Messing With Alternate Tunings: CGCGCE

Is standard tuning or a downtuned variant really all there is to playing guitar? This article aims to help you get familiar with Open C major tuning and therefore possibly even reinvent your approach to the instrument itself.

Ultimate Guitar
A year or so ago I published an article on DADGAD tuning, hoping to introduce people to trying out something new that may well change the way they approached the instrument itself. People seemed to to enjoy it, and so I'm back with more on a different tuning. It's one of my absolute favourites, and I hope you learn something.  

I'll start off the same way I did then - alternate tunings are scary! Scary at first, that is. Being in a different tuning can feel awfully unfamiliar, and the more a tuning deviates from standard, the more confused and uncomfortable guitar players tend to feel - but this doesn't necessary have to be the case, and so I present to you the second part in what I hope to be an ongoing (and more frequently updated!) series on alternate tunings. With this article, as with the one on DADGAD, I hope to give a brief overview and introduction to the basic fundamentals of Open C tuning (CGCGCE), so that you can get accustomed to the tuning in no time and use it to perhaps express parts of your creativity you did not find reflected in standard tuning.

Again, I'm going to assume a basic knowledge of standard tuning and how scales/intervals work as I mostly find myself explaining things in that framework. If you need brushing up on scales/intervals, there are hundreds of articles on this very website for you to learn from!

Tuning to CGCGCE

This part may throw you off, because there are a lot of changes going on, but bear with me for now!
  • the 6th string, low E, is dropped two full steps to C
  • the 5th string, A, is dropped one step to G
  • the 4th string, D, is dropped one step to C
  • the 2nd string, B, is tuned up half a step to C.
That last one might give you pause. Tuning up? Won't that snap the string? Surprisingly, your guitar is a lot more resilient than you give it credit for - unless you have some wicked extended scale fretboard, the B string can handle being tuned a semitone sharp just fine.

Now let's examine the tuning itself. Playing all the strings open yields a lovely, rich sounding C Major chord. Aren't we off to a good start already?

Basic Chords

This tuning's biggest advantage is that it is surprisingly intuitive - the four low strings follow the same basic pattern, with two pairs of repeated fifths (CG and CG) followed by a pair a major third apart (CE). This last pair is what gives the tuning its intrinsically major quality.

This setup makes the tuning especially conducive to getting precisely the sounds you need out of it, particularly in an acoustic setting. Try playing this, and slowly enough that each string rings out clearly enough for you to tell the impact it is on the chord -

(make sure to hold down the frets with your middle and ring finger here)
If you look closely, it's pretty evident that despite using five whole strings you're only actually playing two notes there; C and Eb. The minor quality of that comes from the fact that Eb is a minor third above C. Let's move this around, shall we?
The first chord features a C with an added 9th on top, giving it that pretty sound we all love. The second one has more of a major quality, with the major third tacked on. Knowing that the fifth fret on either of the G strings is a C, you can therefore move it around accordingly and give what you're playing the appropriate kind of colour with pretty much minimal effort. Cool, huh?

In the same way, you can bump this shape up one string and therefore incorporate the open 5th string (G) which would give you a fifth running through whatever you choose to play. Here are some examples to illustrate that -
The first chord here would be a C5. Man, does that sound rich! You've got a C note across three octaves and the fifth, G, across two. The second is a C minor once again - ringing out loud and full. Notice how the 6th string being a low C provides the chord with a bass element that playing a C minor (x35543) in standard tuning could never hope to achieve, and how the same applies for the very last chord. In addition, notice how intuitive these chord shapes are - all you have to do is hold down a minor third on the higher C strings and voila! You have a minor chord.

Plus, having strings tuned to the same notes means you can play around with shapes right where they are. See that second shape up there? Why not turn that C Minor into a Cmadd9? (root, fifth, minor third, ninth - to practice what you've understood about the tuning so far, try naming off which is which in the following two chords)
Both of these chords are strangely enough the same Cmadd9 chord - however, the uniqueness of this tuning allows you to choose what part of the chord to emphasize. Want the 9th to ring out more than the third? Try the first shape! Want to emphasize the third over the ninth instead? Go for the second. This applies to far more than just this chord, though I find this to be the easiest example to go back to when explaining this tuning.

