The Ultimate Guide to Open C Tuning

Having a guitar tuned to Open C means that playing the open strings will ring out a C Major chord.

This means that you don’t need to fret any note on the neck to play C Major. The other major chords can all be played with a one finger barre shape across any of the frets.

Open tunings are worth checking out if you like to have a full sound when you’re playing chords, and also if you like to play with a slide.

When you play every note on a certain fret, it will always sound good, which is why slide players take advantage of open tunings most of the time. 

Since you need to drop the tuning of most of your strings, it is a good idea to get a higher string gauge set to compensate for the tension drop.

You might want to have your guitar set up by a professional if you really want to have it sound as good as possible, with no fret buzz, good intonation, and no risk of damaging the neck.

This KillerGuitarRigs Guide will teach you how to tune a guitar to Open C, how to play chords, scales, and give you examples of music written in this tuning so you can take some inspiration from it.

Be sure to check out our full guide to alternative tunings, as well as our guides to open D, drop d and drop b tuning.

Want to learn more about music theory?
Check out our ultimate guide to music theory to find more jumping off points.

How to Tune Your Guitar in Open C Tuning

For the open strings to spell out a C Major chord, every note must belong to the C Major triad, which contains the notes C (root), E (major third), and G (perfect fifth).

Instead of the usual “EADGBE” strings that you have in standard tuning, Open C has the following set of pitches, from the lowest to the highest string:

  • C
  • G
  • C
  • G
  • C
  • E

There are two aspects to be noticed here:

  • The first and third strings (E and G) maintain the same pitch as they did in standard tuning; you only need to tune the other 4.
  • The second string is the only one that needs to be tuned higher than in standard tuning. You go from B to C, which is one semitone higher. The rest of the strings need to be tuned down.

This kind of variation in string tension can affect the guitar’s neck, which is why it is advisable to have the instrument set up by a professional if you’re planning to keep it in this tuning for a long period of time.

The most comfortable and foolproof way to tune to Open C is to use a tuner

You can use a tuner pedal, a clip-on tuner or even an app on your smartphone, as long as there are no background noises that could make it more difficult to tune accurately.

However, if you don’t have a tuner handy, you can tune to Open C from standard tuning by following these steps:

  • Play the open 3rd string (G), and then tune the 5th string down until their pitches match. The 5th string should be playing a G one octave below the 3rd string.
  • Next, play the C located on the 1st fret of the 2nd string. While it is ringing, drop the 4th string until their pitches match.
  • Lastly, play the open 4th string (now tuned to C) and drop the 6th string until their pitches match.

Even though it isn’t extremely difficult to tune it like this, it is still better if you have a tuner available, since it is advisable to check every string again after tuning them all.

How to play chords in Open C Tuning

Even though people mostly play barre chords with some embellishments when tuned to Open C, there are still many chord voicings that you can use in a variety of scenarios. 

In Open C, playing major chords is the easiest thing to do. Find the root note of the chord you want to play on the 6th string and barre the whole fret with one finger.

The following guitar tab shows you how to play every chord from C Major to B Major with a one finger barre shape:

how to play open c tuning chords

The rest of this section will give you some other voicing suggestions. 

Major Chords in Open C 

Major chords have their root note, a major third and a perfect fifth. This corresponds to C, E and G, in the key of C.

Here are a couple of examples that aren’t played with a one finger barre shape:

C Maj7
E Major

Minor Chords in Open C 

Minor chords have a root note, a minor third and a perfect fifth. In the key of C, those notes are C, Eb and G.

Here is how you can play a few minor chords in Open C tuning:

A minor
D minor
C minor
B minor

Seventh Chords in Open C 

Seventh or dominant chords have 4 notes: a root, a major third, a perfect fifth and a minor seventh. In C, those notes are C, E, G and Bb.

These chords are used in every genre, generally in a V-I cadence, since dominant chords set you up for the tonic/root note.

Here are a few chord voicings in Open C:


Open Chords in Open C

Open chords have a beautiful distinctive sound due to the resonating open strings. They can be any type of chord (major, minor, etc.).

You can find some examples of these chords in Open C below:


Scales in Open C Tuning

The scale patterns that you might have studied in the past don’t apply to this tuning, since the strings are tuned differently from standard tuning.

This section will provide you with diagrams that illustrate some of the most commonly used scales in the key of C, in a guitar tuned to open C.

C Major Scale

From a scale degree perspective, the major scale can be described as “1 2 3 4 5 6 7”. 

