Tired of standard tuning? Want to play some blues slide? Ready to mix up your playing and explore new ideas? Then open E tuning is for you. Open E is one of the many alternate tunings for guitar, and it’s one of the more popular open tunings. It’s been used by greats like Elmore James and the Rolling Stones, so there’s clearly something to it.
This article will be a comprehensive guide to open E tuning, covering everything from how to tune to playing chords and scales. So get out the snark, find a slide (or not!), and get ready to have some fun with open E tuning.
How to Tune to Open E Tuning
First, let’s take a look at what open E actually is. Open E tuning gets its name from the fact you’re tuning to an open E major chord. You’re essentially tuning up your A, D, and G strings so they match an E major chord. Open E tuning is as follows: E-B-E-G#-B-E.
String 3: Tune this one up a half step to G#
String 4: Tune this one up a whole step to E
String 5: Tune this one up a whole step to B
Strings 1/2/6 all remain the same, but double check them on your tuner once you’ve tuned up 3, 4 & 5. On some guitars—particularly those with floating tremolos—raising the tension on some strings can affect the tunings of others.
When tuning, be sure to go slow. Since you’re tuning up instead of down, you want to be careful and make sure you don’t break any strings. It might take a bit for your guitar to get accustomed to the higher tension, so don’t be surprised if you need to retune a time or two in the first 10-15 minutes.
If you’re playing in Open E Tuning full-time, you also may want to get your guitar set up for open E specifically, or build out a custom set of guitar strings with lighter 3rd, 4th & 5th strings to keep the tension balanced.
Playing In Open E Tuning
Now that we’re in tune and set up for open E, it’s time to actually play. It’s easy to get intimidated by open tunings and just noodle around, but open E is fairly easy to understand if you take the time.
Playing Chords in Open E Tuning
Chords are thankfully pretty simple in open E. Let’s look at the basic major and minor chords, as well as some more complex chords, like seventh chords.
Major chords are by far the easiest thing to play in open E. If you’ve been paying attention, you should have realized a major chord in open E is just a one finger barre across all the strings.
To play an E major, all you have to do is strum all the strings open. For an A major, just barre all the strings at the fifth fret. For a B major, barre them all at the seventh fret. This goes for any major chord, though certain ones might be a bit more difficult (like Eb major).
There are other inversions and ways to play major chords in open E tuning, but those are a bit more complex and harder to fret. For now, the basic barre should be a good starting point to get familiar with the tuning.
Minor chords are also fairly simple, though not quite as easy as major chords. All the strings are open or barred, but with the G and B three frets higher. So an Em chord would be: 0-0-3 -3-0-0. An Am chord would be: 5-5-8-8-5-5.
Like with major chords, there are other inversions and ways to play minor chords in open E. However, minor chords typically aren’t the focus of open E, as the major nature of the tuning lends itself more to major chords and blues.
If you got the minor chords down, minor seventh chords should be easy. Minor sevenths in open E are exactly the same as regular minor chords, but the high B string is also fretted three frets higher.
An Em7 would be: 0-0-3-3-3-0. Bm7 would be: 7-7-10-10-10-7. As you can see, this is a very simple change to the regular minor shape that’s not that difficult to play. A fun trick you can do is hammer on and or off the high B string, bouncing back and forth between the minor chord and the minor 7 chord.
For standard seventh chords, like E7, the fingering is even simpler. An E7 in open tuning is: 0-0-0-0-3-0. As you can see, it’s like the minor seven shape but with the D and G strings open (or barred if you’re not playing in the open position, like for an A7 chord).
Experimenting With Chords
One of the best things about open tunings is that you can’t fall back on muscle memory. The chord shapes you’ve memorized over the years aren’t going to be of much use. This encourages you to experiment and try new things.
Creating your own chords and voicings in an open tuning is incredibly rewarding, and open E is no exception. Follow your ear and try to come up with your own, unique sounding chords. Tons of great songs have been written using this method, so don’t be afraid to experiment. You may just write your new favorite chord progression, riff, or song.
Playing Scales in Open E Tuning
Now you can play the main chords you’ll need for open E tuning, the next step is to learn some of the scales you’re most likely to use with those chords. Since open E is mainly used for rock, blues, and folk music, we’re going to focus on major, minor, pentatonic, and blues scales.
Though our tuning may have changed, the major scale itself has not. No matter how you’re tuned or what instrument you’re playing, the major scale (or any scale) formula will always be: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7. So for C major, that will be C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. For E major, it’s E-F#-G#-A-B-C#-D#.
If you know the fretboard well, figuring out the scale shape should be relatively easy. If you aren’t that comfortable with the note names, scale charts for open E are readily available online.
However, we recommend trying to figure it out on your own. It will help you familiarize yourself with the fretboard, as well as the tuning itself. Tools like Guitar Scientist can help you make your own diagrams and charts, allowing you to make reference materials for the future.
The basic formula for the minor scale is 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7. Again, this formula will always be the same, regardless of tuning. For E minor, that notes are E-F#-G-A-B-C-D.
Again, we recommend figuring out the scale shapes on your own for the experience. However, there’s nothing wrong with looking up a chord chart if you get stuck or aren’t ready to do it on your own.
Pentatonic and Blues Scales
The pentatonic scales only have five notes, so they should be a breeze if you already have the major and minor scales down.
For a major pentatonic, the formula is 1-2-3-5-6. All you have to do is take the major scale and subtract the 4th and 7th.
For a minor pentatonic, the formula is 1-b3-4-5-b7. Compared to the natural minor scale, it’s just missing the 2nd and 6th.
The blues scales are nearly identical to the major and minor pentatonic scales, but with the blue note added. In major blues, that note is a b3. In minor blues, it’s a b5. Just add the blue note to your pentatonic scales and you’re good to go.
What to Play in Open E Tuning
Allman brothers, blood on the tracks, slide, blues…
Now that you know the basic chords and scales, you have to figure out what you actually want to play. Luckily, you have a lot of options when it comes to what to play in open E tuning.
Slide and Blues
One of the most popular things to do in open E is play bluesy slide stuff. The most iconic example of this is Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers, who famously used open E for a large portion of his work. He used the tuning for all his slide work, other than a few exceptions like Dreams and Mountain Jam. Statesboro Blues from the Fillmore East is a perfect example of the incredible blues licks that can be played in open E.
Acoustic and Songwriting
The other popular thing to do with open E is play acoustic stuff in the more singer/songwriter vein. Though Duane Allman is most known for his open E electric slide playing, he used it for non-slide playing on some acoustic tracks, like Little Martha.
The best example of open E tuning being used for acoustic songwriting though has to be Bob Dylan and his classic album, Blood on the Tracks. There are countless articles detailing the story behind this record, but what matters for this article is that the whole thing was written and recorded in open E tuning.
To be precise, he was actually in open D tuning, which is open E tuned down a whole step. Still, it’s essentially the same tuning, and he utilized it to write some of the best songs ever. Any of these tracks is a great example of open E’s potential, so I’ll just go with my favorite off the album—Shelter From the Storm.
Tune Up and Get Strumming
You should have all the knowledge you need to get started playing in open E tuning. Whether you want to play Allman licks all night long or write the next Blood on the Tracks, open E might be just what you need to spice up your playing and get inspired.