Starting Out with Common Slide Guitar Tunings

If you are someone who wants to learn slide guitar then you will want to experiment with plenty of slide guitar tunings. Playing slide guitar means that there are a lot of different tunings available for you, each one with its own unique sound and feel. Each tuning you use will also change the relationship you have with the strings, making new chord shapes and patterns for you on the fretboard.

Another part of slide playing on both electric and acoustic guitar has some practical reasons for tuning as well. Not every song can be played using standard tuning, with other tunings being more suitable for you and your playing style.

Before you start playing around with different slide guitar open tuning opentions, you will want to understand the basics of how they work. You will want to choose the best guitar slide for your particular guitar and the tuning/style of music you want to play. We’ll go through some of the most popular tuning for slide guitar playing here and how they work in this guide.

What is a Slide Guitar Tuning?

Once you know how to use a guitar slide for beginners if you’re completely new to this then you may want to know what slide guitar tunings actually are. If you’re being strictly technical about it, there’s no such thing as a slide guitar tuning. The better way to describe it are the tunings that are most commonly used by slide guitarists. We would typically refer to these as open tunings.

Open tuning on the guitar is used more often by slide guitarists than your standard tuning, especially those who play the blues and rock genres of music. This is why they have a broader category of slide guitar tunings and we’ll be using both terms in this guide.

An open tuning, no matter what key it is in, is where your strings are open and then tuned form a chord. This means you won’t have to place yours fingers on the frets to form chord shapes. All you need to do is play all six strings at once and a chord will ring out.

The chord you will make all depends on the tuning you are using, although most tunings will create a major chord. Each tuning will be named after the chord that you form when you play all the strings.

Most slide guitarists use the open tunings of E, D and G. You can actually tune your acoustic guitar to form any major chord you want though. Even though they are much less common slide tuning options, you may also want to play slide guitar in open A, B, C and F tunings. In this guide we are going to focus on the tunings that are most commonly used by popular guitarists, especially those that play the blues.

Why Are Most Slide Guitar Tunings Open?

Perhaps when you have been looking at slide guitar tunings you are wondering why so many of them are open. Having a better understanding of why these are so popular will make you appreciate the benefits more. Plus, you can keep your motivation going when you are working on new patterns on your fretboard.

No matter which of the tunings you are going to use, they all come with their own benefits. The most practical benefit of using open tunings instead of standard is because it’s easier to play the chords using your slide in this way.

When playing in standard tuning, regular and barre chords become more challenging as you use your slide, particularly barre chords because you have to use three or four fingers to play them. Wearing a slide on your finger makes this particularly difficult depending on the chords and voicings you want to use.

Playing in open tuning makes things like barre chords a lot more straightforward. This is because the strings are open so when you play all six together, you make a major chord. This allows you to create more barre chords by simply moving them to another part of your fretboard. It may sound a little bit complicated, particularly if you are a beginner, but when you actually come down to doing it on your fretboard it becomes a lot easier to visualize.

The great news about open tuning is that all of the major chords are pretty much in the same shape, you’ll just move position on the frets depending on the tuning you choose. The guitar theory you have to apply here is the chromatic scale which should be something you learned when you first started playing your instrument. With this information you can move around your fretboard with ease, playing the same chords but with different tunings on your open strings.

Slide Guitar Tunings

Open G Tuning

Open G tuning was one of the first tunings that Delta slide players used in the early 20th century. Compared with guitar standard tuning, here you have three of the strings which are tuned down to an open G. Because of this people often refer to open G as slack tuning because down tuning reduces the string tension.

Using open G tuning takes your low E string all the way down a full tone to a D. The A becomes a G and the high E string is also down tuned to become a D. All of the other strings are tuned in to the same pitch they would be in standard tuning. Therefore, open G tuning goes DGDGBD, contain all of the notes that make up a G major chord. An example of this is in the Muddy Waters song I Can’t Be Satisfied.