"Hang on a second, buddy!" I hear you cry. "That's great and all, but what about chords that aren't rooted in C?" Well, triads are just as easily pulled off - the trick is just knowing which string your root is on. Since the intervals between the strings alternate between being fifths and fourths (the lowest two strings, C and G, are a fifth apart, but the next two are only a fourth apart. Be careful! I'll elaborate more on that later on) the shapes vary a little, but not by much.
The first two chords here you may recognize from whatever finagling in Drop D/C/B/whatever you've done - the classic E Minor followed by a G Major. The ones on the G string, however, look a little strange. This is where it's worth remembering that your 3rd and 5th strings are both tuned to G - therefore, playing separate notes on them three frets apart corresponds to a minor third (x7x10xx), and playing notes four frets apart constitutes a major third (x3x7xx), and so on. It's that simple! The trick is remembering that the 4th and 5th strings are actually a fourth apart, and so that "power chord shape" (x79xxx in the third chord above) is a necessary part of a triad.

Brief Interlude: Forget lame chords! What about some straight up heavy riffing?

No worries! Open C has your bases covered there, too. The lowest three strings conveniently function identically to Drop C, and if the vast majority of your incredibly technical riffs are in that area of the fretboard, you're in the clear! Riff writing will not be very different from whatever you've done in drop tunings already. If anything, you can augment heavy riffing with the fact that you have two higher strings tuned to the same notes your lower three strings are, and easily add a whole new higher dimension to riffs with very minimal changes in fingering.


Once again, I feel that a good way to put the intervallic relationships between the strings on display is to show you how the ubiquitous Pentatonic Minor shape we've all memorized looks transposed directly. This is rooted in G.
Oh man, that looks threatening compared to what you remember from standard. Unlike with DADGAD, where simply "moving" our favourite memorized box shape up two frets on select strings seemed to work out just fine, there's no such easy rule for Open C. That being said, even if the shapes you've learned in standard tuning aren't easily transposed onto this tuning, they take on a simple charm of their own here. Namely, the way the strings relate to each other means that scales and basic arpeggios are actually extremely intuitive once you get around to understanding them.

Try out this scale run in D Major to see what I mean.
Whoooooa. See? The fact that you have "pairs" of strings a fifth apart means that scales are incredibly obvious to your trained guitarist eye in Open C, and perhaps even more so than in standard. Notably, however, the pattern does break on the highest string, as that pair is a major third apart (which, to reiterate, is what gave the tuning its major quality). I find that the easiest way to keep track of that is to think of those two strings the same way as you think of the relationship between your G and B strings in standard tuning - it's pretty much exactly the same principle here, except bumped up a string higher.

With this in mind, other scales are actually incredibly easy to work out as you go. (Plus, the Kerry King method of playing the same three or so fret numbers across different strings in a solo actually sounds melodic when done in this tuning!) For example, here's an F minor (which, as we all know, would be r 2 m3 4 5 m6 m7) written out in tab form and then with the related intervals notated for descriptive purposes.
This goes to show if you can "see" the parts on the scale on the C-G pair of strings, you can "see" the scale on practically the whole fretboard. How about that? No more awkward fumbling around when familiarizing yourself with new scales! If you know where to find a desired note or pair of notes in one part of the fretboard, you can easily find them anywhere else with minimal effort. Of course, for seasoned veterans of standard tuning, this may seem like a cop out, but Open C deserves merit where it's due for this massive advantage in simplicity.

Note that this method of playing the scale skips over the 4th (including it would mean the run on the G string would be 3/5-6-8 instead of just 5-6-8). This is how I personally choose to approach scales in this tuning, but you can just as easily move things around to incorporate the fourth in a scale run if you so desire.

