Learning to play guitar is filled with wonderful surprises. One of the biggest discoveries players make is learning to play in open tunings – and one of the most versatile and fun to play around with is open C tuning.
The open C tuning on the guitar is a wonderful way to explore the sonic range of your instrument. In addition, you can develop new melodies, strumming patterns, and chord shapes as you explore the sound.
One of the biggest frustrations with any open tuning is the expectation.
- How can you play open tuning guitar if you haven’t fully mastered standard tuning?
- Isn’t open tuning harder than regular tuning?
Fortunately, we have years of experience to help you navigate open tunings!
At Acoustic Life, we like to view learning the guitar as non-linear. On any given day, you may decide to learn a few chords in standard tuning, while the next you experiment with open tunings.
What matters is that you learned something.
Today, we’re focusing on open C tuning. When you’re ready for more, Tony’s innovative Guitar Workshop has plenty more for you to discover!
Originally published on June 8, 2019, this article was republished on August 12, 2022.
What Is Open C Tuning?
Open C tuning is an alternative tuning that will allow you to play a C major chord simply by strumming the open strings on your guitar.
The tuning creates a rich, full sound, and will allow you to experiment with different tones when writing songs or just practicing!
How to Tune Your Guitar to Open C
The first step to playing in open C tuning on your guitar is to tune it correctly:
- Start by tuning your low E string to a low C.
- Then, tune your A string to a G.
- From there, the D string drops down to a C note.
- The G string remains the same.
- Your B string moves up a half step to a C note.
- Finally, the high E string remains the same.
At the end of the tuning, you want your strings to play a bright, lush C chord:
This is the basic process to set up open C tuning on your guitar. There are some slight variations, but this is the most standard approach. Now that you have the open C tuning on your guitar, you might be wondering what good it is.
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Open C Tuning Exercise
The best way to understand the open C tuning on the guitar is by playing a major scale. It sounds simple, but playing the scale on one string while strumming all the other strings is incredibly beneficial.
This will teach you where the major scale notes are on the fretboard, while letting you hear the all the notes of the open chord.
Start playing a C major scale in open C tuning:
- Start by strumming all of the strings open.
- Place your first finger on the second fret of any of the C strings in this open tuning.
- From there, it’s just a simple major scale progression up the frets.
If you need a refresher, the scale pattern is also covered in the video above.
One of the opportunities open C tuning affords us is the ability to strum all strings at the same time while only fretting one string – and it always sounds great! Try experimenting with different strumming patterns and major scale orders once you master the basic exercise.
Open C Tuning Chords [Stacked and Staggered Shapes]
There are two chord shapes for Open C tuning on guitar. The first one is a stacked shape, while the second one is a staggered shape. Both of these shapes will be useful for playing guitar in open C tuning.
The stacked shape is the simpler of the two shapes.
- Start by placing your ring finger on the fifth fret of the high E string.
- Place your middle finger on the fifth fret of the G string.
This simple stacked shape will allow you to play chords in open C tuning. The stacked shape will work best on the fifth frets, the seventh frets, and the 12th frets. This is because these are the major triads of the chord, and the stacked shape represents a major chord.
The staggered shape is slightly more complicated, but it is still doable.
- Place your middle finger on the fourth fret of the G string.
- Place your index finger on the third fret of the high E string.
This is the basis of the staggered shape. The staggered shape represents minor chords in the open C tuning. This shape works best on the second, third, sixth, and seventh scale degrees.
Be sure to check out the video for the full explanation of the chord shapes and their relational scale degrees!
While this isn’t a hard and fast rule, using these chord shapes will give you a framework for exploring open C tuning on guitar.
Discover More Guitar Tunings and Exercises
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While the open C is interesting, you might like to drop all the strings one step, and then drop the sixth string to a C. You will find two things… The first is that you can play all the notes as a regular tuning, using the sixth string like a dropped D… playing a standard D chord gives a beautiful ringing C chord, when strumming all the strings. 2. Tuning the sixth string back up to a D would be like playing at standard tuning…. However, if you use a capo on the second fret, you are back on standard tuning. This is how I store m 12 String guitars… leave the sixth strings set at C… You’ll find an unbelievable richness to all songs when fingering these settings… All the best… Frank
Tony thank u so much. I have never heard of open tuning and am having a blast with it within minutes of your lesson. Ii have been playing for 26 years but keep running into this guitar depression you speak of and still feel like I’m on a beginner level. After several lessons and different teachers you actually make things “make sense”. ‘m trying to find a way to join so hopefully I will see you soon. Thanks Chad
BTW….. Love Aquistic Tuesday!
As always excellent. A suggestion: love the guitar, You may want to teach with one of your other axes that has fret markers for the arithmetically challenged. Also, interesting Open C work from John Fahey (natch) and Ellen Ellen McIlwaine if you dig around their catalogs.
I enjoy learning something new everyday with Tony. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and love of the instrument!
Every time I see your videos it makes me more confident about playing my acoustic Yamaha guitar. TY Tony for the lessons. I am forever grateful.
Hi Tony , Thanks for coming through again with something else to try I had a stroke about a year ago (Still going to Therapy ,making progress )Striving to get back to intermediate status ! Having alternate tunings have helped inspire me to keep trying to find ways to form chords again since my left hand was affected .Your videos have been informative and helped me regain some use of my chord forming and making music which is important to all of us out there ! Thanks so much for being there !
Awesome lesson. I’ve been jumping around a bit but really trying to improve my playing and enhance my knowledge of the guitar.
Great lesson.I would like a breakdown of the fingerpicking at the end of the lesson,
Your drop note tuning is inspiring me to play again. I can easily pick and strum out a melody. And of course, I am still working on barre chords on standard tuning. .. If I could ever get a grip! I look forward to Tuesdays for all of the snacks you give us. If only I could take lessons in person with you.
Thank you Tony!
I forgot to mention…I went to the Met in NYCity and saw the Play It Loud Exhibit. It was mind blowing!
Hi Tony, excellent lesson as usual, never heard of drop c tuning, it’s opened my ears! How does this work playing with players in standard tuning do we all have to be in drop c? Sorry if it sounds a bit lame but just getting to grips with this guitar thing.
Tony – you need to put guitar Tab in your lessons. “Out your index on the 4th string or the C on the 3 string is f’n confusing for quick look. It otherwise takes a lot longer to decipher what you are saying. Also, there must be some chord shapes for the various tunings – I have not personally done too much with this except for the drop D that the Stones have used a lot.
Thanks for the lesson. I enjoy all of yours.
I am a drummer. Started banging on things in about 1958 and started actually playing drums in 1962. I picked up guitar very late in life after I retired and needed something meaningful and challenging to keep me alive. My intention was to learn basic rock n’ roll rhythm guitar so I bought an electric and tuned into the internet. Very quickly realized that what I actually was interested in was acoustic fingerstyle. Then got hooked on old blues and American Primative (John Fahey, Leo Kottke, etc.). This lead me to alternate tunings and things really became interesting. My point to this rambling is this. I am not a “good” guitar player by definition. I can’t play anything in standard tuning and, for now anyway, spend very little time working on anything in standard. I have pretty much settle on open C, open D and DADGAD. I feel that I can play pretty much anything I will ever want to play in those tunings. With the fretting being more simple it leaves me tons more time to work on the picking fingers which takes hours and hours (and more hours) of repetition to master.
It’s an interesting journey and your videos help supply a road map. Keep them coming!