Exploring the Open Tunings of 3 Prolific Singer-Songwriters

The use of open tunings can open up a whole new world for singer/songwriters looking to establish their own voice on acoustic guitar. Here we take a look at Richard Thompson, Joni Mitchell, and Laurence Juber's use of open tunings and the effect it has on their songwriting.

The use of open tunings can open up a whole new world for singer/songwriters looking to establish their own voice on acoustic guitar. Here we take a look at Richard Thompson, Joni Mitchell, and Laurence Juber’s use of open tunings and the effect it has on their songwriting.

Richard Thompson’s Open Tunings

When Thompson plugs in his Stratocaster, fireworks regularly ensue. But his playing is equally brilliant when he picks up a Martin, Ferrington, Lowden, or any number of others and goes unplugged (and in fact, the crucial rhythm part on “Guitar Heroes” is played on an acoustic, as are the Django and part of the Les Paul sections). Lots of fans would argue that Thompson makes much of his best music when he’s by himself, with just an acoustic guitar for company.

Since 1982, Richard has been primarily a solo artist, and his command of the guitar has become an even more essential component of his art. One of Thompson’s prettiest tunes, “Beeswing” from 1994’s Mirror Blue, is proof of how subtle he can be as a player, sketching out a melody and chords but never giving the listener too much information at one time. In that song, a G (open third string) is introduced on what ought to be a standard D chord. This serves two purposes: It craftily anticipates the next chord (a G) and opens up the song’s harmony, adding to the overall feeling that something important has been left unresolved.


That lack of resolution is a prime characteristic of certain open tunings, like DADGAD—a Thompson favorite—and the slightly more unusual tuning that anchors what is probably his best-known song, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” originally released on 1991’s Rumor and Sigh: C G D G B E (like standard tuning, but with strings 5 and 6 tuned town a whole step each). One example in the article linked below highlights the curious hybrid nature of “Vincent.” While the fingers of the picking hand pluck out a line that’s akin to Celtic fiddle playing, the thumb sticks mostly to a steady Merle Travis–style root-and-fifth boom-chuck, maintaining its rhythm even through the rapid triplet flourishes near the end. On this song and a few others, Thompson often uses a thumbpick in conjunction with his first and second fingers; elsewhere, he favors a regular pick teamed with fingers 2 and 3.

The Guitar-Tuning Odyssey of Joni Mitchell

The only published documentation of Joni Mitchell’s 30-year guitar odyssey is four single-album songbooks transcribed by Joel Bernstein, her longtime guitar tech and musical/photographic archivist, which show the real tunings and chord shapes. But that’s a very small slice of a career that spans 17 albums, each one a departure—often a radical one—from what came before. Remarkably, Mitchell herself relies on Bernstein’s encyclopedic knowledge of her work—because she has forged ahead with new tunings throughout her career and rarely plays her past repertoire, Bernstein has at several junctures helped her relearn some of her older songs.

On Mitchell’s first three albums, Joni Mitchell (1968), Clouds (1969), and Ladies of the Canyon (1970), conventional open tunings coexist with other tunings that stake out some new territory. “Both Sides, Now” (capo II) and “Big Yellow Taxi,” for instance, are in open E (E B E G# B E—the same as open D but a whole step higher); and “The Circle Game” (capo IV) and “Marcie” are in open G. But it was more adventurous tunings, like C G D F C E (“Sisotowbell Lane”), with its complex chords created by simple fingerings, that enthralled her and became the foundation of her music from the early ’70s on.

So how does Mitchell discover the tunings and fingerings that create these expansive harmonies? Here’s how she described the process: “You’re twiddling and you find the tuning. Now the left hand has to learn where the chords are, because it’s a whole new ballpark, right? So you’re groping around, looking for where the chords are, using very simple shapes. Put it in a tuning and you’ve got four chords immediately—open, barre five, barre seven, and you higher octave, like half fingering on the 12th. Then you’ve got to find where the interesting colors are—that’s the exciting part.


“Sometimes I’ll tune to some piece of music and find [an open tuning] that way, sometimes I just find one going from one to another, and sometimes I’ll tune to the environment. Like ‘The Magdalene Laundries’ [from Turbulent Indigo; the tuning is B F# B E A E]: I tuned to the day in a certain place, taking the pitch of birdsongs and the general frequency sitting on a rock in that landscape.” 

Laurence Juber: A DADGAD Lesson with the Fingerstyle Master

Laurence Juber is one of the world’s most celebrated fingerstyle guitarists, a two-time Grammy winner, who, over the course of more than two-dozen solo albums, has developed a distinct personal voice on the steel-string acoustic. His approach to the instrument reveals a deep understanding of how the dots between different eras and styles of Western music are connected, and, perhaps most important, a consistently impeccable sense of timing.

As Juber spends a considerable amount of time in DADGAD tuning on his solo albums—including his recent recording of the Beatles’ “Day Tripper”—we decided it was only natural for him to give a lesson in this tuning. The notation presented here highlights some of his most exciting discoveries through working in DADGAD for the last three decades.

One of the things that Juber likes best about DADGAD tuning is the way in which he can express melodies in a harp-like way, with a combination of open strings and fretted notes. “Basically, it’s this cascading effect,” he explained. “I’m not playing in a linear fashion, but fingering across the strings. Certain patterns emerge, and they sometimes lead to compositional concepts, like ‘Pass the Buck,’ an early tune of mine.”

It’s one thing to be able to make an arrangement in DADGAD, solidify it in your muscle memory, and practice it to perfection. But it’s quite another thing to have a large bank of melodic and harmonic ideas in the tuning, which you can draw from to improvise fluidly—and with rhythmic verve. “You have to get into the zone and just trust that there’s no agenda that goes along with it,” said Juber.

Acoustic Guitar Editors
Acoustic Guitar Editors

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *