Which Alternate Tunings are Most Commonly Used in Blues?

The two principal open tunings used in blues guitar playing have old, vernacular American names: Vastopol and Spanish.

The two principal open tunings have old, vernacular American names that I still like to use: 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!) Here are the notes of the D and E versions of Vastopol, low to high, followed by the scale degrees for each note. The 1 refers to the tonic or root note of the chord, 5 is the fifth, and 3 is the third. 

Vastopol tuning for guitar

Spanish tuning also takes its name from a parlor guitar favorite, “Spanish Fandango.” Here’s the most common G version, followed by the A version and the scale degrees:


Spanish tuning for guitar

Notice that in Vastopol, the first degree of the scale (or root), corresponding to the key of the tuning, falls on the sixth, fourth, and first strings. In Spanish it’s the fifth and third strings. Observe also that both tunings are composed of the first, third, and fifth degrees of the major scale—comprising a major chord triad. Open minor tunings are also used in blues music. The best example in the acoustic genre is the music of Skip James. His “cross minor” tuning is reached by lowering the third string in Vastopol a half step, as follows:

Vastopol tuning variation for guitar called "Cross tuning"


I’ve also gotten some use out of a minor variant of Spanish tuning, which works especially well for playing slide guitar:

Spanish tuning variation for slide guitar

Another tuning commonly used in acoustic blues is called dropped-D: simply lower the sixth string in standard tuning from E to D (a whole step) and play in the key of D. Examples of its use can be found in the playing of Tommy Johnson (“Canned Heat”), Willie McTell (“Statesboro Blues”), and Lonnie Johnson. Speaking of Lonnie Johnson, he sometimes used an open sixth tuning, like Spanish but with the first string raised a whole step to a major sixth. 

Dropped-D tuning for blues guitar

With some practice, it’s not hard to recognize these tunings by ear.

For answers to 50 key questions about the blues, check out Inside Blues Guitar.

For a slide-guitar arrangement of “Spanish Fandango,” featuring detailed notation and tab, click here.

Steve James
Steve James

The late, great Steve James was a noted roots musician and raconteur. He is the author of several well-regarded books on blues guitar.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.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