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Fretboard Workshop: Shapes on Strings

Fretboard Workshop: Shapes on Strings

Do you ever feel boxed in by standard tuning? You start writing a song, but it keeps sounding like something that’s already been written.

Do you ever feel boxed in by standard tuning? You start writing a song, but it keeps sounding like something that’s already been written. I think most of us can fall into that rut sometimes. The best way I’ve found to avoid that rut is to change things up. There are lots of ways to trick your brain into looking at music—and the guitar—in a new light to keep you inspired and working hard. Playing other instruments, studying different styles and genres, purposely breaking rules, and practicing with cool drumbeats are some fun ways to keep it fresh. One method that almost always seems to work for me though, is using an open tuning. In some ways it seems like the guitar was designed for this. I’ve even had guitars that sound terrible in standard tuning that suddenly sound amazing, once I found the right open tuning. In addition to expanding your musicality, an open tuning is a great way to use a mediocre guitar you might have lying around.

Open G is the first open tuning I started with, and many people know it as the tuning Keith Richards made famous. Though I’ve since learned many Stones riffs, I first discovered open G in a more melodic way thanks to the acoustic tracks on Led Zeppelin III. I soon found out that Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, and plenty of other Delta blues guitarists had been making open G sound pretty and dirty long before rock ’n’ roll even existed. I then stumbled into Zeppelin’s version of “In My Time of Dying,” as well as ZZ Top, Little Feat’s Lowell George (who actually tuned up a whole-step to open A), and many others.

Although there are lots of different directions you can take open tunings, I’ve always thought about them more in terms of light and dark. Or for the more scientific minded, major and minor.

Let’s get started by tuning our guitars. Tune your 6th string down a whole-step to D, your 5th string down a whole-step to G (because it’s the root, this open 5th string often gets used as a drone string), and finally, drop your 1st string down a whole-step to D. You’re now in open G, which is D–G–D–G–B–D (low to high).

Before we get into the examples, I should mention that while I definitely played along with albums and learned some riffs here and there, that’s not really the way I learned these tunings. Searching and discovering fresh voicings on my own really helped me get inside the sound of this new musical landscape. One of my favorite things to do is to drone the 5th string and just go off on different scales and chords to find how many ways you make the root note (G) feel different. It’s fun to play some more exotic scales, dyads, and triads against the droning root note. Obviously, it’s great to learn other people’s riffs, but don’t forget to take some time to see where your own instincts will lead you without intellectual interference.

In Fig. 1, you can see a few of my favorite go-to chord shapes in open G. Put them all together, and you’ll get the feel of a ’70s Rolling Stones ballad. Most of the chords have an open-G string in them, which helps everything feel and sound connected. Learning the chords from this figure is really the most important part. Once you learn them, try to rearrange them into a new riff or song.

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These chords will get you started, but if you are serious about adding open tunings to your arsenal, this is really just the beginning. Yes, you can figure out all the chords and scales you’ll need fairly quickly if you know your theory, but getting the touch and feel needed to translate these notes and chords into music comes with repetition, time, and heart.

Do you know how, when you get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, you can feel your way there by running your hands against the walls? Or maybe when you were a kid, there was a trail in the woods you rode your bike down so many times that you could fly down it and know where all the rocks and logs were? You just do these things so many times over that you can do them without thinking. The same goes for practicing guitar. When it’s time to perform, you can free your mind up to deal with the million other things it has to deal with. Like how some guy spilled beer on your pedalboard, or the bass player is missing the changes because he’s looking at girls, or the drummer’s drunk, or that your vintage tube amp is on fire. You get the drift, so hang in there and keep having fun.

Scott Tournet
Scott Tournet is the lead guitarist in Grace Potter & the Nocturnals. His top five recording artists are Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, the Stax house band, and Wilco. Attending a Phish concert in ’96 changed his life, and he has never looked back. For more information, visit