Open Tunings for Rock And Metal
Alternate tunings are a funny thing. Those of us who tend toward the heavier side of things might be more familiar with dropped tunings - that is to say, tunings where one string is dropped down by a whole tone to enable a root-fifth power chord to be fretted with just one finger.
This allows you to play faster power chord riffs than would otherwise be possible. And tunings like Drop D (standard tuning with the low E tuned down to D) instantly turn the key of D into a much more rock-friendly one, since the first D you find in standard tuning is pretty high and therefore Not Very Brutal. But for the most part, these tunings maintain the same rules of the fretboard: forget about the low string for a second and you’re dealing with the exact same intervals you’d be playing with in standard tuning.
The idea behind open tunings is a little more abstract, especially when applied to rock. If you’re a blues-based player you might be familiar with tunings like Open G, which is particularly slide-friendly and which almost sweet-talks you into playing the blues. But in a rock context you might not necessarily want that out of an open tuning (unless you’re Keith Richards, in which case we raise our scotch to you, sir). Often what you’re looking for from an open tuning in a rock or metal context might even be analogous to the way a sitar player might set up their instrument for a different modality. Often you’re looking for an atmosphere or a texture that might be out of reach with a traditionally-tuned instrument. Perhaps you need to build chords out of notes that aren’t within easy reach of each other, or maybe you need particular notes to be sounded by open strings in order to make a complicated riff more accessible. Here are three of my favorite tunings and why I like them. This is the kind of stuff I mess around with any time I pick up a guitar with G Force tuners, and it’s fun to be able to re-call tunings on a whim.
Open Cadd9 tuning (C G C E G D)
You’ll hear this one most prominently in the track “Scarlet” by Periphery. Originally written for Periphery guitarist Mark Holcomb’s Haunted Shores, this song includes clever use of open strings, ringing arpeggios and aggressive chording, and it uses pretty much the whole neck. I’m not sure how this song was written but it kinda feels like perhaps it started with an idea, then the realization that the idea could better be brought to life with this bizarre little tuning, and then the tuning inspired more exploration. At least that’s the way it works for me when I find a new tuning.
The ‘Wonderful One’ Tuning (C# F# C# F# A# C#)
Now this is a fun one. This tuning first came to my attention with the song “Wonderful One” by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant on their Unledded album. It’s related to the tuning Jimmy Page used on Led Zeppelin’s “The Rain Song,” which was D, G, C, G, C, D. But there’s more to this tuning than simply dropping “The Rain Song” down by a semitone. The second highest note is of a different interval between the two tunings, and it makes a difference. To my ear the “Wonderful One” tuning is a little more melancholy and bittersweet, while the “Rain Song” tuning is more relaxing and pastoral. This one is especially great with either an acoustic guitar or a clean, jangly electric with P90 pickups.
Open C (C G C G C E)
This is a tuning that many players associate with Devin Townsend (and rightly so because he’s created some utterly amazing music with it). But it’s cropped up in a few other locations over the years. For instance, Jimmy Page used it on “Most High” from the 1998 Jimmy Page & Robert Plant album Walking Into Clarksdale, and you can also hear it on the Led Zeppelin classic “Friends.” (It’s really hard to do an open tuning article without mentioning Page, y’see). And Canadian rockers The Tea Party employed this tuning on their classic song “Sister Awake.” You’ll notice that for the most part this tuning just consists of a whole bunch of Cs and Gs: you basically have two octaves’ worth of stacked power chord on the lower four strings, and a nice major third happening on the highest two strings. It’s great for drones, it’s great for chunky riffs, and it’s surprisingly great for complex-sounding prog chord because you can cluster notes together in interesting ways without having to dislocate your fingers to do it: for instance, here are four chords that may not be particularly neat in terms of naming conventions, but they have an undeniably proggy aura, even when played with heavy distortion.
What are your favorite open tunings for rock?