastank (Crawling in the Dark), MGMT (Kids), Brother Dege (Too Old To Die Young), Ryan Bingham (Bread and Water), and Jesus Culture (How He Loves Us: although surely Gsus tuning would have been a better choice?)
[Also see the song listings on my Open D page: the same ‘7>5>4>3>5’ Vestapol interval shape as this, lowered by two semitones.]
- Hey Bo Diddley! – Bo Diddley (1965):
“One of the most famous rhythms in rock and roll is the ‘Bo Diddley Beat’…a five note syncopated pattern with the durational proportions ‘3:3:4:2:4’… derived from the ‘son clave‘ rhythm common in the music of the African diaspora…” (London/Polak/Jacoby: Rhythm Histograms & Musical Meter)
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• NUMBERS •
- See my Tunings Megatable for further such nerdery: more numbers, intervallic relations, comparative methods, etc. And to any genuine vibratory scientists reading: please critique my DIY analysis!
• RELATED •
—Associated tunings: proximities of shape, concept, context, etc…
- Open D (this -2): the lower variant, better on acoustic
- Open Em (this with 3str -1): the minor sibling, one twist away
- Only Shallow (this with 3str -2): MBV’s soaring Esus2 layout
• MORE INFO •
—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…
- Duane & Derek: this pair comprise two of my three all-time favourite sliders (along with Debashish Bhattacharya, inventor of the 23-string chaturangi: see below) – learn more about Derek Trucks in a varied biographical interview with Stereogum (“Just stay on the path and stay true: taste is a cyclical thing, and it comes and goes. I think about my heroes, like B.B. King…they were in and out of style at times, but never really for people who were paying attention”) – and you can delve further into Duane Allman’s innovations via Andy Aledort’s Guitar World lesson and a fantastic collection of audio interviews with the man himself, as well as his heart-wrenching, posthumously-published Jan 1st 1969 New Year’s Resolutions (“I will be more thoughtful of my fellow man, exert more effort in each of my endeavors, professionally as well as personally. Take love wherever I find it, and offer it to everyone who will take it…seek knowledge from those wiser than me, and try to teach those who wish to learn…I love being alive, and I will be the best man I possibly can…”)
- Global slides: aside from the history of the ‘normal’ bottleneck, check out other sliding axes from around the world – such as the Hawaiian kīkākila (6-string ‘steel guitar’: see Dobro tuning), and its descendent the ‘pedal steel‘ (laden with an intricate array of pitch-pedals, levers, and 10+ strings) – as well as the ‘unitar‘ of Eddie ‘One-String’ Jones (whiskey bottle slide: and a whittled wooden stick to strike the string). Indian classical musicians have also cooked up a dazzling menu of sliding designs – e.g. the Mohan veena (20-string Hawaiian-derived guitar), Hansa veena (21-string electric slide), Shankar veena (a dextrous blend of guitar and sitar), vichitra veena (22-string ‘curious veena’: a glass sphere glides with the aid of coconut oil), and gottuvadhyam (20-string Carnatic veena: hardwood cylindrical block-slide) – as well as Debashish Bhattacharya‘s self-designed ‘Guitar Trinity’, consisting of the chaturangui (23-string amalgamation of sitar, sarod, violin, and rudra veena), the gandharvi (which blends the 12-string guitar with veena, santoor, and sarangi), and the anandi (a 4-string slide ukulele) – and, from elsewhere in the world, check out the Japanese ichigenkin (single-string ivory slide: used subtly) and the Jamaican benta (a massive one-string bamboo zither, plucked at by one performer while another uses a large gourd-slide to summon the deep wub) [n.b. You could also argue the case for other instruments: e.g. the pitch of India’s deep-toned bayan tabla is controlled by ‘sliding’ the palm across the drum skin with the aid of talcum powder – and the Soviet-invented theremin functions something like an ‘invisible slide’…]
Header image: a medium glass slide in action
George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!
“An intrepid guitar researcher…”
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