A staple of the Southern United States Blues movement, slide guitar did away with the typical scales and progression of what had come before it and turned the guitar into something completely new.
Open tuning allowed these guitarists to freely slide between chords, creating a twangy sound unique to the genre.
To get started with slide guitar all you need is something to use as a slide and to learn how to tune your guitar to open tunings. The best open tuning keys are E, A, D, and G, with electric guitars being safer to leave in higher tunings than acoustic guitars.
Today, I’m going to show you some easy ways to get your guitar tuned to the most popular keys for slide guitar. Then we’ll quickly discuss the pros and cons of open tuning on the health of your guitar.
What Are the Most Common Open Tuning Keys for Slide Guitar?
Open tunings are all based on tuning your guitar to a single key across all 6 of your strings. This means when you play your guitar across the frets with no finger placements the chord for that tuning will ring out.
For example, tuning to open E will mean when you play all strings open you get an E chord!
The most common open tuning keys are E Major, A Major, D Major, and G Major. These will get you through a majority of popular open tuning slide songs, and give you all you need to get started experimenting with the sounds you can achieve on an open-tuned guitar.
The reason these open slide tunings are the most popular is that a majority of blues and popular music are written in those keys. They are versatile and suit these genres best.
How to Open Tune in the Key of E
Let’s kick things off with how to tune your guitar to open E.
The notes you’ll be tuning to from the lowest string to the highest are:
E B E G♯ B E
Going from standard tuning; to get your guitar to open E you want to tune your:
- A string up a full step.
- D string up a full step.
- G string up a half step.
Tuning Open E with a Chromatic Tuner
If you have a chromatic tuner then this tuning is quite straightforward.
- Leave your low E string in standard tuning.
- Move straight to your A string, and tune up until it’s tuned to a B.
- Move to the next string and tune it up to an E.
- Moving to the next string again and tune up to a G#.
Your guitar is now tuned in the key of open E.
Tuning Open E without a Tuner
If you haven’t got a tuner available don’t fret! You can still get to open E tuning using only your fingers and ears.
- The first thing you want to do is tune your A string to B.
To do this play a harmonic note on the 12th fret of your B string (second highest string). Then play your A string and begin tuning up until the two strings sound like they’re in the same key.
- Next, you’ll tune your D string to E.
Play a harmonic note on the 12th fret of your low or high E string and begin tuning your D string up until the two notes sound the same.
- Finally, now that you’ve tuned the D string,
play the 4th fret of the D string (now an E), and then tune the G string up until the two notes sound the same.
This method takes a bit of practice but will come in handy if you ever need to tune without a tuner around!
Another way to get to Open E
If you’re worried about the tension of your strings when using Open E another way to get to this tuning is to tune down to the open key of D and use a capo on the second fret. This will put your guitar in Open E.
We’ll cover how to tune to open D soon!
How to Open Tune in the Key of A
Open A is another open tuning that requires you to tune up some of your guitar strings. It makes playing the open strings of your guitar produce an A Major chord.
The string tunings of Open A are:
E A E A C# E
- D string up a full step.
- G string up a full step.
- B string up a full step.
Tuning to Open A with a Chromatic Tuner
Open A is one of the easier opening tunings to remember making it straightforward to tune if you’ve got a chromatic tuner.
- Starting at the D string tune up a whole step (until you reach E).
- Then move to your G string and tune up a full step again (to A).
- Finally moving onto the B string tune up a whole step yet again (to C#).
Tuning to Open A without a Tuner
The repetitive tunings of open A make this tuning pretty straightforward if you don’t have a tuner!
- The first string you want to tune is the D string.
Play the 12th fret of the E string and then tune the D string up until the two notes sound the same.
- Next move to the G string.
To get this in tune play the 12th fret of the A string and tune the G string up until the notes are matching.
- Finally to tune the B string
use the newly tuned G string by playing the 4th fret. Now tune the B string until these two notes sound the same.
How to Open Tune in the Key of D
Open tuning in the key of D will make an open strum of your guitar play a D chord. Open D is the first tuning on this list that require you to tune your strings down so it creates less tension on your guitar neck than open tunings like E and A.
The notes of open D tuning are:
D A D F# A D
- E strings down a full step.
- G string down a half step.
- B string down a full step.
Tuning Open D with a Chromatic Tuner
Tuning your guitar to the key of open D require you to re-tune all of your strings from standard tuning except for the A and D strings.
