A Beginner’s Guide to Open D Tuning

September 26, 2023 4 min read

A Beginner’s Guide to Open D Tuning

A couple of months ago, we dove into the world of Open G tuning. Open tunings are a great way to break out of ruts and get inspired. Based on the reactions we had to that piece, we’re happy to see that it helped a lot of you out!

As promised at the end of that post, we would dive next into the world of Open D tuning, another favourite among many guitar players. Open D (and its variants of Open C and Open E) have been used by the likes of Derek Trucks, Joey Landreth, Stone Gossard, Neil Young and a plethora of other players.

So let's dive in and get playing!

Getting your guitar into Open D

First, take your sixth string (the low E) and drop it down a whole step to D.

Next, take your third string (G) and bring it down a half step to F#.

After that, take your second string (B) and drop it down a whole step to A.

Finally, take your first string (the high E) and drop it down a whole step to D.

Voilà! You’re now in Open D tuning. Here is a visual example of it:

The tuning itself tunes the guitar to the same intervals as a standard E major chord (022100 - root - fifth - root - major third - fifth - root). The notes D-A-D-F#-A-D correspond to those same intervals.

Getting some basic chords down

Like with Open G or any other tuning, we need to throw our basic knowledge of the fretboard out the window since regular chord shapes and scales don’t work. The best way to start is just navigating the chords found in the D major scale (D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#) as triads all over the neck. This is how we will familiarize ourselves with the chords found in this tuning.

Let’s start with the first three strings and play the triads found in Example 1. Please note that all the roots are in parentheses:

Example 2 takes us through the same chords, only this time on the second, third and fourth strings:

Now onto Example 3, on the third, fourth and fifth strings:

Example 4 shows us the outlier here, as these chords only contain the root and the fifth of each chord. You know what that means... power chords with one finger!

When working through these chords, always keep in mind where the root of each chord is. Later on, this will help you find the tonics of the chords you want to play, allowing you to apply the proper voicing at the proper place.

Speaking of Major and Minor Chords

It would be important to know a few chord voicings on certain string groups to help us facilitate applying this tuning to songs we already know.

Examples 5a and 5b demonstrate different voicings of an E major chord (the root position, as well as first and second inversions):

Also note that in these examples, the outside strings of each chord share the same fret. With so many repeated strings in the tuning (three tuned to D and two tuned to A), notes in the same fret can be moved to another string tuned to the same note to either tighten or widen voicings.

Examples 6a and 6b do the same with an E minor chord, again in root position and its inversions:

Making Progressions (and progress!)

Now that we’ve examined a bunch of voicings and where their root notes are, let's look at applying this to some simple progressions.

Example 7a shows a simple progression of D - G - A - D using the one-fingered approach (hey, why not! Easy does it!) This is a very common chord progression with the tonics lying on the fourth string. Example 7b takes that same progression and gets fancy, using different inversions and voicings to make the progression more smooth:

Example 8a throws in a minor chord, where we have to make a quick shift on the third string (no one-fingered approach here), but keeps things very simple. Example 8b, as with the previous example, dresses it up a bit more. One thing to notice is that we moved most of the notes that were on the fourth string to the sixth to widen the chord quite a bit (that trick we mentioned earlier about so many strings tuned to the same note):

Some Open-Stringed Magic

Like with any open tuning, we love to hear those open strings ring out on those chords. Open D is no exception, with some very stunning voicings to be found in the key of D major (Example 9). You’ll notice that we want to mute the fifth string as much as possible, allowing our fingers an easier time grabbing the root and 3rd of each chord:

Scales, you say?

While typical patterns for scales get thrown out the window, a pentatonic scale in Open D is not as hard as it seems. Thankfully, the notes fall into a two-fret box for both major and minor versions. Example 10a shows you the G major pentatonic scale (tonic in parentheses), while 10b shows you its relative minor version, Em (tonic in parentheses):

A quick study of this, along with where the appropriate tonics are, will have you quickly applying your favourite licks (and maybe some new ones) in this tuning in no time!

So grab a guitar, turn some tuning keys and enjoy!

By Kevin Daoust - instagram.com/kevindaoust.gtr

Kevin Daoust is a guitarist, guitar educator and writer based in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada. When not tracking guitars for artists around the world, or writing music-related articles around the internet, he can be seen on stage with Accordion-Funk legends Hey, Wow, the acoustic duo Chanté et Kev, as well as a hired gun guitarist around Quebec and Ontario. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Guitar Performance from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

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