Open D Tuning

Much the same as open G tuning, open D is considered to be a slack tuning. This is because when you compare it to standard tuning you will notice that four of the strings are tuned down in pitch. The lowest E string, your B string and the highest E string are tuned down a full tone, with the G string being tuned down just a semitone. The other two strings stay the same as they would when you are using standard tuning.

With open D tuning you are playing the notes DADF#AD, with these notes being present in a D major chord. This type of tuning is used in a lot of blues and rock songs, with an example being of Jonny Winter’s cover of Bob Dylan’s song Highway 61 Revisited.

Out of the all of the slide guitar tunings we are going through in this article, open D is probably the most versatile. This open tuning has been used in a lot of different songs through the years, so it will help you play a wide variety of music if you choose to play slide guitar in open D.

Another reason open D tuning is useful is because you can turn it into an open E tuning in an instant. All you have to do is put a capo on the second fret of the guitar and then you will be playing using open tuning in the key of E. Plus most of your fretboard is still available to you so that’s a huge benefit.

Open E Tuning

Unlike open D and G, open E tuning isn’t a slack tuning. This is because all of the strings you change for this slide guitar tuning are actually tuned up and not down, so the string tension will increase. You will need to take your A and D strings up a tone, with the G being tuned up by a semitone.

It’s typical for electric guitar players to use open E tuning where the notes you play are EBEG#BE. So that means you are play an E major chord when you play all of the open strings at the same time.

Drop D Tuning

Drop D is a popular alternate tuning for slide guitar and it’s one that is easy to achieve as well. All you need to do is drop your lower E string (the sixth one) a step down from an E to a D. You can get a great sound using a slide on an acoustic guitar that is tuned to drop D tuning. More than likely you’ll be using your index finger and thumb to pick the strings.

Slide guitarists who use their fingers to do a muting technique on the strings will love this tuning. This is because it’s easy to pick out strings that don’t need to be played.

Open A Tuning

It’s generally the most convenient thing to use the most common open tunings when playing slide guitar, which is exactly what open A is. Open A tuning is one that is used by rock legends Led Zeppelin and the British alternative band The White Stripes. The notes you play are EAEAC#E.

You need to be particularly careful taking your guitar from standard tuning up to open A tuning. The B string has to be tuned up to a C#. If you are using heavy gauge strings then the tension will be very high and this, in turn, can cause stress on the guitar neck. Be very wary of this. You will need to tune up slowly and then play the string carefully for a while until it adjusts to the new tension that’s been put on it.

When playing in open A tuning and using a slide, the best placement is for you to put it on your pinky finger. This will allow you to use both your guitar pick and the slide at the same time. Your other three fingers remain flexible so that they can pick notes out easily.

Open B Tuning

The most common version of open B tuning involves the notes BF#BF#BD#. Some of your guitar strings will be tuned down multiple full steps which can leave your strings feeling loose and floppy, much the same as slack tuning. Using a slide in this tuning you will want to remember something important – slip up to the note to provide vibrato, not above it. If you are sliding too far above or below the note it tends to make it sound sharp. Sliding below and then up to the note then it makes a great sound.

Open C Tuning

A lot of people use open C tuning so it’s no surprise that it is also popular for slide guitar. The notes in this tuning are CGCGCE and will require you tune your B string up. Be careful again about the tension that you are adding to both the string and the neck of the guitar. Too much tension can cause the string to snap and, in the worst case scenario, will warp the neck of the guitar.

Open F Tuning

Open F tuning is often one that is overlooked, with many guitarists plumping for an open G tuning or something similar. However, it’s a very underestimated slide guitar tuning that produces a great sound. The tuning takes the notes from an F major chord, so your strings will be tuned to CFCFAC. No strings have to be tuned up for this.

Instead, you will be tuning your strings down. Because some of them go down more than one step in tone those strings can tend to feel a bit looser so be careful of this. Something that a few slide guitarists do is to attach a magnetic pickup to their guitar to produce a better sound. The pickup can be seen as a small rectangle, usually silver on standard guitars, that sits below the nevk of the guitar on the actual body. It’s always tricky to get the best sound out of your slide guitar when you don’t want to use standard tuning all of the time, but experimentation is the key here.