Basic Arpeggios

From off in the distance comes the inevitable question. "Scales are cool. I suppose. But are arpeggios also that obvious here too?" The answer is a resounding yes. For a quick starter for tonight's course at Arpeggio Restaurant, I'll show you a C Minor arpeggio and break it down for you.
Again with the repeating shapes! What a surprise. Or not, actually. As is evident from the tab, working out this arpeggio is super obvious - root, minor third, fifth (on the next string), and then repeat. That being said, the pattern breaks at the high E string, where I've written out a single C note to round out the arpeggio. Otherwise things are as intuitive as ever!

(Brief reminder: as with scales, there are numerous ways across the fretboard to accomplish this, and this method of working out arpeggios is not a hard and fast rule. If anything, that previous statement applies to most of the examples I've given in this article. I've tried to express the fundamentals of each basic aspect so that you can familiarize yourself to the tuning, but all the ultra-fancy stuff is for you to discover at your own leisure.)

Back to arpeggios! Here's a C Major instead.
All I've done here is taken the C Minor shape from above and bump up the minor third to a major third - and yet the repeated shapes stay the same. Cool, huh? Remember, however, that that does not apply to the high E string! There, the C note stays where it was before.

Things are a little different playing arpeggios starting from the lowest string. When doing so, be sure to take into account the fact that the next string is a fifth and not a fourth apart. This makes arpeggiating a little tricky for those who have yet to master the rolling technique, so make sure to work on that!

Here's a C Minor followed by a C Major played on the 12th position -
Even more repeating shapes. You're not even surprised anymore, are you. The main principle is the same - root, third, fifth on next string, repeat. The main trick here is just to remember that playing the fifth is not done with the traditional "power chord" shape and rather with rolling onto the same fret on the next string.

Now that you've got the basics, feel free to play around with these! Throw in odd intervals or rhythmic patterns or whatnot - again, all of the above examples are starting points for your own experimentation, so go wild with them.

Sample CGCGCE Riffs

I can already picture some select (and wonderful) people reading through this article and holding their breath till I got to mentioning the one and only Devin Townsend. In addition to being a mad musical genius, Devin is noted for his absolutely extensive use of Open C tuning, and his 20-odd albums (either solo or with his now-defunct metal band Strapping Young Lad) all feature songs written in Open C (or his preferred 7 string variant, GCGCGCE). Later on in his career he started using Open B (BF#BF#BD#) more, but it remains functionally identical to Open C albeit dropped a semitone in pitch. Devin's works are an excellent resource for those wanting to work more with this tuning, as his works run the gamut from extreme metal and progressive metal to laid back country rock and ambient acoustic work.

Here's the main part from the song "Terminal" off his album "Ki." It's a quiet little line played through a clean channel but really accentuates how simple it is to write and play lush sounding parts accompanied with heavy usage of open strings.
It's a simple progression - G5, Fsus2, and then a Cm7/Eb to conclude. And yet look at how incredibly simple the fingerings are - only one shape is moved back, and the constancy of the C5 chord ringing out with every arpeggio sets a tone that can easily be modulated with the moving "bassline" below.

Now that that's out of the way, let's try something more advanced. The title track from that same album features a very distinct sequence of arpeggios at the end, which I'll tab out in full here for your practicing pleasure. It's an excellent song to practice the rolling technique that arpeggios starting from the lowest string necessitate.



I know this looks VERY intimidating at first glance to some of you - but if you try to break the arpeggios down individually and learn them one by one, this is an absolutely excellent way to practice what I find to be one of the trickier fundamental aspects of this tuning. To break it down somewhat:
  • Bar 1 begins with a C major arpeggio at the 12th position that Devin plays on the 11th position when descending (notice how each note of the descending arpeggio still falls on the C major scale, keeping every part of it in key). The same thing is repeated with a G major arpeggio in the 7th position, and then finally a D major on the 2nd which continues into bar 2. Same shape, different starting points.
  • Midway through the 2nd bar, the D major arpeggio is followed up with a quick Cm#5 (root, minor third, minor sixth) at the 1st position to lead into the next sequence.
  • The 3rd bar features a series of 6th chord (root, major third, major sixth) runs in Eb (3rd position), G (7th position), B (11th position) and finally Eb again (15th position) which concludes the arpeggio on a nice, resolving G, bringing things fully back in key and setting the whole thing up for a repeat.
If you master playing this sequence cleanly then any and all arpeggios in Open C will be an absolute breeze. Again, it may seem difficult, but perseverance is key! If, however, you still feel as if it's too much to work with for now, Devin has countless other simpler songs in this tuning (both in his solo works and with Strapping Young Lad), a good portion of which are available on UG to begin with.