This corresponds to the notes on the C Major scale, which are: C, D, E, F, G, A, B.

Here is where you will find these notes after you tune a guitar to Open C:

C Major Scale

C Natural Minor Scale

The natural minor scale can be described numerically as “1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7”. In comparison to the major scale, its 3rd, 6th and 7th degrees are flat (one semitone lower).

So, the C natural minor scale has the following notes: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb.

Here is the location of these notes in the fretboard when you’re tuned to Open C:

C Natural Minor Scale

C Harmonic Minor Scale

The harmonic minor scale has a more exotic and catchy sound that comes from its unusual interval between the 6th and 7th degrees.

Numerically, it can be described as “1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, 7”, which means it is like a natural minor scale with a natural 7 instead of a flat 7. This creates a minor third interval between the 6th and 7th scale degrees.

In the key of C, this corresponds to these notes: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, B.

Here are the corresponding fret positions:

C Harmonic Minor Scale

C Minor Pentatonic Scale

The minor pentatonic scale is one of the go-to scales for improvising, because of its open sound and of how simple it is to solo using it.

It is like the minor scale, except the 2nd and 6th degrees have been removed.

In C minor, this gives us the notes C, Eb, F, G, Bb.

Here’s where these notes can be found on a guitar tuned to Open C:

C Minor Pentatonic Scale

C Major Pentatonic Scale

The major pentatonic scale is another popular choice for many players, especially in a blues context.

It is the same as the major scale, except the 4th and 7th degrees are left out.

In C Major, that corresponds to the following scale: C, D, E, G, A.

The diagram below shows you where these notes can be found on the fretboard.

C Major Pentatonic Scale

Here you’ll find some examples of songs that have been written using Open C tuning. You should learn at least one and see how that song takes advantage of the particularities of this alternative tuning.

John Butler Trio – Betterman

John Butler is a player known for experimenting with alternative tunings, and Open C is no exception. This song features slide playing, distortion, and groovy rhythms that complement this tuning perfectly.

The tab below illustrates part of the intro of this great song.

John Butler Trio – Betterman

Devin Townsend Project – Deadhead

The second song example is much heavier than the first, since it’s played on an electric guitar with a chunky distortion, featuring pinch harmonics and other techniques.

Deadhead by Devin Townsend Project is a great song to learn if you want to explore this tuning in a heavier register than what you usually hear by singer-songwriters playing on acoustic guitars. 

Devin Townsend Project - Deadhead

Led Zeppelin – Friends

Led Zeppelin, one of the greatest bands in rock n’ roll history, also experimented with alternative tunings. 

Their song “Friends” features a very slight variation of Open C. It is the exact same tuning, but you don’t detune the A string. This leaves you with the C A C G C E tuning.

There is much more to the song than what is in the tab below, you should definitely try it out!

Led Zeppelin – Friends

Bon Iver – Skinny Love

Skinny Love is one of Bon Iver’s most popular songs, and it also features the Open C tuning. This is one of his most recognizable songs, so it might be a good idea to have it in your repertoire!

Bon Iver – Skinny Love

Soundgarden – Burden in My Hand

Finishing this list with another song that steers away from the singer-songwriter theme, Pretty Noose by Soundgarden is an amazing song that even earned the band a Grammy nomination.

Soundgarden – Burden in My Hand

Additional Examples of Songs in Open C Tuning

In case you want to check out some more songs that feature Open C tuning, here are a few more examples:

  • Moody Blues – Question
  • Elliott Smith – Independence Day 
  • Ewan Dobson – Time 2
  • Dougie MacLean – Caledonia 
  • Michael Jackson – You Are Not Alone
  • Boys Like Girls – Two Is Better Than One
  • Ben Howard – Only Love 
  • In Flames – Only For the Weak
  • Mt. Joy – Silver Lining
  • Hozier – Shrike 

Final Thoughts on Open C Tuning

As you can see, Open C might be a good tuning to try out if you wish to explore a different, lower register that the guitar can offer in standard, and also if you wish to play slide guitar without worrying so much about dissonant sounds coming from adjacent strings.

Just make sure to adjust your string gauge accordingly, and consider having your guitar set up for this tuning if you intend to keep it that way for extended time periods.

  • Gustavo Pereira

    Gustavo is a Portuguese musician based in Barcelona, where he’s studying jazz and modern music interpretation on the electric guitar. While not writing for KGR, Gustavo busies himself giving online guitar lessons, writing for Guitar Space and other online guitar sites, and travelling to watch his jazz favorites.