Here’s a lesson on how to play fingerstyle blues guitar in this popular open tuning.
Blues masters like Elizabeth Cotten, Robert Johnson, Booker White, and Memphis Minnie played many of their best-known tunes in open G. In this lesson, you’ll learn how to go from standard to open-G tuning on your guitar. You’ll then borrow some ideas and licks from the greats to add authenticity to your own blues playing.
How to go from Standard to Open-G Tuning
Open G, also known as Spanish tuning, requires changing the pitch of three strings on your guitar. To get to open G from standard tuning, drop strings 1 and 6 a whole step, from E to D, and string 5 from A to G. Strings 2, 3, and 4 stay the same.
Low to high, your strings are now: D G D G B D. Play the open strings and you’ll hear a G major chord—hence the name open-G tuning!
Songs to Play
Now that we’re tuned up, let’s explore examples from a few well-known blues songs:
You’ll learn phrases, techniques, and ideas that you can apply to your own songs and arrangements.
Spanish Flang Dang
Elizabeth Cotten’s “Spanish Flang Dang” serves as a good introduction to open-G tuning, as the fretting-hand fingerings are straightforward, with only three chords (G, C and D7), all shown in Ex. 1.
Cotten had an idiosyncratic picking hand, playing bass notes with her index finger and melody notes with her thumb (her alternating bass lines are known as Cotten Picking). Unless you’re also playing upside down, you can use the more conventional picking pattern shown on the G chord in Ex. 2 and on D7 in Ex. 3: Pick the bass notes with your thumb and the notes on strings 1, 2, and 3 with your ring (a), middle (m), and index (i) finger, respectively. But feel free to use any other fingerpicking pattern that works for you.
In “Spanish Flang Dang,” most of the melodic movement occurs on the first string during the G-chord sequences. Ex. 4 combines selected notes from the G-major scale (G A B C D E F#) with the fingerpicking pattern from the previous examples. As for your fretting hand, play the fifth-fret G with your second finger, the seventh-fret A with your fourth finger, and the fourth-fret F# with your first finger.
For more on Elizabeth Cotten, check out Play the Blues Like…
Crazy Cryin’ Blues
Memphis Minnie was a masterful guitarist who played intricate fingerstyle arrangements that accompanied her strong voice. The guitar parts in these examples reflect the anguish and urgency of the vocals. If you play along with the original recording, use a capo at the sixth fret.
In Example 1, over the I chord (G7) intro, Memphis Minnie plays a stock open-G line, but in the second bar she turns the triplet line into 16th notes, which increases the urgency. Note that on the recording there is a second guitar (played by Joe McCoy) in the mix, so it can be a little hard to distinguish the bass pattern, but an alternating bass line on strings 5 and 4 sounds appropriate enough.
In later verses of “Crazy,” Memphis Minnie throws in some nice finger rolls similar to those shown in Example 2. The typical blues guitarist picks with the thumb and one or two fingers, but to execute the roll it’s best to use your thumb (p), index (i), middle (m), and ring (a) fingers as shown in the notation. When playing this kind of roll, your picking hand should move as if you’re turning a doorknob.
Example 3 demonstrates a typical move to the IV chord, with strings 1–5 barred at fret 5, and a descending line on string 1. Bar the fifth fret with your first finger and use your fourth and third fingers to stop the eighth- and seventh-fret notes, respectively.
Example 4 approximates the last three measures of “Crazy”’s 12-bar verse. Start out with a D7 chord, fingered the same way as in standard tuning, but with a slight change—the first string is open, rather than stopped at the second fret. Note how the notes on string 1 then ascend and descend through notes that include the ninth (E) and raised ninth (F/E#), adding a bit of sophistication to the proceedings.
After the D7 bar, you’ll play a very cool G-chord run: Slide with your first finger, barring the top two strings, to imply a G7 chord that morphs its way into a G triad played on strings 2 and 3, fretted with the first and second fingers, respectively. Maintain that shape as you descend chromatically down to another G played on the open G and B strings.
For more on Memphis Minnie, check out Play the Blues Like…
Fixin’ to Die
There are many versions of “Fixin’.” Ex. 1 is from a 1963 recording on which the tuning is dropped down a step-and-a-half to E and the tempo hovers around 190 bpm. You’ll notice that White could combine alternating-bass and monotonic-bass in the same performance. Ex. 1 alternates the bass, travels back and forth between E and G in the treble and is a repeating pattern that sets up the groove. Play the figure with an open sound, strumming the strings with your thumb and index finger.
