Orkney Tuning

By Baughman, Steve | Acoustic Guitar, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Orkney Tuning


Baughman, Steve, Acoustic Guitar


Learn the ropes of this flexible and popular alternate tuning.

For a lot of folks, retuning their strings is about as attractive as shuffling around the letters on their computer keyboard. Americans who have tried to send an e-mail from a European café know the feeling well. The question always looms: why bother with an exotic tuning when there is still so much to learn about standard EADGBE? Give me just a few minutes here-that's all it will take to get you hooked on Orkney tuning. The tuning itself is simple: from bass to treble, the notes are C G D G C D - two Cs, two G's, and two D's. Unlike DADGAD, this tuning is impossible topronounce, so I decided to name it after the beautiful islands off the northern coast of Scotland. This was especially fitting since I came up with the tuning while trying to arrange a Scottish song for guitar.

In this lesson I will provide you with a few simple chords and riffs that will quickly give you a sense of how Orkney can sing for you, both harmonically and melodically. I suspect you'll like what you hear yourself doing.

Orkney in the Key of G

The key of G is the most popular key people use when playing in Orkney tuning. Example 1 shows a single-finger G chord, played without the low bass string, as well as a slightly meatier G chord that adds the fifth fret of the first string.

Example 2 shows two ways to play C, the IV chord in the key of G. The first is a simple two-finger C, followed by one of my favorite Orkney chords: a booming C5. This chord contains just C's and G's and is neither major nor minor, so it can be used in place of both C-major and -minor chords, or when neither is preferred. Example 3 shows how easy it is to turn this chord into a major or a minor chord with a small movement of your free index finger. You can even add the major or minor sevenths without a problem, as in Example 4. All of these can be created with a very convenient move of the index finger without leaving the C position in Example 2-a full five different chord possibilities out of one position.

All we need now to play simple I-IV-V patterns in the key of G is the V chord, D. The first D chord in Example 5 sounds great on just the first four strings, although if you're comfortable fretting bass notes with your thumb (see 30-Minute Lesson, page 32), you can also try grabbing the fifth and sixth strings at the second fret for a fuller sound. The second D chord is simply the two-finger C chord from Example 2, barred at the second fret.

With just these three chords (the I, iy and V chords in the key of G), you can play hundreds of songs in Orkney tuning. Example 6 shows a simple exercise that includes a few of the chord shapes from this section. Try it out and then see if you can come up with a few of your own!

C and D: Two More Orkney-Friendly Keys

While some popular tunings (like open C, open G, and open D) pretty much limit you to playing in one key, Orkney is more versatile, allowing you to play in at least three different keys with ease - all without a capo.

The key of C works very well with Orkney, and it's a convenient place to continue since we already know how to play C and G, the I and V In fact, the two F chords in Example 7 are enough to get us playing I-IV-V patterns in this new key. The first is a nice chord for vocal and instrument accompaniment, played on just the top four strings. If you want a thicker-sounding chord, try the barred F-the simple two-finger C chord barred at the fifth fret.

The key of D is also close by, and we already know the D and G chords (the I and IV). Example 8 shows the A chord-the V of D. You can also create an A chord by barring the C-major chord at the ninth fret. This gets a bit high up the neck for me, but it is worth having the option to play an A chord this way from time to time.

Riffs and Melodies

Now that we've learned enough chords to get started in three different keys, let's try picking out a few melodies. …

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