For many people, music is an emotional outlet. A really good one. I suppose that’s why I started messing around with a guitar in the first place. I’ve never taken professional lessons, and I learned much of what I know by watching other guitarists play, copying what I see, and playing with other people for as long as they’ll tolerate me. However, I’ve spent most of my time experimenting on my own.
Learning to play guitar has been a painful process – for me and the people who had to listen. I’ve spent countless hours trying to learn interesting chords, finger techniques, and sound effects. Why? Because playing guitar is addicting. Seriously addicting. Addicting to the point of having to stop for a few days at the time because my fingers were on the verge of bleeding.
After a couple of years, I advanced to the point of ‘picking out’ parts of my favorite tunes. These were early attempts to ‘play by ear’, i.e. not read guitar tabs. I could listen to a song, find most of the notes on the guitar, and put them together in a way that created the rhythm and sound – sort of. It was incredibly frustrating. There were too many cases where the sound wasn’t quite right, and the notes were so far apart on the guitar neck, that I couldn’t pull it off. No matter how hard I tried, my fingers weren’t long enough, and I just wasn’t fast enough.
The single most important event in the learning process was when I discovered the concept of ‘alternate tuning’. Basically, this means tuning the pitch of the guitar strings differently. Why would a guitar player want to do this? To gain some potent advantages – like speed, flexibility, and enhanced sound. How is this actually done? By rearranging things on the guitar neck so that important chords and notes are positioned closer together and aligned to accentuate sound via some interesting aesthetic and harmonic properties.
One popular variation of alternate tuning is called ‘Open Tuning’. The core idea is to tune the six guitar strings such that they form a simple chord (like D). Once this is done, you can strum all of the strings without touching the guitar neck and make a brilliant D sound. In contrast, standard guitar tuning requires you to press three fingertips on three different strings to form a D. And even if you do this perfectly, the fact is, that you can never achieve the brilliant sound of an open D. Many blues and slide guitarists use open tunings for these reasons (among others).
I’m fascinated with open tunings, because they provide ‘new value’ above and beyond what standard guitar tuning provides. By new value, I mean that open tuning enables capabilities that are not available in standard tuning like:
- The starting chord for a song is open, meaning you don’t touch any guitar strings to play the root chord. This also provides a visual advantage – look, no hands!
- Only three chords are used in most songs, and open tuning makes these chords easily accessible.
- Instant gratification for beginners – you can start having fun and making music right away without having to master complex finger positions. In fact, you can play rhythm guitar almost immediately by playing three chords!
- Power chords can be played on the low strings with only one finger, so you have more fingers left to layer more complex patterns on top of that power chord.
- Finger movement from low notes to high notes is localized, as complementary notes are clustered together on the fret board – not spread across it.
- A broader and deeper range of octaves is enabled. Open D tuning is a great example where you tune the first string down from E to D. This enables a much lower sound that encroaches on a bass guitar. (Some other strings are also retuned in Open D).
- A fuller and more vibrant tone for individual notes is produced, and your fingerpicking almost instantly improves.
- A bottleneck slide can be used across any and all strings, up and down the guitar neck, to produce a nasty blues sound (my personal favorite).
- Heavier strings which enable a louder sound and more sustainability can be used
- You can play longer, because open tuning is easier on your fingers.
As you can see by now, open tuning fundamentally changes the way you play guitar. Given the advantages, it’s no surprise that many artists utilize open tuning as their baseline guitar framework. Likewise even standard guitarists, on occasion, engineer authentic sound by retuning to alternate or open tunings.
In my opinion, open tuning is much more than the collective set of advantages noted above. It’s the ultimate platform for experimentation, the essence of which is spontaneous self-expression. With limited experience, no prior thought, and little effort, I see players creating unique riffs and interesting sounds on the fly according to whatever they’re feeling at the time. To these guys, music is a major source of creativity and inspiration – not just an emotional outlet.
I rarely get the chance to play guitar these days because of competing priorities. At best I spend five minutes here and there with an acoustic that I keep around. And because I discovered open tuning approaches later in life, I spend most of my time stuck in standard tuning. Maybe that’s why I like to play the Blues…
So enough about open tuning from a guitar perspective. It’s time to move on to why I like the name ‘Open Tuning’ for my blog. I’ll get to this in my next post, but for now, let me say that in business, like playing guitar, speed matters. So does flexibility, uniqueness, sound (message clarity), etc. More on this soon.