• OVERVIEW •
Resembles a Standard-tuned Amaj shape in terms of interval structure (‘0-0-2-2-2-0’). Gives a more ambiguous resonance than the other ‘main’ maj-chord tuning – Open D – as its major triad is arranged in ‘inverted’ fashion, with the 5th (D) in the bass rather than the G root (which is on 5str). This strengthens its potential for playing alternating-thumb basslines and upward-resolving low melodies.
Open G fully deserves its status as an A-list altered tuning – used to varied effect in blues, folk, rock, country, and countless other styles, as well as in global guitar cultures from Hawaii to Madagascar. This versatility arises from its mix of spacey low drones and clustered high tones: the former (6-5-4-3str) bring reassuring depth and power, while the latter (3-2-1str) allow for close-voiced chords and dense double-stop melodies.
Sometimes known as ‘Spanish’ tuning in North America (…but not in Spain) – while Hawaiian kī hō’alu (slack-key) artists call it ‘Taro Patch’ (or ‘Mokihana‘). Also try adding some microtonal spice to the sound by slightly flattening the 2str B: drop it 14 cents to match the pure-tuned major 3rd of the harmonic series (something many guitarists seem to do subconsciously – similar to how choirs that sing with no concert-pitch reference tone tend to drift towards ‘Pythagorean’ intonation).
Harmony: Gmaj | 5-1-5-1-3-5
• TUNING TONES •
• SOUNDS •
Open G’s traceable history stretches back a curiously long way. While the precise peg-winding habits of the pre-recording era are largely lost to the modern world (partly a product of the guitar’s non-notated tendencies), DGDGBD’s long-term lineage has been preserved with odd clarity. As described by WBUR, several companies in early 1800s America produced “catalog-bought [parlor] guitars…[sold] with a tutorial pamphlet…[Two] of these instructive instrumentals, Spanish Fandango and The Siege of Sebastopol, predated the Civil War…Spanish Fandango required that the guitar’s strings be tuned to an open G chord” [whereas The Siege of Sebastopol gave rise to Open D/E‘s ‘Vestapol’ nickname].
This tune “served as a starting point for countless rural players: its harmonic content, voice-leading chords, and fingerpicking pattern echoed in…old-time blues, folk, and country musicians – such as Bo Carter, Son House, Furry Lewis, Frank Hutchison, Sam McGee, John Dilleshaw, Mance Lipscomb, and Elizabeth Cotten”. Watch Cotten – a key influence on a young Joni Mitchell – perform what must be one of the most influential tunes in all of guitar history (she retitles it ‘Spanish Flang-Dang’…):
- Spanish Flang-Dang – Elizabeth Cotten:
Though the old books eventually fell from favour, Open G was already firmly woven into the fabric of North American guitar playing by the turn of the 20th century, explored in a fast-expanding range of genres. In particular, it enjoyed popularity among early Delta bluesmen – including Son House, Charley Patton, and Mississippi John Hurt. In this pre-amplified era, it was common to crank the strings as taut as possible in order to boost volume, meaning many favoured retuning upwards rather than capoing (Hurt’s extreme hand strength is a topic of legend – and it is said that Patton’s Open G transpositions “would cause his guitar to practically fold in half…leading him to burn through many”).
Perhaps most influentially, Son’s student Robert Johnson took up the tuning on several songs (Stones in My Passway, Terraplane Blues, Milkcow’s Calf Blues). We’re still not sure of Johnson’s exact capo vs. transposition combos – although we can be confident that his fiendish fingerpicking skills arose not from any Satanic soul-selling, but instead from a year-long period of dedicated study with local performer Isaiah ‘Ike’ Zimmerman (the pair were known to practice in local graveyards at night…but only so Ike’s young family could sleep in peace).
Bruce Cornforth’s stellar research includes an interview with Ike’s daughter, recounting the stay: “They first met…[in] the juke joints…Robert Johnson asked my daddy to teach him…he stayed a long time…it seemed like [he] just took him for his family…and they was going at that guitar like some…it sounded just so good, just like they was competing“.
