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Open C Tuning: What It Is & Why It’s Great For Beginners

Open C tuning is a great way for both beginners and experts alike to get deep, percussive sound with minimal effort. How do you use it? We explain.

Have you been fascinated by John Butler playing around on his 12-string guitar or heard Led Zeppelin’s “Friends”?

Have you ever wanted to play that type of music?

While most music can be played with the standard tuning, others need a different tuning to sound right.

One of these tunings, and the one used with the songs mentioned above, is open C tuning.

Check out our other guides to alternate guitar tunings:

What is Open C tuning?

An open tuning is any tuning that lets the guitarist strum a chord without any strings fretted. Any kind of chordal tuning can be achieved by using the notes in the chord to tune the guitar.

Open C tuning lets the guitarist strum a C chord without fingering the fretboard at all.

There are many different variations of open C tuning, but the most common tunes the guitar to CGCGCE.

When you strum the open strings of a guitar in open C, it sounds similar to a C major chord, except it’s much deeper, fuller, and richer. This is thanks to the very low 6th string that helps give your instrument a full, loud sound.

Another fun way to use this tuning is by laying your finger flat on all six strings on one of the frets and moving it around the fretboard. This will cause the C major chord to turn into other major chords depending upon what fret you have your finger on.

open c tuning on a six string guitar
Open C tuning sounds especially rich on acoustic guitars. (Source)

What type of guitars can you use Open C tuning with?

You can use open C tuning with both 12-string and 6-string guitars.

Keep in mind that this tuning involved the 6th string being tuned very low to create a full sound, which may cause the open 6th string might rattle.

To avoid this, you can take a couple of steps.

First, optimize your string gauges. You also need to make sure that your strings have the right amount of tension to ensure your sound is good. Overall your tension should be about 160 lbs and each individual string has to have less than 30 lbs.

How to Achieve Open C Tuning From The Standard Tuning

Open C tuning is popular on both 6-string and 12-string guitars. Let’s talk about tuning both types of guitars to open C, starting with the 6-strings.

Tuning a 6-string guitar

Starting with the standard tuning, you need to make changes to four strings.

6th String (C): Find a reference C on your guitar (such as the 3rd fret on the 5th string) and loosen the 6th string until they’re in harmony. This is a relatively major change so you may need to loosen it a full turn.

5th String (G): Find a reference G on your guitar (in standard tuning, the 3rd string) and lower the 5th string one full step until they harmonize.

4th String (C): Use the 6th string to adjust this string until it harmonizes.

3rd String (G): Leave this string alone. It’s already a G in the standard tuning.

2nd String (C): Use either the 6th of 4th strings for reference and raise this up until they harmonize. Do it slowly and be careful not to break the string.

1st String (E): Leave this string alone. It’s already an E in the standard tuning.

Tuning a 12-String Guitar

Open C tuning on a 12-string guitar is relatively straightforward. Follow the guide above for open C tuning on a 6-string guitar and keep three thoughts in mind:

  • Tune the strings in pairs.
  • Tune the lower four pairs an octave apart.
  • Tune the upper two pairs to the same tuning.

Now you’re set to sound like John Butler.

open c tuning on a 12-string acoustic guitar
Open tunings sound great on 12-string guitars. (Source)

Alternate Open C Tunings

There are several variations of open C tuning used to create slightly modified sounds. Here some of the more popular ones.

CGCGGE: Also known as the C5 variation, this is similar to the above mentioned open C tuning, except that you tune the 2nd string all the way to G as opposed to C. Songs which use this variation are “Pretty Noose,” “A Thousand Days Before,” and “Burden in My Hand” by Soundgarden.

CEGCEG: This tuning is noted for its repetitive tuning.

CCGCEG: This variation is prominent thanks to its usage of overtones of the note C. The sound tends to resonate better and the intervals hold the thirds of the C major chord, leading to a richer sound.

CCGCEC: This tuning utilizes a high C as opposed to the high G of the previous tuning. You can see this variation being used in Bad Company’s song “Movin’ On.”

When To Use Open C Tuning

Guitarists who like playing country, bluegrass, and blues often favor open C tuning. However, a lot of genres sound great on this tuning so there’s no single genre that really shines with open C.

There are several advantages to using open C tuning.

If you’re tired of playing the same chords on open tuning, you can play them on open C and be rewarded with a similar but deeper and richer sound. In open C tuning, scales are very simple and you can work them out yourself and play them. Arpeggios are also easy to play as they are intuitive and sequences repeat perfectly across all the strings.

The fretboard of a guitar in open C tuning is very logically arranged and the similarity of drop C tuning makes every kind of playstyle, ranging from playing heavy riffs to soft gentle acoustic fingerstyle guitar, a possibility.

Finally, this tuning is well suited for acoustic techniques which are percussive in nature. A great example of this is prominent guitarist John Butler. He uses open C tuning on his 12-string guitar to make stunning rhythmic music.

Hopefully, this article has helped you learn about open C tuning, how you can tune your guitar to it, and the kind of music you can play with it. Good luck, and keep practicing!

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