Standard tuning is plenty versatile, but stepping into the alternate-tuning world is an outstanding way to broaden your horizons as a guitar player. Open tunings, in particular, give you a different sound and plenty of creative freedom.
Today, we’ll be looking at one of the most interesting of the open tunings — open E. Open E tuning has been used by the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers Band, and Joe Walsh. Here’s how to make it work for you.
A Guitarist’s Guide to Open E Tuning
1. What’s Open E?
Before jumping into this open tuning, it’s a good idea to make sure you know how open tuning works.
When you tune your guitar to open E, strumming the strings open will give you an E major chord. The same goes for other open tunings — open D tuning gives you D major when you strum the open strings, open G tuning gives you a G major chord, etc. As we’ll see further down, being able to play major chords with all strings open has its advantages!
Compared to standard tuning, the third string is a half step (one semitone) higher. The fourth and fifth strings are each a whole step (one tone or two semitones) higher.
In standard tuning (EADGBE, from lowest string to highest string), the third string is tuned to G. In open E, it’s tuned up to G#. The fourth and fifth strings are D and A in standard tuning. So if you’re tuning open, they would be tuned to E and B, respectively.
That means that open E tuning is E-B-E-G#-B-E, from lowest string to highest string. If you’re familiar with the E major triad, you know that the notes in an E major chord are E (the root note), G# (major third), and B (perfect fifth). Though there are six strings, only three notes are played when you strum the open strings. That results in an E major chord.
Curious about open tunings? This video will tell you more!
2. Bands And Artists Who Use Open E Tuning
One of the most iconic rock bands to use open E tuning is the Rolling Stones. “Gimme Shelter” (video above left), the opening track on their massive hit album Let It Bleed, uses open E for the rhythm guitar part. “Gimme Shelter” wasn’t the only time this English rock band used open E; the Rolling Stones also used the tuning in the intro to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” (video above right)
Bob Dylan’s album Blood on the Tracks also relies heavily on this tuning. All the iconic songs on the album were originally written in open E, but some were redone in standard tuning.
The Allman Brothers Band used open E on much of the band’s slide work; Duane Allman used it on “Statesboro Blues.” (video below left). Joe Walsh used it on “Rocky Mountain Way,” the Tedeschi Trucks band used it in “Midnight in Harlem,” Rush used it on “Headlong Flight,” and Joni Mitchell used it on “Big Yellow Taxi.” And, of course, plenty of other songs across genres use it as well.
3. How To Tune Your Guitar To Open E
If you feel like your guitar playing has hit a wall, tuning open can be a great way to break out of a rut. Here’s a quick guide to tuning your guitar to open E:
- Sixth string (low E string) — E (same as standard tuning)
- Fifth string — B (up one whole step from standard tuning)
- Fourth string — E (up one whole step from standard tuning)
- Third-string — G# (up a one-half step from standard tuning)
- Second string — B (same as standard tuning)
- The first string (high E string) — E (same as standard tuning)
In short, instead of the E-A-D-G-B-E used in standard tuning, you’ll want to tune your guitar to E-B-E-G#-B-E to get it into open E. For some video guidance, check out this helpful tutorial.
4. Precautions To Take With Open E
Tuning a guitar to open E isn’t necessarily bad for the instrument. However, there are some things to consider. The main thing is that, unlike drop tunings, open E increases string tension. Over time, that stresses the guitar neck and can sometimes cause damage.
On the extreme end, you might see warping or cracks in the neck. On the more mild end, you might run into some intonation issues. (This video will talk you through intonating a guitar if you haven’t done it before). The stress on the neck is made worse because the strings that need to be tuned up are thicker, exerting a significant amount of force.
When that force is increased, your risk of breaking a string increases, too. To lessen your risk of causing damage to the guitar, make sure you always tune back down to standard tuning once you’re done playing. Lighter gauge strings can also minimize your risk of damage.
If you want to be careful (or just want to avoid having to constantly tune up and down again), you can keep the strings tuned to open D. When you want to play in open E, just put a capo on the second fret.
5. Using Open E: Slide Guitar
Slide guitar techniques have historically been beloved by blues guitarists. Whether slide guitar players are on an electric guitar or acoustic guitar, open tunings make it possible to very easily play major chords.
