For the guitarist, alternate tunings expand the sonic possibilities of the instrument. But where, say, a progressive metal player will add a seventh or eighth string, pitch everything down, and get technical, the opposite is the case with “open” tunings in folk and blues. They are an ideal basis for slide guitar and three-chord, 12-bar vamps, and became the perfect platform for Keith Richards, giving him the room he needed to translate the music of his folk heroes into the gritty, distorted rock and roll of the Stones.
Feeling like he had gone as far as he could in standard tuning, Richards first turned to an open D on the band’s 1968 return to roots, Beggars Banquet and non-album single “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” In his autobiography, Life, he describes how he moved to open G from a desire to imitate the five-string banjo: “With the five-string it was just like turning a page; there’s another story. And I’m still exploring. With five strings you can be sparse; that’s your frame, that’s what you work on. ‘Start Me Up,’ ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,’ ‘Honky Tonk Women,’ all leave gaps between the chords.”
As Keef tells it, the great Ry Cooder — who plays on Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers — first introduced him to five-string open G tuning in the 60s, thirty years before curating Cuban music for the world on Buena Vista Social Club. Cooder “had the tunings down. He had the open G,” Richards writes:
The advantage (of the open-G tuning) is that you can get certain drone notes going. It’s an open-G tuning, with the low E-string removed and there’s really only three notes you use. My favorite phrase about this style of playing is that all you need to play it is five strings, two notes, two fingers and one assh*le.
Doing an impression of a mean Ike Turner, Richards demonstrates “that five-string sh*t” above on a beat-up Martin acoustic at the top of the post. Guitarists who cover the Stones in standard tunings “know something’s wrong, that an element is amiss,” writes George Rajna at Huffington Post. “Altering to Keith’s open ‘G’ tuning makes songs such as ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ simple to play.”
Open G can also help players break out of a six-string rut. As Keith says, when he “found the five-string, it was like discovering a new instrument.” Cooder, it seems wasn’t very happy about Richards taking his licks, calling the Stones “bloodsuckers” in a 70s Rolling Stone interview. But as far as Keef is concerned, it seems, everything’s fair game, and “if it’s in the bones, it’s in the bones,” he writes.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
National treasure. Long live Keef
amen. His book was awesome (you got to admit, can you imagine him hearing, “lets go out next time, mate, as Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones.” Keif about blew up, said Mick was so quick getting away, no way to get his hands around MJ’s neck. Some days, I think Mick was playing him, surely he knew that had zero chance, a higher chance for bodily harm), lots of insights into how he progressed to the open tuning, but without 2 guitars, that is a b%^&# to do. Maybe I am missing something, and you adjust only a string or two, but know from a guy I watched long ago, that I gotta go Open E to play a slide correctly. Is a pedal steel in an open set? Think it is, not sure the default tuning, is it open E, like I surmise? Can’t worry about that when miles to go on a 6-string, with standard tuning. Getting better from more playing, but some things are just out of reach unless I want to play 4 hours a day. I’m 70, do not have many “4 hours a day” remaining in me! These stories on these guys, especially the main two, are priceless, seems they liked to prank each other more than most bands of the day. I get the idea both were borderline ADD, with really high IQ’s, and just bored easily. Thence the drugs, crazy stories with women, then the bike rides with Keys in France, for my man on Exile. I can see, possibly the Stones with no Jagger, take Richards away and you have the Dead with no Garcia. Totally impossible. Really, no one wants to see the Stones with no MJ, plus he wrote a lot of good songs, to boot, so really no way without either, was ironic that we never got to know, the passing of Charlie set all that to rest.