- The low E string is up first and needs to be tuned down a whole step until you reach D.
- Next skip past the A and D strings and straight to the G string. This string needs to be tuned down a half step until you reach the note of F#.
- The B string needs to be tuned down a whole step to the note A.
- The same applies to the high E string, also a whole step down but this time you’re aiming to tune it to a D note.
Tuning Open D without a Tuner
- The first thing you want to do is tune the low and high E strings to D.
Using the D note of the open 4th string tune both the highest and lowest strings down until they sound the same as the D string.
- This time going in reverse order we want to tune the B string to A.
Using the open 2nd string which is A tune the B string down until the two strings sound the same.
- Lastly, you want to tune the G string to F#.
That is a semi-tone down and there is no F# string to use as a reference. Instead, use the 4th fret of the D string to tune. Playing the 4th fret on the D string tune the G string down until the two notes sound the same.
How to Open Tune in the Key of G
The final open key tuning we’re going to teach you is open G. This is a very popular open key tuning for a lot of rock and blues bands. It’s an essential tuning to get to know if you want to learn songs by bands like the Rolling Stones who used it a lot!
The string tunings for open D are:
D G D G B D
- E strings down a full step.
- A string down a full step.
Tuning Open G with a Chromatic Tuner
Tuning open G with a chromatic tuner is very straightforward.
- First, tune the low E string down until it produces a note of D.
- Next tune the high E string down a whole step until it is the note of D as well.
- Finally, tune the A string down a whole step so that it is the note of G.
Tuning open G without a Tuner
- The first string you want to tune is the low E string.
Using the 3 string (D) as a reference tune the low E down a full step until the two notes sound the same.
- Next, tune the high E string down a whole step using the same D string as before as a reference. Tune down until the two notes ring out the same.
- Finally use the open A string as a reference and tune the G string down a full step. Tune the G string until the two notes sound identical.
Other Slide Guitar Tunings from Popular Songs
Bad to The Bone – George Thorogood
This all time classic slide track is the first song to come to mind when you think about slide guitar and it’s performed in open G tuning.
In My Time of Dying – Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page made use of slide guitar in a lot of the bands music. One of the most famous examples is In My Time Dying which uses slide guitar in Open A tuning
Is it Safe to Leave a Guitar in An Open Tuning?
The answer to this depends on whether the tuning requires you to tune up or down.
Tunings like open D and open G pose no risk to the neck of your guitar because you’re loosening up the strings and not adding any pressure to the neck or pegs.
Tunings like open E and open A on the other hand can pose a risk of damaging your guitar over time.
The extra tension created on the bridge and neck created by tightening your strings can pull your neck out of alignment and cause all sorts of tone and physical problems with your guitar.
Can Open E Tuning Damage Acoustic Guitars?
Open tunings that increase the pitch of your guitar such as open E are a little more dangerous on acoustic guitars than on electrics. The metal bridge found on electric guitars handles the extra tension far better than the wooden construction of acoustic guitars.
Most acoustic use pegs to hold the strings to the bridge of the guitar. If you leave your guitar in open E for too long; best case scenario these pegs will pop out, worst case scenario you might bend your guitar neck out of place!
Short Term vs Long Term Effects of Open Tuning a Guitar
The short-term open tunings aren’t going to do any damage to your guitar (especially if its an electric). As long as you avoid leaving your guitar in a high open key tuning you won’t run into any problems.
Issues can start to arrive when you leave your guitar in a high open tuning for a while. The tighter string tension will apply constant pressure on both your guitar’s bridge and neck, pulling them towards each other the longer you leave it.
How to Avoid Problems With Open Tuning
One of the best ways to avoid open tuning related issues is to find an alternative tuning and use a capo if you want to leave your guitar in an open tuning.
- If you want to use an open E tuning that requires you to tune strings up, opt to use open D instead where you tune your strings down.
- Both tunings use the same intervals, only they are a full step apart.
- To make up for this difference put a capo on the second fret of your open D tuning. This will put your guitar in open E without the extra string tension.
Another recommendation is to use lighter gauge strings. These strings are more malleable and stretch easier. Heavier gauge strings mean they have more pulling power on your bridge and neck than lighter ones and will damage your guitar a lot faster.
If you don’t want to change all your strings then you could choose to use a lighter gauge on only the lowest strings (E and A). These two strings are responsible for a lot of that dreaded tension so lightening them up will do wonders for the longevity of your guitar.