Open A Tuning on Guitar
With Open A tuning, you're changing the strings in a way that enables you to play specific chords in A major.
By Ben Nemeroff
Mastering the guitar consists of not only musical proficiency in chord knowledge, but experience in exploring different tuning options, as well. Open A tuning is a great alternative to standard tuning in the way it forms A major chord when played open. Open A tuning capitalizes on the rich drone notes within the key that you otherwise wouldn’t hear with standard tuning.
In this lesson, we’ll cover how to tune your guitar to open A, why you should want to experiment with alternate tunings, as well as songs and popular genres where open A is used. Let’s get started.
What is Open A Tuning on a Guitar?
Open A tuning is a fairly easy and common alternative tuning to learn to play. It creates an A major chord when you strum your guitar in an open position. You only need to change the pitch of three strings to tune your guitar to open A.
Historically, open A tuning was the original tuning style for the lap steel guitar, which was invented in 1889 by Joseph Kekuku. It was a six-string wooden guitar initially intended to be a Spanish guitar, but was converted to a steel guitar by raising the strings up approximately a half inch from the fretboard and inserting a metal converter nut at the headstock.
As music continues to be an ever-evolving art, musicians are constantly innovating and searching for new sounds and combinations to push it to new heights. It’s the reason so many guitarists expand their repertoire to include alternate tunings outside of the standard tuning format.
Lesson: How to Open A Tune a Guitar
Open A tuning is a favorite alternative tuning for guitar players of blues and blues-inspired classic rock. This particular alternate tuning adds body to your chords and helps beef up musical breakdowns in bridges and solos. Adding open A to your guitar arsenal can help you explore new and fun ways to enrich and strengthen your chords and tone.
Standard tuning for guitar, uses all six strings, from lowest to highest:
• E (lowest string)
• E (highest string)
Open A tuning alters the pitch of your D, G and B strings to form A major chord when played open. The A major chord consists of the A note as the root note, C# as the major third and E as the perfect fifth. In open A, your strings would be tuned as follows:
• E (lowest string)
• E (highest string)
Now that you’re familiar with the differences between standard tuning and open A tuning, here’s how to tune a guitar to open A:
• Start by tuning your D string up one whole step to E
• Next, tune your G string up one whole step to A
• Finally, tune your B string up one whole step to C#
• Keep plucking the strings until you hear the correct notes.
Pro tip: You can use the Fender Online guitar tuner to help you tune your guitar to the correct note. Use either the Electric Guitar Online Guitar Tuner or the Acoustic Guitar Online Tuner. Or download the app for your phone. Both the web and app versions give you the ability to adjust your settings and tune specifically to open A and other alternate tunings.
• If you don’t have access to a tuner to hear the notes, you can tune your standard D (4th) string to match your low E (6th) string and your standard G (3rd) string to match your (5th) string. To tune your standard B (2nd) string to a C#, tune up a whole step.
Why Learn Open A Tuning
When you play open chords, they tend to create more ring and reverberation than typical bar chords. With open A tuning, you can capitalize on the strengths of open strings – giving you a fuller, richer sustain.
Open A and other alternate tunings also allow players to play chords that otherwise might be too hard or too much of a finger stretch for novice players to achieve. If you’re looking to mimic a bluesy playing style or a classic rock vibe, open A is a must, especially for achieving that Delta or country blues sound. Songs in open A pair perfectly with slide guitar, harmonica and vocals that range from soulful and self-reflecting to temperamental and intense.
One important note to keep in consideration when playing open A is that the tuning typically requires a lighter set of strings. This is because three strings are raised up a whole step and could harm your guitar/break a string if not carefully tuned.
Open A Tuning by Genre
Open A tuning is primarily a blues-infused/classic rock tuning style. Let’s cover a few examples of songs that use open A tuning by genre and how it sets the tone for each song.
Open A Tuning in Blues
No stranger to the guitar, Eric Clapton’s “Lonely Years” featuring John Mayall is a perfect example of delta blues. The open A tuning Clapton uses on this track lends itself perfectly to Mayall’s soulful vocals and harmonica harmony. Clapton’s guitar tone has a rich and full drive that pumps the song along from heavier chord play to gripping solo riffs.
Open A Tuning in Classic Rock
Classic rock gods, Led Zeppelin infuse their hard rock with blues thanks to open A tuning on the track, “In My Time of Dying.” Tons of guitar slides and string bends drive the song and rhythm, paving way for an aggressive and passionate ode to Delta blues. Laced with Robert Plant’s gripping vocals, this song is a perfect example of the tone and sound that open A can channel.
Open A Tuning in Alternative Rock
Not all open A songs are bluesy blasts from the past. The White Stripes’ Jack White delivers “Seven Nation Army,” one of the band’s biggest hits, in open A tuning. How do you think he got that classic guitar riff slide to stick in your head so well? The guitar almost squeals as he powers through the riff. It may be alternative/indie rock, but this song harkens back to some serious blues-inspired roots.
Check Out Fender Play Guitar Lessons
Learning songs with standard tuning can be complicated enough, but it’s important to open up your play style to new tunings and genres. With practice comes perfection, right? By practicing open A tuning, as well as other open tuning variants, you’ll become a well-rounded guitarist capable of a wide range of play styles, tones and genres. Learn more with a free trial through Fender Play.