Go-To Tunings for Blues Slide Guitar

The vocal timbre and mournful wail of the slide guitar has become inseparable from the concept of Blues Guitar.  However, in order to master the classic Blues guitar styles associated with the finger slide, you must first familiarize yourself with the different tunings that are key to those styles.  Below is a list of my favorite, and most used, tunings for Blues Slide Guitar.  With each tuning I’ve included a video, demonstrating how that tuning can be used to create a stylistic mood, which differs with each tuning.  Remember, the more tunings you become familiar with, the more versatile you will be as a musician.

OPEN D & OPEN E TUNING
Open E: (E-B-E-G#-B-E) – tuned to E major chord
Open D: (D-A-D-F#-A-D) – tuned to D major chord
These two tunings are basically the same tuning… the only difference is that Open D is tuned one whole step lower than Open E.  The tighter string tension of Open E makes it easier to play with low action, but the lower pitch of Open D produces more low-end body, and can give you a swampier vibe.  That swampy vibe is all over this following video clip, which is is Open D tuning…

 

OPEN G & OPEN A TUNING
Open G: (D-G-D-G-B-D) – tuned to  G major chord
Open A: (E-A-E-A-C#-E) – tuned to A major chord
These two tunings are also, in essence, the same tuning.  The difference is that Open G is tuned a whole step lower than Open A.  Delta blues guitarists like Robert Johnson made this tuning style famous.  The sound of this tuning is great for solo guitar Blues playing, and allows the player to construct elaborate bass lines, since the root note is on the 5th string, as opposed to the 6th (bass) string, thereby allowing the player two bass strings for the thumb to play bass lines and 4 strings for the fingers to pluck melody notes.
Listen to how the bass lines play an important role in this following video, which is in Open G tuning…

 

STANDARD TUNING
Standard Tuning: (E-A-D-G-B-E) – not tuned to a chord
Standard Tuning is the most widely-used and standardized tuning for conventional 6-string guitar playing.  It’s great for fretted (non-slide) playing because it makes many chord shapes and scale patterns comfortable for the fingers to reach.  While it presents certain challenges for slide guitarists, Standard Tuning is actually a very versatile tuning for slide playing, offering many convenient chord fragments, both major and minor, up and down the fretboard.  The key to understanding how to play slide guitar in Standard Tuning comes with learning how to mute the unnecessary  strings, to prevent them from sounding.  I have created an entire instructional DVD for playing in Standard Tuning, which you can check out.. just CLICK HERE for more info.  The following video is an example of slide guitar in Standard Tuning…

 

OPEN Dm & Em TUNING
Open Dm (D-A-D-F-A-D) – tuned to D minor chord
Open Em (E-B-E-G-B-E) – tuned to E minor chord
While these tunings are not very well-known historically, they are some of my personal favorite, and most-used, slide guitar tunings.  They are particularly great for playing in minor keys, but also work very well for Blues styles, even if the underlying harmonies are major.  Again, these two tunings are essentially the same tuning, but Open Em is tuned one whole step higher than Open Dm.  The following video shows how this tuning can be used in both fretted and slide styles.  The acoustic rhythm guitar is tuned to Open Dm, and the 6-string lap steel is also tuned to Open Dm…


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~Justin Johnson
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Posted on September 10, 2016, in 6string, blues, cbg, cigar box guitar, delta blues, dust my broom, easy, electric guitar, elmore james, gospel, guitar, hill country blues, how to, instruction, justin johnson, lesson, lessons, music, parts, riffs, robert johnson, roots, slide guitar, theory, tune, tuning, tutorial, video and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I really am enjoying the modern take on slide guitar! These examples (I hope) are signs of things to come!!

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  2. Love your playing.

    Like

  3. Hi Justin. Looking into buying strings for CBGs for my grandsons and my builds. In following your suggestion to tune to 3-string open-G tuning, I wondered about which registery:

    LMM – Low G, Middle D, Middle GLMH – Low G, Middle D, High G – Recommended!
    LHH – Low G, High D, High
    GMHH – Middle G, High D, High G

    Since our builds are using a piezo in the bridge, I wonder whether you have an opinion concerning a tone circuit. This area seems to be subjective. Some opinions suggest it piezo p’up won’t benefit from tone control.

    I was advised to use acoustic bronze strings for the piezo bridge since our builds are essentially acoustic. Given the possibility for a p’up upgrade down the road, can I assume that steal strings would make learning more challenging, that light or medium acoustic string would be better for younger hands.
    Finally, regardless of any tone circuit, can our builds benefit from a cap and resistor circuit to minimize treble bleed at lower volumes?

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    • Hey,
      For the Open G Tuning that I generally use, I use the A,D, & G strings from a 6-string pack, and tune the A string down to a G. I usually use magnetic pickups, since the tone is much more consistent, full-bodied and reliable at high volumes. Since I use magnetic pickups, I string my guitars up with nickel round-wound electric guitar strings… medium gauge for fretted guitars, and heavy gauge for slide guitars.

      I do have several guitars that have piezo pickups, however, and I generally string those up with phosphor bronze acoustic guitar strings. Generally I will use light-gauge strings on cigar box guitars, so that I’m not putting too much stress on the internal bracing. The acoustic guitar strings are generally heavier and harder for beginners to play (push down against the frets) compared to electric guitar strings. If you want to make your guitars easier for beginners to fret, then you should use electric strings, even if the guitar is equipped with a piezo pickup.

      If you want the best tone out of a piezo pickup, the most significant thing you can do is to install a pre-amp or “buffer” to the guitar. This will fix the impedance mismatch between the amp and the pickup, which is what causes the thin, tinny, tone that you normally get from a piezo plugged straight into an amp.

      Hope this points you in the right direction!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi, Justin. Just came across a YouTube video on microtonal guitars and why they exist. Some comments included well-tempered tunings, equal tunings, micro tuning and many other thoughts within music theory and the like. Apparently these question have consumed many theroists attempting to find answers to intonation problems.

    So I wonder whether this explains why tuning to an Android app leaves my open strings, when played all at once sounding so odd or not in tune with each other?

    Do you have an opinion on this and other tuning methods?

    Like

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