Exploring the Open Tunings of Robert Johnson and Other Blues Guitarists

This trio of lessons explores some of the open tunings most frequently heard in the blues: Vastopol, Spanish, open-C and open-G
bluesman Robert Johnson seated holding acoustic guitar

Just as open open tunings have opened up new sound worlds for singer-songwriters and guitarists like Richard Thompson, Joni Mitchell, and Laurence Juber, so too do they play a major role in the blues guitar vernacular. Here we explore some of the open tunings most frequently heard in the blues.

Which Alternate Tunings are Most Commonly Used in Blues?

The two principal open tunings have old names: Vastopol and Spanish. Rather than conceptualize tunings by a letter name that corresponds to a particular key (i.e., “open-A” or “open-D”), it’s useful to think of them in terms of the intervals of which they’re composed. That’s what these names are about. Vastopol tuning, usually an open D or E major chord, is named for a popular 19th-century guitar instrumental called “Sebastopol.” (It’s a port on the Black Sea, the scene of a pivotal engagement in the Crimean War!) Try these tunings in progression in this lesson.


Country Blues Guitar in Open-C

To get into open-C tuning, tune the low E string down two whole steps to C. Bring the A string down a whole step to G and the D string down a whole step to C. Leave the G string where it is, raise the B string half a step to C, and leave the high E string alone. From low to high, the tuning is: C G C G C E. Once you’ve done that, check out this lesson for a a simple phrase worked out over an alternating-thumb accompaniment with the I (C), IV (F), and V (G) chords in the key of C major.

Reimagining Bluesman Robert Johnson in Open-G Tuning

Some think of Robert Johnson as the man at the crossroads with hell hounds on his trail, but many know him as the pre-war blues artist who had a profound impact on generations of musicians. His licks, phrasing, and general guitar panache have provided Eric Clapton, John Hammond, and many others the tools for creating inspired blues solos and rhythms. In this lesson, you’ll explore some of the songs Johnson played in open tunings. The goal is not to play a particular song note-for-note, but to grab some of his melodic and rhythmic ideas and run with them in the context of a 12-bar blues.

For more blues guitar instruction, see the Play the Blues Like… series, available at store.acousticguitar.com.

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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