Unbelievably it’s forty years this week since Creedence Clearwater Revival called it a day. Many of us started bashing out our first chords trying to play CCR songs. That’s because they’re mostly simple three-chord affairs, they’ve been burned into our consciousness by many, many years of airplay and they have great, straight-to-the point lyrics that make them perfect for the campfire.
There’s just one problem. Usually, they never sound quite right when someone other than John Fogerty is the person bashing them out — at least not the coolest, grittiest, dirtiest and plain-out swampiest songs in his and Creedence’s catalog. We’re talking shiver-inducing stuff like “Run Through the Jungle,” “Proud Mary,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Fortunate Son” and his take on Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special.”
The dividing line between playing these songs for real and just coming close is open tunings. Most guitar tab books that include Creedence material even overlook this point, displaying chords in standard tab style diagrams. Sure, Fogerty cut many songs — “Lodi,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” — in standard tuning, but he was also a big proponent of open D, open C and open G, which accounts for the slack-string rumble and cry of some of his greatest solos, too, like the spiky licks in “Run Through the Jungle.”
Fogerty runs neck-and-neck with Keith Richards for putting numbers that feature opening tunings on the pop charts. Before the start of 1970 Creedence Clearwater Revival had made four albums and scored six top 10 hits, including “Proud Mary” and “Bad Moon Rising.” And Gibsons have been part of Fogerty’s distinctive sound since 1968, when he purchased the ES-175 that he used to cut “Proud Mary” and “Graveyard Train” for the album Bayou Country. At Woodstock he used one of the two Les Paul Custom Black Beauties he had outfitted with Bigsby whammy bars.
It’ easy to get started in open tunings, but, like any other aspect of guitar playing, they can take a lifetime to master since their variations seem practically infinite. Some experts claims that Robert Johnson’s body of a mere 41 existing recordings reflects his use of 17 open and alternate tunings. Compared to Johnson’s Delta blues legacy, Fogerty’s open tunings are as accessible as Hershey bars and Coca-Cola.
His go-to open tuning was open D, which reflects D-A-D-F#-A-D on the strings. Set your guitar in that tuning and then try playing the barre chords — with one finger barring all six-strings across the fretboard — to the introduction of “Proud Mary starting at the 10th fret. Bismilla! Part of the drama in the sound that’s produced comes from the low, quick-to-rumble growl of his guitar’s strings when they’re tuned in D. This tuning was preferred by many of the blues artists who were part of the ’90s Mississippi juke joint revival, including Jessie Mae Hemphill and Honeyboy Edwards. “Bad Moon Rising,” “Midnight Special” and “Fortunate Son” were also first recorded in open D.
Fogerty used open G — Richard’s favorite — for “Looking Out My Back Door,” among others. Open G tuning is simply D-G-D-G-B-D. Because the low D string can cause some dissonant tones if it’s accidentally struck while playing barre chords, Richards removes that string on his G-tuned guitars. However, that eliminates the charm of sympathetic vibrations, which can add some harmonic interest to open G tuning.
More than 40 years after Creedence Clearwater Revival cut their swath in the legacy of American music, Fogerty is still playing Gibson guitars. He travels with a pair of Les Paul Gold Tops
including a Custom Shop-built 1956 reissue with P-90 pick-ups he uses frequently while revisiting the Creedence Clearwater Revival catalog. He also plays a Les Paul Standard
Honeyburst and, as he did in the CCR days, Les Paul Custom Black Beauties.