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I have recently tried to transcribe more songs by ear and it goes alright as long as I know the tuning. I was wondering if there is any tips or techniques for determining what (open) tuning is used in a song? One trick I have already used is looking up videos or finding a good cover on youtube. But what can one do when there is no video? For example how would one determine the tuning on this song (Erin go bragh by Dick Gaughan)

or for example this one (Lakes of Champlain by Martin Simpson)
if one only had the audio to go by?

Thank you very much in advanced for any help!

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  • Your first video is not available. – Dekkadeci Dec 15 '20 at 12:53
  • The last time I did this, it was easy, because the rhythm player was pretty sloppy, and played open strings while changing chords. Home in on that sound. Voila! – Tim Dec 15 '20 at 12:54
  • @Dekkadeci Hmm, interesting, works for me here in Sweden but maybe is not available everywhere... I added the name of the song – Najonathan Dec 15 '20 at 12:58
  • @Tim Thanks for the advice, I used that on some songs they also e.g play the 12 fret harmonics, so using that one can figure out the tuning maybe :) – Najonathan Dec 15 '20 at 13:01
  • To clarify (since the title confused me): I think the question is asking what notes to tune the strings of a guitar to in order to play the song. – gidds Dec 15 '20 at 21:11
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A few ideas:

  • If you become familiar with a number of the most common open tunings, some chances are there that the song you're trying to transcribe uses one of them, and at least some of the time you'll get lucky and with a little trial and error you'll get it.

  • The same artists often use the same open tunings in more that one song. Search online for tabs or scores of any songs by the same artist. If you find an open tuning used in any other song, there's a chance that the same tuning might be used in the song you're studying, so give it a try.

  • You already mentioned watching videos for clues, but I'll repeat it here to make this list more complete: if there's a video available, that can give you precious information, or at least tell you whether you're going in the right direction or not.

  • Occasionally, artists mention the tunings they use in interviews. Indeed, it's a common question put to guitarists who are known to use open tunings. So another thing you can do is google e.g. "Artist Name open tuning" or "Artist Name tuning", to see if you can find a written interview in which the tuning is spelled out directly. (You might also find other sources in which that artist's tunings are discussed, which can be useful too)

  • Going by ear, as Tim suggested in a comment, you can look for clues, such as open strings left ringing between changing chords, or perhaps chords strummed slowly, allowing single notes to be identified more easily.

  • Sometimes open tunings consist in a well defined chord, which can then be played with a single barre finger. If you notice in the song something like e.g. F maj, G maj, A maj chords played one after the other, and they sound similar to each other, it might be that they are played with a single barre finger at different frets, and if you can tell how that chord is structured (e.g. like an E maj or A maj with open strings?) then you have your open tuning already.

  • If you have access to someone with a really good musical ear, even if they are not a guitarist, they may be able to help you. Just by hearing a chord, a person with a great ear may be able to spell out all the notes for you, and when you have all the notes of at least 2 or 3 chords, you might be able to figure out which tuning most conveniently gives that result.

  • If there's no other source at all available, and if you must go completely by ear, it can be extremely difficult if you don't already have at least a moderately well trained musical ear which can hear the individual notes within chords. If you don't have that -- if, for example, you can't tell whether a common chord is played in root position or first inversion, things like that -- that it would be probably impossible for you to figure out what open tuning someone is using, and I would suggest that you instead do some chord-oriented ear training first, which will be extremely useful to you in the long run anyway.

  • Otherwise, if you can already hear the individual notes within chords, then you can arm yourself with patience and try to "unlock" as many individual chords in the song as possible, and then possibly deduce the most likely open tuning used. This can be hard, but unlike in the previous case, it's not impossible, and the effort that you put into it will come back to you in the form of a better musical ear, which is a valuable thing in itself.

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For me it’s the same as figuring out a capo, although more difficult.

Basically, try to transcribe it in standard tuning and fail. When you’re figuring it out in standard tuning, be aware of how hard it is to play. When you find really hard chord shapes, think of what adjustments to the tuning would make it easier. Once you’ve found two or three chords that are really strange in standard tuning, you have a way to correlate and figure out a different tuning that would make the chords make more sense. Try that out and then iterate until it sounds right.

Also listening for the sound of open strings in chords, which can be hard to hear but open strings do sound different from stopped. Finally, like all transcriptions, knowing what others have played helps to figure out what you’re transcribing. In this case, that means having experience with as many open tunings as possible so you have good guesses to make and an ear for the different sounds.

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There are a few tunings that are so common they have names: Spanish (515135 by scale degree, commonly Open G or open A, named after "Spanish Fandango"), Vestapol (151351, commonly Open D or Open E, named after "The Siege of Sevastopol"), and DADGAD (151sus451, a variation on Open D with a suspended fourth, named after the notes used). There are artists that go for a different tuning with each song, but starting here will cover a lot of cases.

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