That’s because, with open tunings, you can play major chords with a single finger. Slide guitar players usually need to position the slide directly over a fret wire to get the right sound. If you’re new to slides, it can take some practice to get the exact right amount of pressure to create the sound you need. Be patient with yourself; it’s worth the effort!
Here’s a helpful quick reference to help you learn where to put your finger for each major chord while playing in open E. You can easily find root notes on the low E string:
- Open: E
- First fret: F
- Second fret: F#/Gb
- Third fret: G
- Fourth fret: G#/Ab
- Fifth fret: A
- Sixth fret: A#/Bb
- Seventh fret: B
- Eighth fret: C
- Ninth fret: C#/Db
- Tenth fret: D
- Eleventh fret: D#/Eb
- Twelfth fret: E
Slide playing can be a lot of fun, but there’s definitely a learning curve. Check out this video for a helpful intro to slide playing in open E!
6. Using Open E: Drones
Drones on guitar involve using open strings to create a sustained tone. Then, you can play lines of melody over that tone. It’s a common technique in ambient music (video below left), but it can be used in just about any genre.
Open E tuning, like other open tunings, is especially helpful for playing drones. That’s because you can play a variety of guitar chords with one finger. Many of these chords leave the sixth and fifth strings open for playing drones.
One great way to use drones in your music is to select one string to use as a drone. Only play that string open, and then play notes from a relevant scale on the other strings. For example, if you learn the E major scale, you could start by using the sixth string as a drone. On the rest of the strings, you can play the E major scale or one of its modes (the Mixolydian mode is especially great for blues!).
Drones can be hard to explain, so it can help to hear them for yourself. If you’d like some guidance on how to use this new tuning to play drones, check out this helpful video! (above right)
7. Using Open E: Chording
We mentioned above that in open E; you can bar your index finger across all the strings to play different major chords. This is a good place to start (especially if you’re focusing on slide guitar), but single-finger major chords aren’t the only chord shapes you can use.
Resources like this one can introduce you to some of the easier chords to play in this position. Major chords are the easiest, but you can expand your repertoire by learning some minor and seventh chords.
Some minor chord shapes are movable.
For example, here’s one way to play G minor in open E:
- Mute or skip the first and second strings.
- Fret the third string at the second fret.
- Fret the fourth, fifth, and sixth string at the third fret.
With this particular chord shape, the root note is on the sixth string. That means you can move it anywhere on the fretboard. In this case, you’re fretting the low E string at the third fret to give you a root note of G. If you shift the shape, so the low E string is fretted at the fifth fret, your root note is A, meaning you’re playing A minor.
The moveable shape for seventh chords isn’t hard to master once you remember the single-finger major chord shapes. To play a seventh chord, bar your index finger to create the major chord you want. Then fret the second string three frets away.
Let’s look at G7 as an example. To play G major, you bar the strings at the third fret. You would then fret the second string at the sixth fret. If you’re up for a challenge, you might want to work on learning the major scale or major pentatonic scale in this tuning.
Though it will take some work, learning the scale will help you remember where notes are located. And being familiar with notes will make it a lot easier to construct chords. This video will show you some easy chords in open E, too!
8. Using Open E: Compositions
Once you’re comfortable playing in standard tuning and in an alternate tuning or two, you’ll likely discover that you’ve opened up a new world of creative possibilities. After all, we saw above that the Rolling Stones and plenty of other famous bands have played songs in open E.
You may find yourself more comfortable with an open tuning (or at tuning that isn’t standard). For instance, Jimi Hendrix tuned his guitar to Eb — a definite departure from typical tunings.
If you write music and find yourself in a creative rut, the new fingerings and different sounds of open E (other open tunings) just might reignite your imagination and discover new sonic horizons.
And if you’ve never written a song but want to start, this video is a great intro.
Want to Explore More Open Tunings?
Most guitar lessons don’t focus too much on alternate tunings. But if you want to learn to tune your guitar to open E and other alternate tunings, you might want to learn guitar via an online course. Online lesson plans for guitar let you learn on your own time while working toward your specific goals as a guitarist. And in many cases, the price for a month of online learning is less than the cost of a single private guitar lesson.
Now that you know a little more about open E tuning, you’re ready to use it in your own music. Whether you want to branch out into new genres, learn to play some of the songs you already love, or just have a new creative tool to use, open E can help you out.
But what do you think? Do you have any tips for those new to open E? Let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to like and share if you found it useful!