Open C Tuning for Guitar: The Ultimate Guide

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Exploring the world of alternate tunings can be incredibly rewarding, but it can also be intimidating. With so many different tunings out there, where do you even start? Thankfully, open C tuning can be a great starting point for open tunings, and it has a lot to offer for even more seasoned pros.

In this article, we’ll provide a guide to open C tuning. Whether you want to fingerpick your original folk songs or want to rip it up with a slide, this guide will help you get started with open C tuning for guitar. 

How to Tune to Open C

First up is how to tune to open C. Open C gets its name from the fact the strings are tuned to create a C major chord. Unlike Open E in tuning from our last guide, tuning to open C is a bit more intensive. 

The notes for open C tuning are: C-G-C-G-C-E.

Open C is more difficult tuning wise because it requires you to tune both up and down. Your G and high E strings stay the same, while your B is tuned up to a C. All of the other strings are tuned down, including the low E which becomes a low C. 

Because of the large change in string tension with open C, we recommend getting your guitar set-up specifically for the tuning. If you tune to open C with your guitar set for standard, you will likely have tuning issues. On top of that, you may even damage your guitar. It’s best to have your guitar set-up, either by a professional or yourself (if you’re comfortable with it). 

As far as strings go, you have some flexibility with open C. A heavier set of strings will benefit the lower notes, and a lighter set of strings will help with the higher string tension. We recommend getting a custom set for acoustic (or electric), giving you the ability to choose the best gauges for each string.  

Playing in Open C Tuning

With the technical stuff out of the way, let’s move on to playing in open C. A very important thing to keep in mind with open C is that your standard tuning, muscle memory, scale shapes, chords, etc, aren’t going to work. Open C changes the strings a lot, so you’ll have to learn new shapes, chords, and more. 

That said, not being able to use your old tricks is also a benefit. Open C (and other open tunings) can force you to try new things, create new sounds, make up new chord shapes, and more. One of the best things about open C is that it can help you get creative and do something different. Don’t worry though—we’ll still cover some of the basics, that way you can mix the sounds you know with the new sounds you’ll inevitably come across in open C. 

Chords in Open C

Chords are one of the best parts about open C. The tuning makes chords sound deep and full, and it also gives you access to all kinds of variations and voicings that are impossible to do in standard tuning. It also makes certain chords very easy to play. 

For example, a C major chord is just all the open strings 0-0-0-0-0-0. So any major chord can be made just by barring across all the frets. Major 7 chords are also easy in open C. A C major 7 is just 0-0-4-0-0-0.

Minor chords are also relatively simple. C minor is 0-0-0-0-3-3. You can make that a minor 7 by adding one more note, making it 0-0-0-3-3-3. 

As mentioned above, the best part about open C are the unique, full, and interesting chord voicings you can create. A lot of these are incredibly easy to do. Here are a couple examples of voicings that are distinct to open C. 

The shape for a C6 chord in open C is 0-0-0-2-0-0. You can also make a Csus2 with a very simple shape, only fretting 0-0-0-0-2-3. Csus4 is even easier, just being 0-0-0-0-0-1.

Scales in Open C

Next up are scales. Like always, the basic scale formulas never change. A major scale will always be 1-2-3-4-5-6-7, and a minor scale will always be 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7. The pattern on the fretboard will be different depending on the tuning, but the notes of the scale will be the same. 

If you have a good knowledge of the fretboard, figuring out the scale shapes you want/need shouldn’t be difficult. If not, there are scale shape charts for open C available on the internet. 

However, it’s worthwhile to figure it out on your own. It can be a great opportunity to learn the fretboard for Open C, and you’ll get a better understanding of what’s possible in open C. An online tool like Guitar Scientist can be used to create your own charts and diagrams, letting you make reference materials for future use. 

What to Play in Open C Tuning

Open C is most commonly used for acoustic guitars. The lushness and richness of the tuning is particularly well suited to acoustic guitars, creating beautiful and vibrant soundscapes. One example of this is Ocean by John Butler. He uses open C with a 12 string guitar to create a stunningly beautiful piece of music. Ocean really showcases the unique nature of open C and the chords/sounds you gain access to. This is the perfect track to show someone who thinks open tunings are just for folk songs. 

Speaking of folk songs, open C also works great for singer/songwriter type music. Artists like Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake have written incredible songs using open tunings, and open C is a great choice. A more modern example is King of Spain by The Tallest Man on Earth. He uses open C to create very full sounding chords that pair well with his voice, as well as play some banjo-esque licks that would be impossible to play in standard tuning.

While most of the focus is on acoustic stuff, open C can certainly be used on electric guitars as well. For whatever reason though, not many use open C with electrics. Because of that, open C on eclectic can be uncharted territory to a degree. That means there’s a lot of potential to explore, experiment, and try new things.

And as with all open tunings, a lot of the fun is the experimentation. Try out new shapes, chords, and melodies that you wouldn’t/couldn’t play in standard. This is how you’ll end up using open C to its fullest potential, so mess around a bit. Don’t worry about doing everything right or messing up. Just have some fun and try out some new sounds. 

Tune Up and Have Fun

If you feel like you’re stuck in a guitar rut, a new tuning can help you get creative again. Open C is a great choice for beginners and experts alike. It gives you access to all sorts of new chords, voicings, and sounds. Have some fun experimenting with the tuning and writing your own songs. And don’t forget to put on a fresh set of Stringjoy strings when you get set-up for open C.

Need some inspiration?

Check out our free Masterclass we did with open C master Joey Landreth:

4 Responses

  1. I submit you won’t damage your guitar tuning to open C. Two steps down for the low E, one step down for the A and D strings and a half-step up for the B string. It’s not a big deal. Sure, optimizing string gauges and intonation for different tunings will hone in on accuracy and playability, but I doubt Joni or Jimmy worried about it when they picked up an acoustic, twiddled the pegs and wrote their iconic stuff. Just go for it. Altered open tunings are worth trying also, like Bron-Y-Aur on the Physical Graffiti album. It uses open C but leaves the A string tuned standard. Cool article.

  2. Gor electric guitar examples, I would have pointed out Devin Townsend’s music! He’s used Open C for three decades now in his music.

    1. Hard to believe Devin Townsend isn’t mentioned in an open C tuning article nor Led Zeppelin who inspired him.

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