DADGAD Tuning

DADGAD isn’t an open tuning but it’s a really fun one to use on slide guitar and it crops up often in popular music. It’s easily one of the most versatile tunings out there but it will be a challenge for beginner guitarists to get the right amount of variety out of it to start with.

The good thing about DADGAD tuning is that it makes it easier to play slide guitar as well. The versatility of it means that the sound of the guitar is much better than quite a few other tunings. Make sure to experiment as much as possible with this tuning because there’s so much potential with it.

Playing Slide Guitar in Standard Tuning

If you are playing lead guitar and don’t want to be messing around with open tunings then it may be worth trying out standard tuning as well. Standard tuning isn’t something a lot of slide guitarists tend to use but there have been some blues rock players who have been able to make it work.

There are some benefits of using standard tuning with your slide guitar. The best bonus is that you don’t have to learn a load of new licks and chord patterns to accommodate a new tuning. This will be incredibly helpful if you are a beginner guitar player so that you don’t feel overwhelmed, or if slide guitar isn’t part of your main focus for learning.

Thinking about the practicality of standard tuning, using your slide in standard tuning means you don’t have to have a few guitars all set to different tunings, or keep retuning your strings everytime you want to switch from using your slide to playing normal guitar. Instead, everything can be kept in standard tuning and then you can add in your slide to spice up your sound.

How Do I Choose the Right Slide Guitar Tuning?

As is the case with most things to do with your guitar, when there are choices there are issues that go along with it. Becuase of this, you need to consider what sort of slide guitar tunings you want to use.

There are some things you may want to think about when choosing a slide guitar tuning. Is there are slide guitarist who is you favorite and what tuning do they use? Are there particular songs that use slide guitar that you want to play and use specific tunings? Will there be any practical implications of choose one of the tunings above more than the others?

The great thing about the guitar is that you can experiment a lot and there’s not much risk involved. All you will need to sacrifice is some of your time, and in the worst case you might go through a few sets of strings. When you are just starting out with slide guitar experiment with all of the different open tunings on offer until you find one that works the best for you. What usually happens is that the best one for your playing style will come down to a gut feeling you have.

Conclusion

Whichever tuning you do decide to opt for, once you do find one or two tha work the best for you then stick with them. It can be tempting to jump from one to another and keep switching up tunings and that’s an important thing to do in the beginning. But if you want to be proficinet in playing slide guitar then you need to spend your time on developing and understanding the right chords and patterns that you make in each tuning.

We have more articles here on our website about these different tunings, including songs for open D and open G tuning that can be incorpated with slide guitar. Try out all of the tunings we have given you above and have fun getting creative with them. We’re always here to help so make sure to drop us a comment or email if you get stuck at any point.

FAQs

What tuning is best for slide guitar?

The best and most common tuning for slide guitar tuning is open G so the tuning of your guitar would be DGDGBD from the lowest string to the highest. If you want to achieve this tuning but don’t have a tuner, check out our guide on how to tune a guitar without a tuner.

What are the recommendations when playing slide guitar?

There are a few things we can recommend you do when you are using a slide on your guitar.

  1. Ideally you will want to be playing a resonator guitar to get the best sound out of your slide.
  2. Use heavy gauge strings for an acoustic guitar and for an electric guitar.
  3. Raise the action of your guitar to stop any buzzing that may happen from when the slide hits the strings and the frets. You may want to visit a guitar shop for this.

Can I use open tunings with sharp and flat chords?

Yes, it’s absolutely possible to tune your guitar to sharp and flat chords while still keeping an open tuning. You can tune your guitar to any chord that you want, whether that’s minor chords, major chords or dominant seventh. While in some contexts these tunings will work perfectly, such as blues and rock music, if you want to play pop or more classical pieces then these slide guitar tuning options won’t work. This is why we focus mainly on open tunings in our article, because they are the most versatile and the ones that are used most often by popular and current guitarists.

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