Unlocking the Mysteries of Open G Tuning with Slide Guitar
Open tunings have been exploited for use with slide guitar since the earliest days of Delta blues.
The most commonly used open tunings for slide are E, D, G and A. There are, of course, others that are utilized, with many distinctive variations, depending on the musician and style of music.
Joni Mitchell has employed a wide variety of unusual tunings in her songs, as have Stephen Stills and Ry Cooder and many other contemporary musicians operating primarily in styles of music outside of blues, such as pop, rock and folk.
This edition of In Deep will focus on open G tuning and how it is used in blues slide-guitar playing.
As illustrated in FIGURE 1, open G tuning, also known as “Spanish tuning,” is spelled (low to high) D G D G B D. To tune to open G from standard tuning (E A D G B E), tune the sixth, fifth and first strings down one whole step. In this tuning, strumming across all of the open strings will sound a G major chord, with the G root note being on the fifth and third strings. Legendary Delta blues guitarist Robert Johnson used open G tuning for many of his greatest songs, such as “Crossroad Blues,” “Walkin’ Blues,” and “Come On in My Kitchen,” among others.
Just as strumming across all of the open strings yields a major chord, laying a fretting finger or a slide across all six strings at a given fret will yield a major chord based on a different, higher root note, which is likewise found on the fifth and third strings. As shown in FIGURE 2, the I, IV and V (one, four and five) chords in the key of G—G, C and D, respectively—can be sounded by using the open strings to sound G, fretting at the fifth fret to sound C and fretting at the seventh fret to sound D. In bar 2, I demonstrate some standard open G-style slide licks over D and C, followed in bars 3 and 4 with slide licks in G and the G major chord sounded by at the 12th fret.
Now let’s look at some standard scale positions in open G that are commonly used for soloing, either with or without the slide. As shown in FIGURE 3, the G minor pentatonic scale (G Bb C D F) can be sounded by using a nearly symmetrical fretboard pattern, or “shape,” across all the strings except the second. In this example, I ascend the scale in one pattern and descend in a slightly different one. Practice and memorize both patterns, with and without a slide. When playing with a slide, be sure to keep it parallel to the fretwire and positioned directed over it in order to sound properly in tune.
In FIGURE 4, I run through a few solo-type phrases that employ G minor pentatonic played in this pattern. Like many guitarists, I prefer to fingerpick when playing slide, as this facilitates the use of pick-hand muting, or damping, techniques, which are used to suppress string vibration and sounds on strings you no longer want to ring. For example, when moving from one string to another, I’ll often stop the previously played string from ringing by touching it with one of my pick-hand fingers before picking the next note. This way, each note rings clearly without any others ringing, or “bleeding,” into it, which can create a muddy sound, especially if you’re playing with an overdriven tone.
The great Johnny Winter is a true master of slide guitar in open G tuning (as well as other tunings). Johnny used the similarly structured open A tuning (open G up one whole step: low to high, E A E A C# E) to perform his masterpiece “Dallas,” recorded for his 1969 self-titled album. FIGURE 5 offers a seven-bar solo played in Winter’s style. Notice the ongoing use of open strings throughout, which serve to facilitate moving from one string and position to the next while keeping the solo sounding rich and full. At the end of the phrase, I jump up to 12th position and lay the slide across the top three strings at the 12th fret to sound a G major triad, followed by licks that move between the 10th and 12th frets.