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I have a Hal Leonard book of transcriptions of Robert Johnson songs.

In the example in the image the tuning is open G but up a half step, so Open G sharp.

The written notes circled show a B and a D. However if I tune as indicated and play the 12th fret noted in the tab I will be playing a D# and a B#.

What’s the deal here?

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It's written in G (look at the key signature). Essentially the guitar here is treated as being in open G, it's written in "G but not at concert pitch" rather than "in Ab", probably because the former is much easier to read and conceptualise.

If I had to choose, I'd much rather read it this way too to be honest. When I'm playing a guitar in this tuning I'm thinking "in G" not in Ab.

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There's also the 'chord symbols reflect implied tonality' clue. For ease and simplicity, it's all written as if the guitar is tuned to ordinary open G tuning, except for some reason, it needs to be tuned a semitone higher. I can't really understand why - it'll sound (to most of us) just as good in open G.

It's good to have the proper dots as well, as it helps clarify timing, so if one reads that too, it takes some guesswork away. It could, if the sounded key really needs to be A♭, be played with basic open G tuning, putting capo on fret 1, and adding one to each tab number shown. There would still be that 'open string' sound. Or tune to open G, and play as writ, putting it actually in key G.

  • This is was recorded in the 1920’s and they didn’t exactly have tuners. So they were just tuning by ear. – b3ko Oct 12 at 12:44
  • @b3ko - so it may not even be exactly Ab..? And maybe on some occasions it was actually G! Been there, done that! – Tim Oct 12 at 13:43
  • Yes, this is Robert Johnson. So he only has a hand full of tunes recorded. And I guess they did their best in these transcriptions to get the tuning as close as possible to the original 78’s. – b3ko Oct 12 at 14:07
  • @b3ko - which, from memory of my Grandma's wind-up HMV player, rarely ran at the right speed anyway! – Tim Oct 12 at 14:10
  • Also I took the “chord symbols” reflect implied tonality to mean “well, here we have a B and a D and that isn’t enough to call it a G major chord but in context of the song it would be enough to assume this is a G major triad”. However this also confuses me because it is actually G#. But I understand now. I basically need to tune to G# but just pretend the guitar is still in G and play the notes as written. Instead of re-learning the entire fretboard. – b3ko Oct 12 at 14:11
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I needed to google "open G tuning" in order to find out what you are talking about. So I got this : open G tuning Quote from that link:

Among alternative tunings for the guitar, an open G tuning is an open tuning that features the G-major chord; its open notes are selected from the notes of a G-major chord, such as the G-major triad (G,B,D). For example, a popular open-G tuning is

D-G-D-G-B-D (low to high).

Thus it appeasr that in your case "open G but up a half step" you have tuned the guitar to G♯ or A♭, but the notation is still notated as if you are playing in G major. The result is that you have turned your instrument into a transposing instrument. Thus you don't need to read a key signature with four flats, A♭ major, which is the actual sound.

(You could of course also call it G♯ major, but there exists no key signature for that so it would be notated in A♭ major if it was notated as it sounds.)

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