Acoustic blues In three tunings
Inject new life into your playing with lessons in three top tunings Drop D, Open G and DADGAD.
a great thing about open tuning is that it forces you to use your ear, because your old licks no longer fall under your fingers
For this perfect follow-on to Jon’s 50 Tips feature, which hopefully whetted your appetite for all things open-tuned, we will be looking in depth at three excellent tunings to lift your acoustic blues.
Open tunings are often perceived to be a fairly recent innovation, having enjoyed a steady rise in popularity since the 1990s. Of course back in the ‘60s rock and folk musicians were experimenting with open tunings, but even they were not the first. In fact, most of the open tunings in use today can be traced back to the early days of Delta blues and its pioneers. These musicians were solo performers, so open tunings made self-accompaniment easier, they were fuller and louder sounding, plus they facilitated the use of slide technique and simple fingerings.
In this feature you will learn three blues pieces in a trio of open tunings; at the very least they will encourage you to rethink your blues technique and, who knows, you might find it’s the perfect way forward for creating your own signature style. So let’s have a close look at the three tunings you will be studying in this lesson:
Drop D. De rigueur for modern metal players (since a powerchord can be played with just one finger on the bottom three strings); this deeply resonant tuning was first used by Delta blues virtuosos such as Son House and Robert Johnson over a hundred years ago. Contemporary blues revivalist Eric Bibb also frequently uses Drop D tuning. This is a great tuning for playing fingerstyle blues because alternating bass patterns can be easily played on the open fourth and sixth strings, leaving the fretting hand free to add melodies higher up the neck.
DADGAD. Believed to have originated in North Africa, DADGAD was popularised by 60s British folk guitarist Davey Graham. It is often referred to as ‘Celtic tuning’ because of its widespread use in Celtic and folk music. This tuning is not normally associated with the blues style as it doesn’t have a family line that can be traced back to those Delta blues pioneers, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used for playing the blues. The ‘sus chord’ generated by simply hitting the open strings creates an ambiguous and blurred tonality, that’s perfect for playing blues with perhaps a more contemporary feel.
Open G. Also known as ‘Spanish’ tuning it was extensively used by Charley Patton, the ‘father’ of Delta blues guitar style. Other influential open G players include Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Robert Johnson. This tuning often requires the sixth string to be muted, one reason why Keith Richards removed this string altogether. If you don’t want to do that and don’t need the usual low D of this tuning, you can always tune your sixth string up to G so it’s in unison with the fifth. Slide players already use lots of damping so this issue is less of a problem for them. And open G is perfect for slide because forming a barre (or laying a slide) across any fret results in a major chord.
The great thing about playing in any open tuning is that it forces you to use your ear instead of relying on robotic finger patterns, because all those tired old licks no longer fall under your fingers. So don’t be put off if you feel a little lost without your favourite chord shapes and scale patterns. Remember, if you’re outside of your comfort zone, then you’re learning something new.