Guitar in Open C Tuning
Guitar Tunings - Overview
One of the best things about the guitar is that you can change the sound of the instrument by using a different tuning. The pictures of chords follow this convention: Strings are shown as 6 vertical lines - String 6, the thickest string, is on the left - and the headstock of the guitar would be at the top of the diagram, where the thick line is shown.
The tuning we're going to examine here is where the guitar is tuned to an open chord - in this case, C. It may seem a hassle, and frankly it is! If you do have a spare guitar, you could leave it in this tuning permanently, and perhaps replace the 6th string with a slightly thicker gauge to help with tuning and tone - this is optional though.
Open C tuning instructions
Low to high, the tuning is: C G C G C E.
- Tune the low E (6th) string down two whole steps to C.
- Take the A string down a whole step to G
- Take the D string down a whole step to C.
- Raise the B string half a step to C
- Compared to standard tuning E A D G B E, we have changed 4 strings.
- Play all the strings open and we have a C chord
Open C chord pictures
Chord diagram info
All strings open = C chord. A barre (flattening of first finger across all the strings) at frets 5 and 7 will give you F and G, completing the set of I, IV and V chords that you will use in almost every song you play.
You can also play chords of harmonics at these frets: 12, 5, 7. Just rest your finger directly over the fret, but don't press down.
These are difficult to play in this tuning, so you may wish to use the chord form without the low bass note, which is shown in brackets. In the key of C we have the following chords, which make up the harmonised scale:
C Dm Em F G Am Bm7b5
Many folk and blues based songs will use the I IV and V chords, with one or more of the minor chords added.
Next I've shown a descending scale on the top 2 strings, with harmony from open strings added. Each circled group of two notes goes down the neck in a scale - a similar idea is shown in the last 2 diagrams, which link together.
Line 4 and 5 show a chord progression similar to Dear Prudence by The Beatles. This was not played in this tuning - it was in drop D tuning - but it's showing you some other ways of getting to know the Open C tuning quickly. The chord progression has a bassline that descends one fret at a time, keeping the other strings open.
Open C is not widely used compared to some of the other guitar tunings, such as Open G, Open D, and DADGAD. It was used by Led Zeppelin, for the track Friends from Led Zeppelin 3. This isn't my favourite track, but you can hear the massive sound of the Open C tuning, especially when it is applied to a 12-string guitar.
It can also be used for Delta-style Blues playing, and you can get some great results for playing blues. An important part of musical theory is to keep blues and standard western harmony a safe distance apart (!) - so I may do another hub on using the Open C tuning for blues.
Pros and Cons
The only problem with using tunings is that you can get confused between them. On balance, this tuning is probably not as practical as Open G or Open D, but it is great for solo guitar where you want a melody line and chords together. The low pitch of the tuning means you can get a very full bass going, which is very powerful for blues and folk style tunes. If you are a solo guitar and vocals performer this tuning could help you project a full and loud guitar part, almost like a baritone guitar, where the low string is a B.
Another application of Open C is for songwriting - because it isn't widely used, you are going to find more original and different chord forms which could make your songs have more individual identity.
Joni Mitchell is the best example of this approach, using as many as 50 different tunings for her songs - though many of these are closely related tunings.
If you have a look at Youtube, there are some lessons on using the tuning, including some finger-style arrangements by John Fahey. I took his arrangement of Auld Lang as a starting point, and added some harmony - it sounds great.
My Scots ancestors lived in Ayrshire, just a few villages away from Robert Burns, and they almost certainly knew him, or at least disapproved of him!
So for me playing this song is a link to my family history.
A walk on the wild side
If you want to try a really wild tuning, try Open C minor. To change from C major to C minor, we only have to change one note by a semitone or 1 fret. The note that needs changing is the third, so the top E comes down to Eb instead. Now if you play barre chord shapes you will have minor chords, and this is especially useful for playing harmonics at frets 5, 7 and 12.
You can apply the same logic to Open G tuning - just change string 2 (B) to Bb and you have a G minor tuning.