- Stones in My Passway – Robert Johnson (1937):
“I got stones in my passway,
And my road seem dark as night,
I have pains in my heart,
They have taken my appetite”
Open G has also taken root in disparate global guitar cultures: in some cases through independent invention, and in others via the worldwide migration of musical ideas. Once again, these interchanges have been happening for longer than we might expect – the Garland Handbook of African Music, citing Christopher Waterman, notes that “by the 1920s…musicians in Lagos [Nigeria] were using tuning schemes such as Spanish (possibly influenced by American blues guitar tunings), and tunings similar to Hawaiian slack-key [such as] intervals [5>7>5>4>3]“. (Confusingly, ‘Spanish’ can refer to either Standard or Open G: here it refers to the former, hence the latter’s pattern being listed separately. I advocate dropping Open G’s ‘Spanish’ nickname…).
DGDGBD has also found popularity elsewhere in Africa. In particular, it has long been used by the multi-tuning guitar traditions of Madagascar, just off the mainland’s Eastern coast. As described by latter-day Malagasy maestro Dozzy Njava in Ian Anderson’s captivating Gitara Gasy series, “When I first started to play marovany [box-zither style] guitar, my tuning was an Open G…all the guitarists were playing in this tuning“. See it on display in Acoustic Gasy’s Ravorona.
Almost exactly half the world away, the tuning also enjoys hallowed status in Hawaiian slack-key. George Winston’s fantastically detailed Technical Essay on Slack-Key Tunings describes Open G as “the most common tuning [and] G is the most common key”. He goes on to detail dozens of instances, covering a range of transpositions (“Ray Kane…down to F#, F, or E…Sonny Chillingworth up to Ab or A”), as well as those who use it to explore non-G territory (“Opihi Moemoe by Leonard Kwan…modulates twice to the key of C, [as does] Ray Kane’s version of Na Hoa He’e Nalu…[while] Ozzie Kotani plays the Queen Lili’uokalani composition Ka Hanu O Evalina in…D”).
Listen to more top-class kī hō’alu in DGDGBD from Ledward Kaapana: e.g. most of his Live Solo album (e.g. He Aloha No ‘O Honolulu, Radio Hula, Ku’u Ipo Onaona, and ‘Opihi Moemoe (‘The Sleeping Limpet’). Also watch Harry Koizumi demo some mischevious slack-key tricks in the tuning, including “biting the headstock [to] become a human headphone…and using a can with twine” (this playfulness is core to slack-key sentiment: also check out Sonny Chillingworth’s necklace-trinket trickery, which sees him ‘strum’ Open G’s strings with a needle and thread, generating a background ‘sparkle’ on top of his main melodies.
- Radio Hula/Yellow Ginger Lei – Ledward Kaapana (2013):
Naturally, Open G is rife in more familiar genres too. Prominent instances include Muddy Waters (e.g. Rollin’ and Tumblin’, I Can’t Be Satisfied, R.L. Burnside (Long Haired Doney, Poor Black Mattie), Chet Atkins (Black Mountain Rag), Jimmy Page (Dancing Days) – and many classic Keith Richards parts (e.g. Brown Sugar, Honky Tonk Women), who is said to have picked it up from Ry Cooder (Available Space), before personalising it by removing the 6str (see Banjo tuning).
Also Rory Gallagher (Who’s That Coming), Gregg Allman (Come and Go Blues), Big Star (Watch the Sunrise), Little Feat (Willin’), Pink Floyd (Fearless), Bob Dylan (It Takes a Lot to Laugh), Jackson Browne (Running on Empty), Dire Straits (Romeo & Juliet), The Doobie Bros (South City Midnight Lady), Peter Frampton (Penny for Your Thoughts), George Thorogood (Bad to the Bone), Joe Walsh (Indian Summer), Colin James (Shout Baby Shout), Sheryl Crow (Steve McQueen), The Dandy Warhols (Bohemian Like You), and Status Quo’s Rick Parfitt (e.g. Rain, Down Down, Mystery Song, cp.2-4).