Ex. 2 uses a monotonic bass and is more subdued with the palm muting the strings. Allow the fleshy part of your picking-hand palm, closest to your pinky, to rest lightly on the bass strings. The 1963 version of “Fixin’” moves back and forth between these two grooves—these examples are a great place to start because they aren’t too hard to play and you should be able to get the tempos up pretty fast.
In an earlier version of “Fixin’” White would play a short descending run punctuated by a slide note, like in Ex. 3. White used a metal slide on his pinky. His slide notes often occurred in flourishes—I believe the use of a thinner metal slide was important to his sound since it was easier to maneuver quickly and was less bulky than a thick glass slide. Make sure to slide right up to the fretwire at the fifth fret to get the proper intonation.
In Ex. 4, play full chords by placing the slide across five of the six strings. Many of White’s songs were single-chord grooves, but “Po Boy” uses the slide at the fifth and seventh frets to play the IV (C) and V (D) chords, respectively. (Videos show that White performed this piece lap-style, using a nail for a slide, but you can play this example with the guitar in “Spanish” style.) Start out with the G chord at the 12th fret and then play a cool lick that is useful whether you’re playing solo or accompanying another player. The lick descends from the 15th to the 12th fret and then on to the tenth fret before moving to the C chord at the fifth fret. If you think of the 12th fret as home base for your G chord, you can move three frets up (to the 15th fret) or two frets down (to the tenth fret) for myriad licks that can be played on one or more strings. The same lick can be used to work your way down to the V chord (D) as shown.
For more on Booker White, check out Play the Blues Like…
Ex. 1 demonstrates a common I–IV–V shuffle progression in the tuning. The standard treatment for the shuffle is to play two strings simultaneously, progressing from dyads containing the root and fifth (G and D) to the root and sixth (G and E) and root and seventh (G and F), with the consecutive eighth notes played not straight but long-short.
Johnson employed this style of bass-driven playing from time to time, but more often he would break up the sound. For instance, in Ex. 2, which is similar to a motif in his “Terraplane Blues,” the I chord sounds quite different. It still starts out with the low-bass sound courtesy of the fifth and fourth strings, but then jumps to the higher strings, hitting G-type chords.
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In Ex. 3, play the IV chord by barring strings 1–4 at the fifth fret and grabbing the eighth-fret B-flat with your fourth finger, or if you’re wearing a slide, your third finger. Then, perform a rhythmic flourish by bouncing on and off the first three strings at the fifth fret and landing back down on the original chord. To get a clean sound, pick the notes with your thumb and fingers, rather than strumming with a pick. Ex. 4 is a cool riff, similar to “Terraplane.” It’s based on a compact G7 chord played on the top three strings. Beat 2 of this measure has more of a triplet feel. At the end of the bar, try a rake: drag your thumb or thumb pick down through the strings while palm-muting—keep your pick hand covering the strings near the bridge of the guitar to get a muffled sound—then pick string 2 with your index finger before bringing your thumb down heavily on the G-D dyad at beat 1 of the next measure.
For more on Robert Johnson, check out Play the Blues Like…
Ready to play a complete song in open G? Take this lesson with blues master Steve James and learn his arrangement of “Spanish Fandango.” And, while open tunings are typically reserved for slide and fingerstyle players, they can work really well for fiddle tunes, too. Check out this beautiful open-G guitar arrangement of “Sally Ann.”
Remember, the more sources you borrow from, the less you sound like, say, a Robert Johnson clone, and the more you’ll sound like a player who is steeped in the blues. So, take a deep dive into the styles of 12 all-time great guitarists with Play the Blues Like… by Pete Madsen, published by Acoustic Guitar.
You’ll play in open G, open D, and other tunings, with and without a bottleneck slide. Guitarists featured include: Charley Patton, Elizabeth Cotten, Memphis Minnie, Son House, Skip James, Tampa Red, Booker White, Robert Johnson, R. L. Burnside, Jimmy Page, Kelly Joe Phelps, and Alvin Youngblood Hart.
Order your copy of this essential guide for playing fingerstyle blues in open tunings and get video downloads to accompany each of the lessons and musical examples.
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