The vocal timbre and mournful wail of the slide guitar has become inseparable from the concept of Blues Guitar. However, in order to master the classic Blues guitar styles associated with the finger slide, you must first familiarize yourself with the different tunings that are key to those styles. Below is a list of my favorite, and most used, tunings for Blues Slide Guitar. With each tuning I’ve included a video, demonstrating how that tuning can be used to create a stylistic mood, which differs with each tuning. Remember, the more tunings you become familiar with, the more versatile you will be as a musician.
OPEN D & OPEN E TUNING
Open E: (E-B-E-G#-B-E) – tuned to E major chord
Open D: (D-A-D-F#-A-D) – tuned to D major chord
These two tunings are basically the same tuning… the only difference is that Open D is tuned one whole step lower than Open E. The tighter string tension of Open E makes it easier to play with low action, but the lower pitch of Open D produces more low-end body, and can give you a swampier vibe. That swampy vibe is all over this following video clip, which is is Open D tuning…
OPEN G & OPEN A TUNING
Open G: (D-G-D-G-B-D) – tuned to G major chord
Open A: (E-A-E-A-C#-E) – tuned to A major chord
These two tunings are also, in essence, the same tuning. The difference is that Open G is tuned a whole step lower than Open A. Delta blues guitarists like Robert Johnson made this tuning style famous. The sound of this tuning is great for solo guitar Blues playing, and allows the player to construct elaborate bass lines, since the root note is on the 5th string, as opposed to the 6th (bass) string, thereby allowing the player two bass strings for the thumb to play bass lines and 4 strings for the fingers to pluck melody notes.
Listen to how the bass lines play an important role in this following video, which is in Open G tuning…
Standard Tuning: (E-A-D-G-B-E) – not tuned to a chord
Standard Tuning is the most widely-used and standardized tuning for conventional 6-string guitar playing. It’s great for fretted (non-slide) playing because it makes many chord shapes and scale patterns comfortable for the fingers to reach. While it presents certain challenges for slide guitarists, Standard Tuning is actually a very versatile tuning for slide playing, offering many convenient chord fragments, both major and minor, up and down the fretboard. The key to understanding how to play slide guitar in Standard Tuning comes with learning how to mute the unnecessary strings, to prevent them from sounding. I have created an entire instructional DVD for playing in Standard Tuning, which you can check out.. just CLICK HERE for more info. The following video is an example of slide guitar in Standard Tuning…
OPEN Dm & Em TUNING
Open Dm (D-A-D-F-A-D) – tuned to D minor chord
Open Em (E-B-E-G-B-E) – tuned to E minor chord
While these tunings are not very well-known historically, they are some of my personal favorite, and most-used, slide guitar tunings. They are particularly great for playing in minor keys, but also work very well for Blues styles, even if the underlying harmonies are major. Again, these two tunings are essentially the same tuning, but Open Em is tuned one whole step higher than Open Dm. The following video shows how this tuning can be used in both fretted and slide styles. The acoustic rhythm guitar is tuned to Open Dm, and the 6-string lap steel is also tuned to Open Dm…
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Open G is one of the most versatile and easy-to-learn tunings for the 3-string and 4-string guitar. An open tuning is when a guitar’s open strings are tuned to a chord, therefore “Open G” tuning refers to tuning the open strings to a G major chord (G-D-G for 3-String) & (G-D-G-B for 4-String).
Open G tuning makes many riffs, scales, chords shapes, and chord progressions very easy to play when you are in the key of G, since your open strings make a G major chord. I was recently asked this question: “I am comfortable playing songs in the key of G on my 3- & 4-string, but is there a way I can use the same patterns to play in different keys by re-tuning the guitar?” The answer is yes! It’s very easy to change keys (or transpose) by simply changing the notes you are tuning your open strings to.
Below are two guides to transposing Open G tuning to different keys. The column on the left tells you what key to tune to. The middle column tells you what notes to tune each string to (bass note on the left, high pitched note on the right). The column on the right tells you which string gauges work best for each particular tuning. For example, if you know a song on the 3-string guitar in Open G tuning, but you want to play it lower, in the key of D, then you would tune the guitar to D-A-D and use the bass strings (E-A-D) from a 6-string guitar pack.
NOTE: Be careful not to put too much tension on a string, or it may break. With certain tunings, the stings may seem too loose or too tight for your specific preferences. This differs depending on your personal taste, string gauge, and the scale length of your guitar. The general rule is that if your strings feel too loose once tuned, try heavier gauge strings; if your strings feel too tight, try lighter gauge strings.
To really dig into the chord and scale patterns that will help you master Open G tuning on the 3-String & 4-String, check out my Chords and Scales Book HERE.
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