Shapes on Strings
BY SCOTT TOURNET
Scott Tournet is the lead guitarist in Grace
Potter & the Nocturnals. His top five record-
ing artists are Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Led
Zeppelin, the Stax house band, and Wilco.
Attending a Phish concert in ’ 96 changed his
life, and he has never looked back. For more
information, visit gracepotter.com.
THEORY: Advanced Beginner
• Explore the sound of
• Learn how to break out of
the rut of standard tuning
• Create I–IV–V progressions
using basic chord shapes in
Click here to hear
sound clips of
Do you ever feel boxed in by standard tuning? You start writing a song, but it
keeps sounding like something that’s already
been written. I think most of us can fall
into that rut sometimes. The best way I’ve
found to avoid that rut is to change things
up. There are lots of ways to trick your brain
into looking at music—and the guitar—in a
new light to keep you inspired and working
hard. Playing other instruments, studying
different styles and genres, purposely breaking rules, and practicing with cool drumbeats
are some fun ways to keep it fresh. One
method that almost always seems to work for
me though, is using an open tuning. In some
ways it seems like the guitar was designed
for this. I’ve even had guitars that sound terrible in standard tuning that suddenly sound
amazing, once I found the right open tuning.
In addition to expanding your musicality, an
open tuning is a great way to use a mediocre
guitar you might have lying around.
Open G is the first open tuning I
started with, and many people know it as
the tuning Keith Richards made famous.
Though I’ve since learned many Stones
riffs, I first discovered open G in a more
melodic way thanks to the acoustic tracks
on Led Zeppelin III. I soon found out that
Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell,
R.L. Burnside, and plenty of other Delta
blues guitarists had been making open G
sound pretty and dirty long before rock
’n’ roll even existed. I then stumbled into
Zeppelin’s version of “In My Time of
Dying,” as well as ZZ Top, Little Feat’s
Lowell George (who actually tuned up a
whole-step to open A), and many others.
Although there are lots of different
directions you can take open tunings, I’ve
always thought about them more in terms
of light and dark. Or for the more scientific minded, major and minor.
Let’s get started by tuning our guitars.
Tune your 6th string down a whole-step to
D, your 5th string down a whole-step to G
(because it’s the root, this open 5th string
often gets used as a drone string), and
finally, drop your 1st string down a whole-step to D. You’re now in open G, which is
D–G–D–G–B–D (low to high).
Before we get into the examples, I should
mention that while I definitely played along
with albums and learned some riffs here
and there, that’s not really the way I learned
these tunings. Searching and discovering
fresh voicings on my own really helped me
get inside the sound of this new musical
landscape. One of my favorite things to do
is to drone the 5th string and just go off
on different scales and chords to find how
many ways you make the root note (G) feel
different. It’s fun to play some more exotic
scales, dyads, and triads against the droning
root note. Obviously, it’s great to learn other
people’s riffs, but don’t forget to take some
time to see where your own instincts will
lead you without intellectual interference.
In Fig. 1, you can see a few of my
favorite go-to chord shapes in open G. Put
them all together, and you’ll get the feel
of a ’70s Rolling Stones ballad. Most of
the chords have an open-G string in them,
which helps everything feel and sound
connected. Learning the chords from this
figure is really the most important part.
Once you learn them, try to rearrange
them into a new riff or song.
These chords will get you started, but if
you are serious about adding open tunings
to your arsenal, this is really just the beginning. Yes, you can figure out all the chords
and scales you’ll need fairly quickly if you
know your theory, but getting the touch
and feel needed to translate these notes
and chords into music comes with repetition, time, and heart.
Do you know how, when you get up in
the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, you can feel your way there by running your hands against the walls? Or maybe
when you were a kid, there was a trail in the
woods you rode your bike down so many
times that you could fly down it and know
where all the rocks and logs were? You just
do these things so many times over that you
can do them without thinking. The same
goes for practicing guitar. When it’s time to
perform, you can free your mind up to deal
with the million other things it has to deal
with. Like how some guy spilled beer on
your pedalboard, or the bass player is missing the changes because he’s looking at girls,
or the drummer’s drunk, or that your vintage tube amp is on fire. You get the drift, so
hang in there and keep having fun.