If you’ve been following us for long you probably know that I’m a big fan of Open E tuning, so naturally I’ve got a lot of experience in experimenting with different gauges of guitar strings for Open E. Here I tell you how to customize any gauge set of strings to build the perfect set for Open E, in my opinion anyway…
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What’s up everybody? I’m Scott from Stringjoy Guitar Strings in Nashville, Tennessee, and today we’re talking a little bit about Open E tuning. This is a topic that’s really near and dear to my own heart. I actually play in Open E tuning almost all the time…
I just started doing that about six months ago or something like that. For me, it just happened because I felt like standard tuning was getting a little bit stale for me. It felt like my hands were going to the same place all the time on the guitar and just playing the same songs over and over again. I found that mixing up the tuning, particularly to Open E, gave me a lot of new life out of my guitar. It made it a little bit more foreign to me, which enabled me to come up with some cooler idea that I’d been coming up with most recently.
So, if you’re not familiar with how Open E tuning actually works, basically you’re just tuning up your third, fourth and fifth strings. Your sixth, first and second strings stay the exact same as normal. What you’re doing is you’re tuning them up into your traditional E shape. So, you’re going to tune your fifth string up a whole step, your fourth string up a whole step, and your third string up a half step to get that Open E sound. Basically from lowest to highest, we have E, and then B, and then E again, and then G-sharp, and then our typical B and E.
Like the name suggests, this means that your typical open strings in this tuning are just a standard E chord … In the non-slide realm of guitar, players like Keith Richards have used this a number of times. For me, the first song that I ever learned in Open E was actually The Black Crowes, “She Talks to Angels,” which is basically just fretting that typical E chord on top of the Open E’s … Something like that.
Sidenote: The harmonics are really nice in Open E as well, because of course, they have this really angelic chordal tone to them. It’s a really great thing to be able to kick in when you can.
In Open E, you have a couple different options in terms of playing style. You can definitely do a lot of big open runs that’ll have that really big boomy and sort of majestic sound to them, not unlike, “She Talks to Angels,” just because you have that big Open E to kick back to … That’s really nice. A lot of players will also use it for more country style licks almost like …(guitar playing)… Really just because of the intervals, you have a great chance to be able to pull of at almost any fret that you’re on so long as you’re playing an E. You always have a nice open string that you can pull back to, which enables you to play a lot faster and play with dissonance in very interesting way kind of like that little almost country-esque rift that I just played a second ago.
It’s not just for country-esque stuff or really angelic sounding stuff. You can definitely play it through the distortion. You can make a lot of really cool sounds with it. I like doing it for kind of a really heavy rocking or almost fuzzy Bluesy sort of thing, but obviously you can do anything you want with it …(guitar playing)… That’s not the cleanest I’ve ever played that riff, but you get the idea.
So, enough screwing around, a little bit more to the point of the video. If you’re playing in Open E full-time like I do, do you just want to use a typical standard set of strings? Like you might guess, the answer in most cases is probably going to be no. You’re tuning up a whole step in the fourth and the fifth strings and then a half step on the third string, and because of that, those strings are going to be under really, really high tension if you were just tuning up a standard set of strings.
Sidenote: if you’re using just a perfectly standard set of strings, not one of our Balanced sets, you’re already going to have some problems where the second string has a little bit too little tension and the sixth string has too little tension. So, adding more tension on the third, fourth and fifth strings is only going to really further exacerbate those problems that already exist in like a typical 10-46 set or something like that. As a result, you’re going to have a massive seven, eight-pound difference in tension between your fifth and sixth strings. It’s not going to be a good thing. So if you can, you’re going to want to optimize your string gages to better suit the tuning that you’re playing in.
Now, this can be done with any gauge of string. I’m going to show you what I have on this guitar right now, but basically what you want to do is just go down very slightly in gage on your third string. This will be pretty easy to do because it’s a plain string, so chances are you can just go down on 1/1000 of an inch like from a 17 to a 16 like I’ll show you in a second. Then on your two wound strings that you’re tuning up a whole step, I would recommend going a full gage down, which in the wound string case usually means going from a 26 to a 24 or something like that, so 2/1000 of an inch.
On this guitar right now, I start with a typical 10, that’s just what I tend to like on this guitar. I’ve used 9.5s, I’ve used 11’s, I’ve gone all over the place, but for me a lot of times I stick with the standard 10 up top. I’ll do a 13.5 on the B-string. We find that to be a little bit better than a 13 like we’ve talked about in other videos, 13.5 just balances a little bit better with that 10 on top. Then where it gets interesting is on the third string. Typically you’d see like a 17 next to these two gages, but I’ll go with the 16 just to balance out a little bit better when we tune up a half step to that G-sharp.
Now, on the bottom end where you’d typically see somebody going like 26, 36, 46, I’ll instead go 24W, which just means the 24 wound rather than a 24 plain. On that fourth string, I’ll do a 34. On the fifth string, and for me, I’ll typically use a standard 46 on that low E. You could use a 48 and you’d keep everything really nicely in perfect tension balance. For me, I find that that can create a little bit of tonal issue with this particular guitar, so I’ll just go with a 46 and it balances. I do have a little bit less tension on that 46 than I do on the fifth string, but for me, it suits pretty well and it balances overall tonally with this particular guitar. Of course, that differs depending on your taste and the gear that you’re using.
That’s what I use on here, and certainly you could use it as well, but don’t think that you have to start with a standard set of 10’s or something like that to get the same approach. If you wanted to start with a set of 11’s, you certainly could. I would go like 11, 14, I would drop the typical 18P down to a 17 to help accommodate that G-sharp. Then I would do a 26, a 36, and probably a 50, maybe a 48 on this guitar, it depends. Basically, the same sort of principles hold true. You just want to go down a little bit in gage on those two wound strings where you’re tuning up a whole step, and down just a smidge in gage on the plain string where you’re tuning up a half step.
Now like I said, I do a little bit of slide on this guitar, but generally it’s set up for playing more with my fingers. So, I tend to use lighter gages, but a lot of guys that play slide will go way, way heavier than what I have on here and would actually probably laugh at me if they knew that I ever played slide in a set 10’s. I’ve got guys that will play in Open E that will use really, really heavy strings for slide up to 17’s, or 18’s, or 19’s. I don’t think that’s necessarily … well, necessary, but even something like a set of 13’s or 14’s could work really well.
If you wanted to use a set of 13’s, doing something like 13, 17, 20 plain, 30, 40, 54 I think would work pretty well on the bottom end. Again, you can mess around with it and feel it out. Just remember those same principles will pretty much always hold true. If you’re starting with a Balanced set, just adjust your gages accordingly and you’ll have a set that will work perfectly in Open E.
I should say while I think that’s the approach that works best certainly for me and for most of the players that I work with on their string side, your results may totally vary. There are a lot of players, even players that have had really huge successful careers, that might have just used a standard set of strings and tuned it accordingly. It just depends on your taste. If you do like having a more balanced tension and particularly if you’re playing for more fingerstyle and it’s kind of a little bit more awkward to have those differences in tension where it’s not quite as awkward on the slide side, I would really recommend giving this approach a try. I think it can work wonders for giving you a really balanced playable set of strings in Open E.
So, what do you think? Do you play in Open E? Have you never played in Open E before? Do you prefer standard set of strings, or do you usually customize them a little bit? Let us know down in the comments.