As a roots and blues musician, I spend a fair amount of time in open tunings. I’ve written a few songs in open G6 (low to high: D G D G B E), a rootsy, quirky, and satisfying tuning that early blues musician Bo Carter put to good use on songs like “I Want You to Know” and “Who’s Been Here.”
It’s easy to get into open G6 and to maneuver within it. From standard tuning, drop the two lowest strings a whole step (from E to D; and A to G); or think open G (D G D G B D), but leave the first string alone. That high E on top creates the sixth of a G chord, a very useful harmonic color.
In this lesson, I’ll show you how to play an approachable ragtime piece of mine in open G6 called “Liberal Rag,” a title I chose not necessarily as a political statement but to indicate that it can be played at an easy and relaxed tempo, by players at all levels. First, I’ll present the main theme and then a couple of variations that are slightly less easy to play. With any luck, you’ll emerge with a fun rag under your belt, as well as an understanding of basic chord forms in open G6.
I’ve notated the basic 16-bar form of “Liberal Rag,” which is in the key of G major, in Example 1. The beauty of using G6 tuning for a rag in this key is that it allows for many of the I chord (G6/G) measures to be played with just one fretting finger—try your third finger on the third-fret A#. Played against the open B string, the A# lends a characteristic ragtime sound. These two notes are a half step apart and give the feeling of humor, train wreck, or edginess, depending on your mood!
The picking hand plays a much more active role, with a 5–4–6–4 thumb pattern in the G6 measures and roots in octaves on the V chord (those with a root of D). Meanwhile, the index and middle fingers articulate the melodies. Note that the rhythm of the melody is identical in 12 of the 17 measures—four consecutive eighth notes tied to a half. This repeated rhythm helps give coherence to the piece, and also lends the kind of ragged feel that’s such a big part of ragtime.
For the V chord measures (bars 4–7 and 15), I maintain a common D7 shape—with my first and second fingers on strings 2 and 3, respectively. Note the melodic and harmonic color I get by adding a descending series of notes on string 1. The open E gives me a D9 chord; playing the third-fret G with my fourth finger creates D7sus4; and stopping the second-fret F# with my third finger results in D7.
There are only two measures of the IV chord (C), which is based on the same grip as in standard tuning, but with string 5 played open instead of stopped at the third fret. Since the open fifth string is G, the C chord’s fifth is in the bass, making for smooth transitions between the G chords in bars 11 and 14.
In bar 16, notice the octaves I get by pinching the two D strings or the two G strings. Try playing the octaves on the lower string pair with your second finger on string 6 and your third on string 4. Moves like these can strengthen a bass run or melody while adding an interesting change of texture.
After you’ve learned “Liberal Rag” in its basic form, try a neat descending bass line (Example 2), which you can plug into bars 1–2 and 8–9 of Ex. 1. If you keep your second finger on the third-fret A# you should have no problem grabbing the fourth-fret F# and second-fret E with your third and first fingers, respectively. Alternatively, you could play the A# with your third finger and the sixth-string notes with your fourth and first fingers.
Next, learn a more involved variation, shifting the melodic activity higher up the neck. Prepare for this by familiarizing yourself with the grips shown in Example 3—an open-D shape in seventh position for the G chord; a short-barre A7 form in that same position for D7; and an open-A shape at fret 5, with the fourth finger at fret 8, for the C chord. Note that all of these chords sound particularly rich with their open G and D bass notes. Make sure that all of them are securely under your fingers before proceeding.
I use all three chords in a full variation on “Liberal Rag” in Example 4, which obviously asks more of the fretting hand than Ex. 1. Efficiency is important here, so hold down each chord shape for as long as possible—three full measures on the first G chord, for instance. When you switch to the D7 chord in bar 4, maintain a half barre at fret 7, while moving your second finger from string 2 to string 1.
As for your picking hand, note the greater distance that the thumb travels between strings than in the previous examples. In the G measures, for instance, the pattern is root, then up a fifth plus an octave, down two octaves, and up two octaves. This new pattern might take a bit of getting used to. On the D7 chord, take care to avoid inadvertently picking the open fifth string (G), which is not part of the chord.
Here’s something cool: Although I wrote these variations for solo guitar, Ex. 1 and Ex. 4 can be simultaneously played as a guitar duo. Pair up with a buddy to do this, and you’ll hear all sorts of interesting interlocking patterns throughout, as well as some neat contrary motion—one guitar plays an ascending line, while the other descends—at the first ending.
Whether you play “Liberal Rag” solo or duo, I hope that you’ll feel inspired to create some of your own variations on the piece—and that you’ll spend time exploring the possibilities unique to this nifty open tuning.
Mary Flower is an award-winning guitarist, touring artist, and teacher based in Portland, Oregon. maryflower.com
The video above also features Eric Skye, who performs Example 4 and joins Mary for a duet version of “Liberal Rag.” ericskye.com
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