Using an Open G Tuning and Playing Guitar Like Keith Richards

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has crafted some of the most famous guitar riffs of all time. What's unique about his style is that most of his signature hooks are chord changes, not scale riffs. And these changes almost always combine chord voicings derived from the CAGED system's A and C forms.

Richards favors the use of an open G tuning, which detunes the 1st, 5th, and 6th strings one whole step. He then either avoids the 6th string or leaves it off the guitar completely.

Normally, guitar strings are tuned from low to high as follows:

String: 6 5 4 3 2 1
Pitch: E A D G B E

In open G tuning, the guitar is tuned like this:

String: 6 5 4 3 2 1
Pitch: D G D G B D

Changing the tuning of the strings like this means that standard chord shapes and scale patterns no longer work. In some cases, this creates an advantage. For example, in the tab shown in the following image, you can play a G chord in the open position with all open strings. You can then play full major chords around the neck by simple barring with one finger:

Chords in open G tuning. [Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna
Chords in open G tuning.

In the preceding example, you can even play the 6th string, which is the 5th of each chord and becomes an alternate bass note. For example, G/D, C/G, and D/A.

Next, you can play I-IV chord changes by simply adding two fingers. In the open position you can change from G to C by holding down the 1st fret of the 2nd string and the 2nd fret of the 4th string. Notice that this pair of notes comes directly from a common open C chord. In standard tuning you also need to hold the 3rd fret of the 5th string, but in open G it works to play the 5th string open because it's the 5th of the C chord, G. This same type of change works anywhere on the neck.

When you barre with your 1st finger at the 5th fret in this tuning to play C, you can add your 2nd and 3rd fingers to strings 2 and 4 at the 6th and 7th frets. This is a small part of a C form barre chord, but because of the special tuning, you can strum across all strings without adding any more fingers. This same type of change can be done anywhere on the neck. You see it done in four positions in this second example:

I-IV changes in open G tuning. [Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna
I-IV changes in open G tuning.

Notice that when you move to the C form IV chord, as in G-C, the C chord has an alternate bass note (the 5th) plus an added 9th (the D note on string 1). This remains true in other positions and gives the chord changes their signature sound. Keith Richards used this sound to good effect by moving the chord shapes around in many of the Rolling Stones' most popular songs, including "Brown Sugar," "Honky Tonk Women," and "Start Me Up."

You can make use of this style of playing without retuning your guitar. In open G tuning, strings 2–4 do not change, and it's on these strings that the main chord changing happens. Try keeping your guitar in standard tuning and playing through the second example with only strings 2–4. The chord voicings may not sound as full, and you miss the add9, but it's worth it to pull out some classic Rolling Stones riffs on the fly without having to change your tuning.

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