How to play guitar in Open G tuning

What is Open G?

Open G is an alternate guitar tuning; instead of EADGBE (standard tuning), the strings are tuned to DGDGBD.

This means that, when played open (with no strings fretted), the guitar produces a G Major chord, hence the tuning’s name. It follows that barring any entire fret will produce a major chord; a second-fret barre produces A Major, a fourth-fret barre B Major, and so on.

This ability to play any major chord with the same shape makes Open G incredibly easy to pick up; it also makes it one of the best tunings for slide guitar.

Variations of Open G

While Open G may be the most common open tuning, there are several transpositions that are fairly popular, and to which the same principles apply when playing. In other words, if you learn a song in Open G, you can play it in the same way in these other alt-tunings.

Open F tuning (CFCFAC) shifts all strings of Open G down a whole step. Open A does the opposite, shifting the tuning up a whole step (EAEAC#E). These are the two most popular variations of Open G.

Generally, you won’t see tunings much higher than this, but it’s certainly possible to tune at least as high a Open Bb (FBbFBbDF), perhaps higher depending on the gauge of your strings. You also won’t see many tunings lower than Open F, as the strings become too loose and rattly.

Additionally, you’ll sometimes see the first string tuned up to root of the key. For instance, Bron-Y-Aur Stomp is in Open F, but is tuned to CFCFAF (the high E string is tuned to F rather than the standard C).

This serves to add a higher pitch into the mix, changing the open chord’s composition without changing the actual chord (it’s still F Major). Thus, this variation can be played very similarly to the more standard version of Open F.

A brief history (songs in Open G)

This famous tuning was pioneered by blues artists like Robert Johnson on the slide guitar. Songs such as Traveling Riverside Blues, Come On In My Kitchen, and Walking Blues were all played in this tuning.

In the late 60s and early 70s rock ‘n’ roll artists began to adopt the tuning in their music. The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards was perhaps the heaviest user of Open G. Many of their best songs were in this tuning; Honky Tonk Women, Brown Sugar, Tumbling Dice, Start Me Up, Scarlet, and Can’t You Hear Me Knocking were all played in Open G.

Led Zeppelin, and specifically their guitarist Jimmy Page, was another big fan of Open G and its variations. Travelling Riverside Blues (an adaptation of the aforementioned Robert Johnson Song), When the Levee Breaks, In My Time of Dying, That’s The Way, and Bron-Y-Aur Stomp all make use of open tunings.

Other notable Open G uses include Bad to the Bone by George Thorogood and The Destroyers and Little Green by Joni Mitchell.

Getting Started

Before trying to learn any chords in Open G, you’ll want to make sure your guitar is tuned correctly. From top to bottom, you’ll want your strings tuned to DGDGBD.

To do this, drop the Low E, A, and High E strings down a whole step, leaving the rest unchanged.

How to play chords in Open G

There are three moveable shapes that you’ll see most often in Open G songs. If you learn these chords, you’ll be well on your way to playing most open-tuned songs.

Shape 1: Major Chord

The first shape is, of course, the standard six-string major chord. This may be the easiest chord in all of guitar; to play it, simply barre the entire fret.

Move this up and down to create different major chords at will.

Major chord diagram in open g tuning

Shape 2: Major Chord v2

This shape provides an alternate way to play a major chord. It’s most commonly used when transitioning from or to the Shape 1 major chord. To play it, barre an entire fret with your index finger. Fret the adjacent B string with your middle finger, and fret the D string two frets away with your ring finger. In standard tuning, this is an Am7 shape.

To make this a pure major chord, only strum the middle four strings. If you’re okay with a bit of dissonance, it’s alright to strum all six. With a little bit of distortion, it sounds great.

Major chord diagram in open g tuning

For an example of this, look no further than the intro to Brown Sugar:

Keith Richards opens with this variation of the major chord, then transitions to a Shape 1 major chord. This is incredibly easy to do; since you’re already barring the 12th fret, you simply remove your third and ring finger to reveal the Shape 1 major chord.

This is equivalent to playing a chord five frets above and then shifting down, and provides a far smoother transition. In the tab above, for example, you could play a full 17th-fret barre instead of the initial chord and achieve the same sound (both are a C Major).

In the second measure, Richards then reverses the order of these two shapes. He opens with a fifth-fret barre (Shape 1 chord), then adds his third and fourth fingers to create a Shape 2 chord.

Shape 3: Minor Chord

Lastly, you can use the below shape to play minor triads in Open G. It’s a standard-tuning A minor shape, so it should be pretty familiar.

The only difference is that, when using this shape in open tuning, you’ll want to stick to strumming only the second, third, and fourth strings for the most part. Depending on where you are on the fretboard, the pitches of the open strings will probably conflict heavily with the fretted strings.

Minor Chord Shape Open G Tuning

Soloing in Open G

Complex solos in Open G are not all that common; open tunings are primarily used for rhythm and slide guitar, and solos are overdubbed or played by another guitarist. This is primarily because standard tuning is significantly better optimized for soloing, as the notes are at more consistent intervals.

That’s not to say you can’t solo in Open G; it’s simply less ideal since all scales and patterns are affected by the alternate tuning, and most guitarists aren’t as familiar with this tuning as they are with standard.

The good news is that the D, G, and B strings are unchanged or, if you’re in a transposition of Open G, the relationships between them are unchanged. This means that you already know how to play on these three strings, since they’re the same as in standard tuning.

If you want to use the top two strings as well, it’s important to understand how they’ve changed from standard tuning. Instead of E and A, they’re now D and G (they’ve been dropped a whole step, or two frets).

This means that, when transitioning from the second, third, and fourth string to the fifth or sixth strings, you’ll have to shift down two frets further than you would in standard.

The best way to become familiar with the open-tuned fretboard is to learn songs and experiment with it.

Conclusion

Open G and its variations are a great addition to any guitarists’ repertoire. They’re suitable for the whole spectrum of players, from beginners to experts, since they’re easy to play but take time to master.

Not only do these alt-tunings allow you to learn many incredible songs, they also enhance your understanding of the guitar fretboard as you begin to understand why playing in open tuning differs from standard tuning.

Garrison Bates
Garrison Bates loves music. He started playing and learning piano at age four and guitar at eleven. He began studying music theory when he was young and especially enjoys rock 'n' roll, old country, and folk music.
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