The discovery of open G tuning was a revelation for Keith Richards, who wrote about the experience with awe and reverence in his autobiography Life.
Open G helped Richards create a personal sound and approach on guitar, and yielded such classic Rolling Stones songs as “Honkytonk Women,” “Brown Sugar,” “Beast of Burden,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Happy” and “Start Me Up.”
You don’t have to be a radical and remove your guitar’s low string to play in open G, the way that Richards does. However plenty of players have followed his path to good result. One example is Jim Chilson of Boston’s Ten Foot Polecats, whose five-string open G finger-picking style is just one reason that band is rising up from the blues underground.
Richards, Chilson and others remove that low string because it can cause some awkward resonating frequencies if it’s accidentally struck in open G tuning. The sacrifice, however, is that a five string guitar can’t be reset to other tunings.
So, although we’re on the road to learning the foundation of Richards’ style, in the interest of versatility please tune all six of your guitar strings thus, from low to high: D-G-D-G-B-D. That’s conventional open G tuning, the way it was first played in the Mississippi Delta many generations ago.
Being careful to avoid that pesky low D string — at least until you’ve go a good enough grip on open G to add notes on that string or create dissonances to enhance a song’s vibe — hit the top five strings sans fretting and you’ve got an open G chord. Move up to the fifth fret and you’re on the IV chord, C, and two more frets and you’re at D. That’s all you need to play a 12-bar blues like Son House’s oft-covered “Death Letter” or R.L. Burnside and Mississippi Fred McDowell’s versions of “Old Black Mattie.” Playing those IV and V chords, or any major chords in open tunings for, simply requires laying a finger across the correct fret. Nonetheless, understanding opening tunings provides a key to an alternate universe if you’ve just played in standard tuning before.
One of the keys to Richards’ style is changing the basic chord forms by pressing down on various strings with his second and third fingers. He also uses hammer-ons and pull-offs, and sliding cords, very effectively, all with a minimum amount of movement in his left hand.
Let’s take a look at “Brown Sugar.” The first chord is a high G, so moves to the 12th fret and put your index finger across the bottom five strings. Put your middle finger on the 13th fret on the second (B) string from the bottom and place your third finger on the 14th fret at the fourth (D) string from the bottom. Strike that chord once with those fingers pinning the strings and rapidly lift your middle and fourth fingers and strike the one-fingered chord. Those are the first two chords of “Brown Sugar.” Then, using the same strings, slide the three fingered chord position you’ve just used to the fifth fret, and then to the eighth fret. And now you’ve got the intro to “Brown Sugar” and a grip on the foundation of Richards’ style.
Simple as it seems, that manner of three-fingered guitar playing is at the core of many of Richards’ best compositions. Move from fret to fret and keeping working the basic changes of blues and blues-based tunes you know and you’ll get fluid fast. Start using your index finger to bend strings as you hold down chords, or the hammer and pull, and your command will grow to include interesting nuances as well.
Sure, the Rolling Stones’ songs that Richards penned in open G can easily be translated to standard tuning, but they just don’t sound quite right. So dive into open G and play “Brown Sugar” like Keef, and then let the tuning be your guide into the mysteries of the Delta and hill country blues that inspired him as well. And there’s a bonus: open G is the predominant banjo tuning, which makes learning open G on guitar a potential gateway to another instrument.
Check out this Arlen Roth lesson on open G tuning.