Of course, no mention of Open C is complete without Led Zeppelin's "Friends," the song which inspired Devin to take up using Open C tuning in the first place. (Ironically enough, it's actually in Open C6 - CACGCE - but it's often been mistaken as being in CGCGCE instead by most, including Devin) Here's a snippet of the verse as it would be played in Open C.

Pretty straightforward from what we've seen so far. This song appears to largely be in G major, save for the very last chord, which features a dark sounding tritone. The open strings provide a powerful G octave that rings through every other note being played and gives the riff a smooth, flowing feel.


Again, this is probably redundant by now, but having a reference point is probably handy.
Those are D, G, and then G again an octave higher, respectively.

On to the next section!

Advantages and Disadvantages of CGCGCE

  • scales are incredibly straightforward and easy to both work out on the fretboard and play;
  • the logical arrangement of the fretboard means that knowing where a note is positioned in one place means pretty much immediately knowing where to find it all across;
  • arpeggios and the like are very intuitive and sequences repeat themselves exactly across strings;
  • the logical arrangement of the fretboard and its similarity to drop tunings (with regard to the lower strings) makes everything from soft acoustic work to effortless heavy riffing possible, which is not something I've found I can say about all alternate tunings;
  • absolutely great for percussive acoustic techniques (John Butler uses this tuning to amazing effect)
  • I've found piano players to be especially friendly to this tuning as it's rooted in C in addition to being as straightforward as it is. If you learned to play piano before picking up the guitar, this tuning just might feel more natural in your hands than standard!
  • the simplicity only holds for simple chords - trying to build up more complex chords is difficult due to one single position consisting of largely the same notes across all strings;
  • the intervallic relationship between the two highest strings takes a while to get used to;
  • the scale "shapes" you've committed to muscle memory do not transfer well from the ones in standard tuning at all, and a new approach may take a while to get used to as well;
  • playing even simple minor triads with all six strings for a richer sound (i.e. Bm played as 799777 in standard tuning) in any key is all but impossible in this tuning due to its intrinsically major nature.
All in all, this remains one of my favourite alternate tunings, as it necessitates a wholly different approach to guitar in some ways, and I hope you enjoyed the article enough to maybe give Open C a shot in the future! I tried making this article more extensive and detailed than my DADGAD one and I hope that that was a step in the positive direction and that you learned all the more from it. Thanks for reading!

