Tune the Guitar thus

Alex Abramovich

The first Siege of Sevastopol – a belated response to Russia’s first annexation of Crimea – took place in 1854-55. Tolstoy wrote about it in Sebastopol Sketches. Mark Twain referred to the battles in Innocents Abroad. Poems were written, paintings painted; eventually, movies were made. In 1856, Henry Worrall, a musician and artist, published ‘Sebastopol’, a ‘descriptive fantasie’ for the parlour guitar. ‘This piece is intended as an imitation of military music,’ he wrote. ‘The Harmonics in single notes imitate the Bugle. The Harmonics in chords imitate a Full Military Band at a distance.’ Readers were instructed to retune their instruments:

This is Open D tuning, which means that the six strings, struck openly, sound a D major chord. To make other chords, players could simply bar the strings straight across, with one finger, and move it, fret by fret, up the neck. Guitars are counterintuitive objects compared to the piano; open tuning turns them, almost, into another instrument. Joni Mitchell favoured Open D tuning, and her example inspired Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, which stands out, in part, because of its voicings. Guitar nerds would point you towards Leo Kottke, John Fahey, Ry Cooder and Duane Allman, too.

To a degree, Open D is the sound of pre and postwar blues: Elmore James, Furry Lewis, Blind Willie Johnson (who only played in Open D). Here’s Elizabeth Cotten, playing ‘Vestapol’ – which quickly became a colloquial name for the tuning. (Open G, or ‘Spanish’ tuning, also became popular; it’s named after Worral’s ‘Spanish Fandango’. Keith Richards likes these tunings. The Stones’ ‘Prodigal Son’ is an originally uncredited cover of ‘That’s No Way to Get Along’ by Robert Wilkins – which bears a striking resemblance to ‘Vestapol’.)

Open tunings favour slide players, and amateurs. You don’t have to know any fingering. Placing just the index finger of the fretting hand across the fifth and seventh frets (where the dots on a guitar’s neck are helpfully located) gets you the other two chords you need for the I-IV-V progression that blues, and blues-based forms like rock music, seem to default to.

Good players do delicate, beautiful things with the tuning. Absolute beginners who want to bash away, right away, find Open D blissfully easy to use; and the louder you play, the better it sounds. But guitars don’t arrive in the mail tuned to Open D. It really does take a bit of instruction. How did Open D jump from the parlour to cabins and cotton fields? The answer probably has to do with songbooks like Worrall’s Guitar School (published in Cincinnati in 1856; republished in Boston in 1882), which were later included with or sold alongside affordable, mass-produced guitars ordered through catalogues.

It's strange to think that the clear sound of Open D is rooted in one of the bloodiest, most senseless conflicts of the 19th century. But as Dylan once put it, ‘every distance is not near.’ It’s a long way from Crimea to the Mississippi Delta. It’s also no distance at all. Sebastopol. Sevastopol. Vestapol. Vastapol. The world moves on in circles.