The Best Tuning for Acoustic Slide Guitar [Open E Tuning]

If you are learning slide guitar on the acoustic you might be wondering what tuning you should start out in? In the following guide we’ll give you our take on what we consider the best tuning for acoustic slide guitar, particularly if you are just getting started, and show you how to get in tune and explain the similarities between this tuning and standard tuning.

Open tunings are the best tunings for acoustic slide guitar, with open E the best tuning if just starting out. It is the most familiar for those new to alternate tunings as it bears the closest resemblance to standard tuning. 

Slide guitar can be difficult, especially when first starting out.

Intonation e.g. playing the notes at the correct pitch can be tricky without being able to press down against the frets. There’s also plenty of fret buzz and associated string noise that can be difficult to minimize until you become more familiar with how the slide interacts with the strings of the guitar, and of course there’s the fact that one finger is barred the entire time.

The truth is, playing slide is a skill that improves with the more time spent on the guitar developing a feel for the slide with regard to intonation and learning how to minimize string noise.

With this in mind, it makes sense to play in a tuning that makes things a little more intuitive and takes advantage of the slide itself, and the best tunings in this regard are open tunings.


What are Open Tunings?

Open tunings are tunings that require the strings of the guitar to be tuned to the notes of a chord. 

When in standard tuning the strings of the guitar (6th E, 5th A, 4th D, 3rd G, 2nd B, and 1st E), form an A11/E chord.

Technically, this is actually an A chord with 11th, 9th and 7th scale degrees added and an E in the bass.

Standard tuning is the most common tuning on guitar as it offers a good compromise, in terms of hand position, between playing chords and playing scales.

As we know, to play basic chords in the primary position in this tuning requires the fingers to be placed on specific frets. For example an E chord requires the 2nd fret of the A and D string and the first fret of the G string and the remainder of the strings to be open.

When playing in an open tuning the strings of the guitar are tuned to a major chord, unlike the A11/E in chord standard tuning.

For example the chord notes that make up the D major triad are D, A, and F# and these are then repeated on the remaining strings.

To play in open D tuning the guitar strings must be tuned to D, A and F# and form a D major chord when all strings are strummed.

In open D tuning the order of strings is as follows:

6th String 5th String 4th String 3rd String 2nd String 1st String
D A D F♯ A D

When looking at the chord diagram below this should start to make more sense.

D Major - Open Position

  • Firstly looking at the 1 – 3 strings we can see the 1st string is fretted at the 2nd fret, which is an F#.
    F#is one whole step (2 frets) higher than the open string E, so to tune this string we need to raise the pitch by two frets.
  • When we play an open D major chord the second string plays the note D.
    To tune the 2nd string to D up from B we would need to raise the pitch by a whole step and a half step, so it’s more practical to lower the pitch of the string by a whole step to A which is one of the notes of the D major triad.
  • We can then lower the pitch of the third string by a half step to F# from G
  • To include the 5th and 6th strings, which are normally muted to play a D major chord we can simply leave the A string as it is as A is one of the three notes of the D major triad and lower the pitch of the 6th string a whole step to D.
You might be wondering why the 5th string is muted when playing an open D chord in standard tuning, after all, being an A it’s one of the notes included in the D major triad.

While this is true, it commonly not played as this allows the open 4th D string to be the lowest note of the chord and most of the time the lowest note of the chord is the root note. This isn’t always the case but for the sake of keeping things simple it’s safe to assume under most circumstances the root note is most often found on the lowest string that is played as part of the chord.

While theoretically using any order of the three notes of the D Major triad: D, A, and F# would mean the guitar forms an D Major chord when the open strings are all strummed the notes are arranged across the 6 strings based on the tension of the individual strings e.g. the ability for each string to be tuned to the notes that make up the chord.

Arranging the tuning in another order might mean strings are raised or lowered by more than a whole step, which while technically would still give us a D chord is less ideal in terms of balancing string tension across the fretboard, making the guitar easiest to play and also not placing an even distribution of tension on the neck of the guitar.

The Benefits of Open Tunings

When playing in an open tuning major chords can be played by either playing the open strings or barring the 6 strings at the same fret.

This is one of the real advantages to playing in open tunings.

If tuned to open E for example, simply following the major scale on the 6th string means we can play an E major chord by playing all the open strings, and other basic chords within the key of E such as A major at the fifth fret by simply fretting all the strings at the fifth fret.