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    Devin Townsend is the best example out there if you want to mess around in Open C Major.
    In an interview, Devin claims to have tuned to open C to play Friends (as mentioned above), then just couldn't be bothered to change it back to standard. Then he dropped down to open B 'cause his guitar warped and he didn't bother to re-tune it, so he now has a load of songs in B also. The guys hilarious.
    Soundgarden has at least 3 great songs in this tuning as well; Superunknown, Pretty Noose, and Burden in my Hand.
    Pretty Noose and Burden In My Hand are tuned to CGCGGE which is a bit different than CGCGCE but nonetheless Open C.
    No I believe John Butler is, seen him rock out a festival audience after Iggy Pop, doubt Devin could do that
    funny enough, after John Butler was Rammstein and Tool, both bands I deeply love. But John Butler owned them all in his performance
    Great tutorial! An excellent resource if you get into creativity hole... Changing tuning is a great resource to create new ideas and practicing!
    Thanks very much! I believe the same myself - standard is great, but there's nothing like a healthy dose of alt tunings!
    Sorry to hijack this, but a master of alternate tunings and just all round bad-ass guitar playing (shocked it hasn't been mentioned on this site), has died Cheers to Johnny Winter
    If you really want to play in a minor key in this tuning just tune the E to an Eb, so CGCGCEb. Now you have Open C minor.
    Very true, though for this article I chose to focus specifically on Open C major. Valid point nonetheless!
    I've experimented with CGCGCD, so it's easy to get both major and minor chords.
    i've always used different tunings, having started off as a classical guitarist the change from standard to my drop B tuned flying V for example was one of the biggest untill i started playing some evanescence DADGAD tuned songs. When approaching the DADGAD tuning everything i did was self taught and done by ear. I've been pondering changing one of my guitars to Open C for a while and thanks to this well written article now i feel i should be able to do so much easier. Thanks a lot author, very good article
    Chris Zoupa
    I'd love to see you play an original piece with these thought processes. This is an amazing article man. RESPECT!
    Chris! This is very high praise from an INCREDIBLE guitarist and writer, and I'm honestly beyond flattered! I've got a couple originals knocking around in Open C, and perhaps once my laptop is done refusing to work properly I'll try to record something and put it up here, but for now I'm very glad you liked it!!
    Chris Zoupa
    Dude add me on Facebook. We can chat more. I've nearly finished my first solo EP but it'd be great to hear your stuff. We could potentially do some collaboration. Once again man awesome article. I've heard Devin does it on a 7 string going GCGCGCE! Might give that a try!
    Hey everyone! Author here - unfortunately, I seem to have made an error in the long 4-bar arpeggio section from Devin Townsend's Ki. In the very last bar, the ascending arpeggio involves playing a G# (13th fret) on the G strings, and not the 11th fret. That shape is therefore played similarly to the ones on either side of it, and not with the rolling technique as I have notated. Sorry about that!
    Goo Goo Dolls probably have won at "most weird tunings ever" besides Sonic Youth of course.
    Soundgarden deserves a honourable mention too I think. The EEEEE tuning on Mind Riot is really something else!
    best article i've seen here in a while. Changing tuning is sometimes a great creative trick..after tuning differently you find your usual playing patterns suddenly create very refreshing stuff pretty much on their own without a lot of effort.
    Nero Galon
    Yup, delving into alt tunings is a really great way of making practicing guitar really refreshing and fun.
    Thanks! I find that switching tunings also has the double effect of preventing your hands from going to the same old places out of habit, and forces you to change your approach somewhat. Glad you liked the article!
    Hi Aays, thanks for a great article! I just want to comment on playing minor triads with all the 6 strings. Actually, there is a way to manage with it in by the aids of "000033"-type shapes. For example, Em in CGCGCE is 444477. Here are I use my flat index on the 4th fret and my flat pinky on the 7th.
    Oh my goodness!! I'm frankly a little embarrassed that I never managed to figure that out when playing around with this tuning but that makes an awful lot of sense. I'll see if I can get the article edited with that thrown in and credited to you. Thanks so much for pointing that out!
    wow that really is a simple way of playing minor chords in a major tuning
    Wow, I always knew open C was simple in theory but I never really tried it out. After reading this I really want to give it a try. Excellent lesson, it's real top notch stuff.
    Thank you! That's exactly what I'd hoped to convey with this article. Enjoy Open C!
    You should do an article on some of Soundgarden's more esoteric tunings, say Mailman, Mind Riot, My Wave, Fresh Tendrils, see what you can come up with. And I guess Goo Goo Dolls would be another band to look at (there are others I'm sure but that's all I really know much about). You don't need to discuss the songs, but an exploration of the tuning would be good.
    I'd very much like to explore Soundgarden tunings in particular, but time is a scarce resource lately for a working university student such as myself That being said I do hope to keep churning out more of these articles on alternate tunings, and I'll get around to those eventually!
    Rebel Scum
    I love how Mind Riot was born. Apparently Jeff Ament said to Cornell something along the lines of "Man wouldn't it be cool to do a song with all strings tuned to E". What a bat shit mad tuning.
    Something I should be doing,have a few guitars lying around,should have a few tuned diff