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Sunday, January 21, 2007

I never use open tunings. Here is why.

Leo Kottke, the father of the modern 12-string sound, often used open tunings early in his career, particularly on slide guitar. I expect that slide (aka bottleneck) guitar almost requires an open tuning. Tappers also probably benefit from open tuning.

6-string steel guitarists use open tunings all the time. I think one of the most popular open tunings is DADGAD; I see references about it a lot in the music newsgroups and forums.

Guitar pieces using open tunings are pretty easy to identify - they seem to have a new-age sameness to them, never change keys, and don't stray too far from the root. This is not universally true, of course. For example, Pierre Bensusan is an astounding guitarist who just happens to compose and play in DADGAD.


Musical Notes c.1980 Art Sulger


I've found that the natural tuning of the guitar, EADGBE, is very adaptable to most of the 12 major, 12 minor, and various modal keys, as well as serial music (I'm guessing about the Serial Music part).

One of the problems with open tuning, if you are a musician that reads music, is the translation of score to sound. It's hard enough to read music, without having to translate it into one or another open tunings. Also, for a 12-stringer, I expect that performing in various open tunings would take a lot of setup time between songs, and might require that you travel with a guitar in each tuning.

If you are a composer of guitar music who often works things out on the instrument (like I do, unfortunately), you are giving up a lot of tonal landscape by not using standard guitar tuning.

I try to avoid open tuning for the same reason I avoid marijuana: it makes everthing you play sound good. You can probably get a few good tunes out of each open tuning, but unless you have Bensusan's or Kottke's talent, your tunes will soon sound all alike.

Oh, and I heard the Leo Kottke now avoids open tuning.

12 comments:

Robert said...

Thanks! My big bro uses d tuning and it lacks "Tonal Landscape" and everything sounds the same. I bought him a 2nd guitar for closed tuning but I bet when I see him it will also be tuned to D

Anonymous said...

Try putting a capo on it - at the higher frets it does interesting things to the bass strings.

Jason Hosier said...

Two things wrong with this post: The first is that marijuana does NOT make everything you play sound good. I smoke every day. And the reason I play everyday for 5 or more hours is because I'm constantly on a quest to improve my musicianship, not because I think everything sounds good. Second- "Oh, and I heard the Leo Kottke now avoids open tuning." You heard wrong here. In some of his recent performances I have seen, he most definitely DOES use open tunings.

Jason Hosier said...

By the way, open tunings can be as adaptable as standard, only if you can be creative and spend enough time with your instrument. Check out Derek Trucks, open E is his standard tuning for when the slide is both on and off. In any key or any musical setting.

Jason Hosier said...

In fact, the most versatile thing to do would be to either become quick and fluid with changing tuning, or to bring another guitar in a different tuning (like you talked about). An accurate clip-on tuner and some good ear training helps with this. There is something to be said for the soundscape brought forth by an open tuning, as opposed to standard. The most creatively diverse thing to for solo acoustic guitar in this style is to use both, which Leo still does.

Jason Hosier said...

It can be said, though, that Leo uses them more sparingly today. But he doesn't avoid them altogether. The boundaries are endless..

social.defiance said...

Tis true. I experimented with open D tuning, and got 4 songs out of it (when I only thought I'd come up with 1). The four have their uniqueness to them and I made sure they don't sound the same, but since I lack the talent and genius of those like Kottke and Legg, I must go back to standard tuning for my acoustic songs.

Plus, 12 strings are a pain in the neck to fiddle with tunings and the neck is subject to abuse from such tampering.

Johnny Resin said...

I love that most of your points are admittedly guessing. just think of how much open tunings can extend the range of a guitar. A tuning like Open CMaj (CGCGCE) adds two full lower steps to the guitar's low end while maintaining the same high range.

People think open tunings make you less creative, I think do things the exact same "standard" way is less creative.

12String said...

@ Johnny Resin - I think you are right that a different tuning can be a good creative trigger. I'm afraid of getting in a "drone" trap. Also, I tend to read music poorly and it's impossible for me if I change the tuning :-)
I'll try that tuning tho!

Unknown said...

Open tunings can be a great compliment to a piece when other guitars are in standard as in the case of " Wild Horses" and it's not that difficult to change from standard to open G.

Unknown said...

Open tunings can be a great compliment to a piece when other guitars are in standard as in the case of " Wild Horses" and it's not that difficult to change from standard to open G.

Terry Ritchie said...

DADF#AD - D major tuning. It's attractive because it's beautiful to hear, and it makes putting together a pretty good tune easy. I love it. I often play repetitions of three or four chords here at home over and over just to calm down...relishing the hypnotic effect. However, like so many guitarists before me have said, it is limited and it is hard not to have all your stuff sound extremely similar. Unless you are a virtuoso with a musical brain superior to most. The obvious solution to having everything you do sound similar is to not do it all the time. Don't lean on this tuning too heavily for your repertoire. Use it as spice. You can dazzle listeners with a beautiful DADF#AD tune...but don't do it too much. It gets monotonous unless you are a true wizard which most of us are not.

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