From across other modern styles: Pearl Jam (Daughter), Daughter (Shallows), Jeff Buckley (Last Goodbye), Hozier (In a Week), Manic Street Preachers (Small Black Flowers), Alter Bridge (Watch Over You), lots of Black Keys (e.g. Stack Shot Billy, Busted, Elevator), and most Black Crowes output (e.g. Jealous Again, -1). And, turning to folksier territory: Nick Drake (Rider on the Wheel), Iron and Wine (Communion Cups & Someone’s Coat, cp.4), Laura Marling (Sophia, cp.2), Andy Irvine (Mary and the Soldier), Christopher Parkening (Simple Gifts), and lots of The Tallest Man on Earth (e.g. You’re Going Back, Troubles Will be Gone).
Open G’s sonic versatility and physical accessibility will ensure it remains one of the world’s premier open tunings for many generations to come. Today’s artists continue to explore its balanced interval array across a bewildering range of styles (right now, I’m utilising its droning rhythmic possibilities to arrange Ravi Shankar’s Raag Parameshwari [1-b2-b3-4-6-b7] for guitar/violin/bass clarinet, as part of a commission for ZeroClassikal. I need all the help I can get from the open strings…).
- Last Goodbye – Jeff Buckley (1994):
“I’m convinced that the guitar must have been invented in a bar by some drunken Spaniard, some guy who’d just been kicked out of his house. I mean…you get it in tune in G and it’s never in tune in Emaj, and when you get in tune Emaj it’s not in tune in G. It’s weird. Those blues guys used to tune the [EADGBE] string a little bit sharper…it tempers the sound in other ways. It’s a beautifully chaotic instrument!” (Jeff Buckley)
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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 A (this +2): the tighter, ‘electric’ variant
- Open F (this -2): looser, non-slide transposition
- Drop DG (this with 1str +2): retaining the high E
• MORE INFO •
—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…
- Delta blues guitar: Open G is only one of many tunings emanating from the guitar traditions of the Mississippi Delta: also see Open D (nicknamed ‘Vestapol’ after the other parlor-manual song mentioned above), Open Dm (also called ‘Bentonia’ after Skip James’ hometown), Open Em (used for more of Robert Johnson’s hellhoundish fingerpicking), as well as John Miller’s guide to Mississippi John Hurt’s tunings – and for more on the lives of the guitarists discussed, see Steve James’ lesson article on Hurt’s style, plus Bruce’s Cornforth’s writings (Son House, quoted in The X in Robert Johnson’s Crossroads: “He (Johnson) used to play harmonica when he was ‘round 15, 16 years old. He could blow harmonica pretty good. Everybody liked it. But he just got the idea that he wanted to play guitar…he’d get the guitar and go bamming with it, you know? Just keeping noise, and the people didn’t like that. They’d come out and they’d tell us, ‘Why don’t you or Willie…stop that boy? He’s driving everybody nuts!’…[but] we couldn’t break him from it”)
- Global Open G: more Hawaiian vibes from Ledward Kaapana in George Winston’s liner notes for the Live Solo album (“no one would tell you what to do. You had to catch on by example…[the] traditional Hawaiian method stresses nana ka maka [‘observe with the eye’], ho’olohe ka pepeia [‘listen carefully’], ho’opili [‘imitate the masters’], and pa’a ka waha [‘don’t interrupt your teachers’]”) – and further transglobalism from the Garland Encyclopaedia, such as on African guitar cultures of the 1940-60s (“Low…identifies several common guitar tunings used [in Sub-Saharan Africa]: Zambian guitarists call the tuning D-A-D-F#A-C# [almost Open D] ‘Espagnol’; Masengo guitarists [from Congo] call it ‘Hawaiienne’. Other common tunings include G-A-D-G-B-E [later used by Ali Farka Touré in Mali], F-A-D-G-B-E [4>5>5>4>5], and F-A-D-G-C-E [4>5>5>5>4]. He suggests that some of the tunings and nomenclature…with certain techniques of playing, show African-American influence. He finds [that] the common alternation between high and low notes resembles techniques used for playing African lamellophones [tongue-vibrating instruments such as mbira thumb-pianos] – but the musicians he worked with did not acknowledge ‘inspiration from a local traditional instrument’…”)
Header image: Robert Johnson (one of only three known photos)
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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