Slide Guitar and Open Tunings

Slide guitar can be a challenge to many players used to frets. Since slide is played on the strings and not between frets, intonation and phrasing are more akin to bowed instruments and as such, take considerable time to master. As the use of a slide across several strings may require retuning the instrument to voice chords, two of the most popular open tunings for slide guitar to have developed are Open E and Open G.

The art of playing slide guitar  traces its history to the late 1800’s when Hawaiian musicians, seeking to emulate the sound of human singing, began using steel bars on guitars to slide between notes. As the paniolos had brought the guitar with them as a portable instrument from their native Portugal, many Hawaiian cowboys took to the instrument but began inventing their own tunings to play native music, with Open G becoming a standard of ki’hoale, or slack key guitar. Joseph Kekuku is considered the father of the Hawaiian steel guitar, starting his career at age 15 in 1890, eventually travelling throughout the US and even appearing in films and records.

Epiphone Lap Steel Guitar
Epiphone Lap Steel Guitar

As Hawaiian music became a fad during the Roaring 20’s, the sound of slide guitar found a simpatico ear among Delta blues musicians, which likened the haunting, voicelike sound to that of the African diddley bow. Some used a straight bar to play lap style like the Hawaiians. Others took to using a wine bottle neck in order to play slide notes and fretted notes interchangeably. In order to facilitate self accompaniment, they too invented their own tunings, with open G and E becoming popular with legends such as Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, and Son House, among many others.

Brass slides (photo courtesy of Dunlop)

Today, many slide guitar players tend to choose open E as their initial open tuning for slide for several reasons. The high B and E strings are the same as in standard tuning, and with the low E string as a guide, finding open chord positions on the neck are the same as the 6th string root. The fact that Duane Allman, Derek Trucks and Sonny Landreth, who are perhaps the most popular electric slide guitar players in the music industry today certainly supports open E’s popularity as well. The late Johnny Winter and Joe Walsh are also famous open E slide players.

However, open G is not without its adherents. Robert Johnson was a proponent of open G and was a subsequent influence on Keith Richards, who went on to use open G as the basis for many famous Rolling Stones hits. The eclectic Ry Cooder, considered by many to be one of the finest slide guitar players in American music, also uses open G frequently, as does country rock slide guitarist Lee Roy Parnell. One of the pioneers of slide guitar in a non blues rock context was the late Lowell George of Little Feat, who used open A (open G up a whole step). Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes, Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars, and blues stylist Rory Block are other popular Open G slide players. As the 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings are the same as in Standard, there is familiarity for players, yet the shorter interval to the 1st string, which is to D instead of E, makes for a different voicing on double stops with a slide.

Glass slides (photo courtesy of Dunlop)

Open G is said by some to lend itself to more of a darker vibe whereas open E tends to be more upbeat. Perhaps it is because in open G (DGDGBD), the root notes are voiced within the open chord, whereas in open E (EBEG#BE), the roots are in the lowest and highest notes of the chord. Of course, guitar tones also are part of the equation. The sharp, stinging metallic slide of Muddy Waters or Johnny Winter cuts through to demand attention front and center. The fat growl of Sonny Landreth’s glass slides or the ghostly clean wails of Ry Cooder’s homemade Mateus wine bottleneck slides are enhanced by the tunings selected (note: Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter and Ry Cooder have all been known to play slide in Open E, A, D, G and Standard. Landreth has devised custom tunings to supplement Open E when required by musical arrangement and instrument limitation considerations. Most guitarists that have mastered slide guitar basics often conquer the ability to play in E, G and Standard.)

Either tuning offers a slide player a wide variety of tonal colors and are ultimately a factor in determining what will best suit a particular song or sound, assuming the player is familiar enough with both tunings to play the required part. There is a wealth of resources available on the internet and YouTube where interested guitarists can learn more, but once you enter the world of slide, it is difficult to leave. The rewards, however, are well worth the effort.

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John Seetoo
John Seetoo was the guitarist and lead vocalist for NYC based Nekron 99, the first Chinese-American rock band to get international distribution (their Commercial Success E.P. – distributed in U.S. on Bomp! Records) in Japan, UK, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Spain, France, and Sweden. In addition to their numerous concerts at Max’s Kansas City, CBGB, A7 Club, Danceteria and other legendary venues, their music video, Reincarnations, was a quarter finalist in MTV’s 1984 Basement Tapes competition. He now focuses most of his playing on session work (ex: the Stellar Award nominated Testimony: 1 Lyrics 4 Life by gospel rap artist Joe L. Da Vessel, and The Art of Protest by Canadian songwriter Terry Watada), and for P&W performance, with a specialty in bottleneck slide, lap steel and dobro.