Of all of the three-string cigar box guitar tunings, the most popular is probably the G D G open G tuning. Featured on many how-to-play videos on YouTube and CigarBoxNation.com, this tuning has become the de facto standard for 3-string slide blues.
A lot of new builders run into the question of how they achieve this tuning – which strings they should use, whether to go with larger strings or smaller, and so I wanted to try to demystify the topic.
First, a disclaimer: these recommendations are made based on our experimentation in the C. B. Gitty shops, and it is what we have found to work. Other people may have different opinions, and they are welcome to them. I’m not trying to set any standards or lay down any laws – I am just going to tell you what works for us.
The Four Possible GDG Tunings
Basically, on a 3-string cigar box guitar with a scale length in the range of 24 to 25 1/2 inches (scale length being the distance between the nut and the bridge), there are 4 different configurations of GDG that you can have, ranging from the bassiest to the most trebly. Theoretically there are more potential combinations, but we’re just focusing on the cases where you have 3 strings of different sizes, strung from low to high pitch:
- Low – Middle – Middle (Low G, Middle D, Middle G)
- Low-Middle-High (Low G, Middle D, High G)
- Low-High-High (Low G, High D, High G)
- Middle-High-High (Middle G, High D, High G)
Each one of these will have a different overall sound and feel. The first one will use all wound strings, and will have the strongest bass of the four. The fourth one uses only one wound string, and will be the most high-pitched and trebly.
Deciding which option is right for you is mostly a matter of preference, and experimentation. All four can be used to play tablature and lessons intended for guitars tuned to GDG. You have to decide whether you want the low growly bass of the low strings, the treble of the high strings, or a mix).
Just Looking for Gitty’s Recommendation? Here You Go
If I had to arbitrarily make a recommendation of which one you should use, I would probably go with #3: Low G, High D, High G. This is the tuning we use on our Pure & Simple Cigar Box Guitar Kits, and it is a nice mix – you get that low thumpy bass G note on the bottom end, but then the nice strong treble of the High D and High G. The result sounds great!
The second recommendation would probably be #2 – the two lower wound strings and the high G on the upper end. The bass influence will be heavier in this but you still keep that nice clear high G on the top end for playing the melody of a song and doing leads. This is what we tend to use on the Pure & Simple Cigar Box Guitars we build in-house.
Now, on to Strings
Basically, there are 5 potential strings that are needed to achieve these 4 tunings. They are:
- Low G
- Middle D
- Middle G
- High D
- High G
If you think of a standard 6-string guitar, or if you want to use a standard guitar string pack to do these tunings, you can think of it like this:
- Low G – take the low A string (second biggest wound string) and tune it down a full step to G.
- Middle D – this is the same as the D string on a standard guitar – third biggest wound string.
- Middle G – this is the same as the middle G string on a standard guitar – the smallest of the wound strings
- High D – the easiest way to get this is to tune the High E string (the smallest, unwound string) down a full step to D. You could also crank the unwound B string up two full steps (which would put it in the break zone).
- High G – For this one you’d need to take a lighter-gauge high E string and crank it up two full steps to G.
String Weights and Gauges
If you want to know recommended string gauges for buying in bulk, then the chart below should help you pick out the specific gauges you’ll need. Remember that moving to a larger string gauge means you’ll have to crank it tighter to reach the same pitch, compared to a smaller gauge.
Also remember that the chart below is specifically for “standard” scale instruments, that fall an inch or so on either side of a 25″ scale length.
We give both “heavy”, “medium” and “light” recommendations below, so you can pick a set best suited to your instrument. Heavier strings will have to be cranked tighter than light string sets to reach the right pitch, and this will put more tension on your guitar, bowing your neck more, etc. I recommend starting with the lighter gauge strings and experimenting from there.
These sizes should work with both acoustic and electric guitar strings. Generally electric guitars are strung on the lighter gauge size. The gauges below are hyperlinked to the bulk strings listings at CBGitty.com, where available.
|Desired Note/Pitch||Light Gauge||Medium Gauge||Heavy Gauge|
|Low G||.042″ Wound||.044″ Wound||.046″+ Wound|
|Middle D||.030″ Wound||.034″ Wound||.036″+ Wound|
|Middle G||.022″ Wound||.026″ Wound||.028″+ Wound|
|High D||.012″ Plain Steel||.013″Plain Steel||.014″+ Plain Steel|
|High G*||.009″ Plain Steel||.009 Plain Steel||.010″+ Plain Steel|
* Because this is such a high note to try to reach on a 25″ scale, there is not as wiggle room in terms of string size. Trying to crank anything much bigger than .009″ or .010″ up to high G is a recipe for broken strings. .008″ strings are available, but I’ve never used them.
Finally! Specific String Size Sets for Specific Tunings
So from all of this, we can get some recommended string sizes to achieve the 4 tunings mentioned above. For this example I’ll list the “Light Gauge” sizes, but you should be able to easily pick out the medium or heavy gauge sizes if you want.
- Low G – Middle D – Middle G: .042″ Wound, .030″ Wound, .022″ Wound
- Low G – Middle D – High G: .042″ Wound, .030″ Wound, .009″ Plain Steel
- Low G – High D – High G: .042″ Wound, .012″ Plain Steel, .009″ Plain Steel
- Middle G – High D – High G: .022″ Wound, .012″ Plain steel, .009″ Plain Steel
The Wiggle Room Factor: you can generally get by with a little larger or little smaller string for any given pitch. Each string has its ideal tension zone, but the edges of that zone are a bit gray. If you keep breaking a string trying to hit a particular pitch, try a smaller gauge string! If a string seems too loose and flappy, move to a larger gauge string.
So there you have it! Hopefully this will make this sometimes arcane-seeming subject a little easier to understand for folks. I will be working on more articles like this to cover some other popular tunings as well, such as Open D (D A D), Open E (E B E), etc.
Thanks for reading, I hope you found it useful!