The table below shows the different chords based on different fret positions (root notes) following the fretboard on the 6th string when tuned to open E:

0 1st Fret 2nd Fret 3rd Fret 4th Fret 5th Fret 6th Fret 7th Fret 8th Fret 9th Fret 10th Fret 11th Fret 12th Fret
E F F♯ G G♯ A A♯ B C C♯ D D♯ E

In other open tunings, for example open A the scale would start on the A for the open strings.

In this sense, it’s easy to see why open tunings are so effective for slide guitar.

As the slide restricts the index, ring, or pinky finger (depending on which finger you play the slide with) within the slide to playing just the strings that align vertically. By tuning to an open tuning the notes of the major chords align and the then become easy to play with a slide and the neck becomes intuitive to navigate.


Why is open E Tuning the best to get started with?

The video below features one of the truly great modern slide guitarists, Derek Trucks playing in open E. Check out the section where he discusses slide guitar playing emulating the human voice (9:30).

 

When new to alternate tunings, it’s easy to feel like you are playing an entirely new instrument. The once familiar layout of the fretboard becomes confusing as the strings and intervals you are accustomed to have changed.

Open E tuning is the closest open tuning in terms of notes and therefore intervals to standard tuning (E, A, D, G ,B, E)

Standard Tuning

6th String 5th String 4th String 3rd String 2nd String 1st String
E A D G B E

Open E Tuning

6th String 5th String 4th String 3rd String 2nd String 1st String
D  B   E   G♯  A D

As can be seen when comparing the tables above, only three strings are changed, the 5th, 4th, and 3rd strings.

And while changing those three middle strings still means the guitar’s fretboard has changed considerably, the low E and high E strings remain the same providing some familiarity with standard tuning.

Most of us, even if we don’t know the notes of the fretboard will know the notes on the 6th E string, as we need to know these to play barre chords rooted on the E string. The notes on the 6th string are the root notes of the major chords formed when barring the entire fretboard in open E tuning this also adds an element of familiarity.

Not only this, but as we now have three E strings on the guitar, by simply following the example of the 6th E string you know now where half the notes on the guitar’s fretboard are located.

This also means the root notes of any chord you play if barring the frets vertically are found on the 6th, 4th, and 1st strings, an octave apart, meaning open string drone notes can easily be incorporated into your playing in the key of E.


How to Tune to Open E

As we have already touched on, when compared to standard tuning we are simply tuning 3 of the strings up a half tone or whole tone. Most open tunings require at least some strings to be lowered in pitch, but open E requires the three strings that change to be raised higher, so take care not to break strings when tuning to open E.

You might also notice the three strings that are not raised may go out of tune as increased tension is placed on the 5th, 4th, and 3rd strings, so be sure to check their tuning also once roughly in tune.

If you have trouble tuning to open E use the following tips/ references as a guide:

  • Leave the high E (1st), low E (6th) and B (2nd) string alone.
  • Tune the 5th (A string) up to B by referencing the 2nd string (B) or 12th fret harmonic on the 2nd string
  • Tune the 4th string up a whole tone to E by referencing the 6th string
  • Tune the 3rd string up to G# by referencing the 4th fret of the now lowered 4th string

Open E is similar to open D tuning except it is up a whole tone. For example, D is two frets up from E on the guitar fretboard, so theoretically tuning to open D and using a capo on the 2nd fret would also mean the guitar is tuned to open E.


Other Benefits of playing in Open E

The other advantage to open E is the familiarity with playing licks as the notes haven’t changed on the fretboard quite as much as other tunings.

I’ve included tabs below showing the E major scale in both standard tuning and open E tuning, along with the minor pentatonic and blues scales.

Major Scales

E Major Scale - Standard Tuning

E Major Scale - Open E Tuning


Minor Pentatonic Scales

E Pentatonic Minor - Standard Tuning

E Pentatonic Minor - Open E Tuning


Blues Scales

E Blues Scale - Standard Tuning

E Blues Scale - Open E Tuning


Final Thoughts

While you can play slide guitar in any tuning, including standard tuning, open tunings have long been aligned with slide guitar and Delta Blues with renowned players such as Robert Johnson (played in open G and D, and possibly others) and Elmore James (open E and D), through to modern slide maestros such as Johnny Winter (open D and G), and Derek Trucks who plays exclusively in open E tuning, after his main influence on guitar Duane Allman.

In this sense open E will feel the most familiar for beginners and as a result is the tuning we consider the best for acoustic slide guitar when first starting out but this will depend on the music you are playing and the keys you prefer playing or composing in..

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