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Open D Tuning Guitar Lesson

I've been using open tunings for years, just not live for the most part - better for recording or songwriting.

Introduction to Open D tuning

One of the unique aspects of the guitar is that you can use different tunings to create chords that would be very difficult to play in standard tuning, or simply don't sound as good. The most commonly used tunings are:

  • Open G
  • Open D
  • D A D G A D
  • Drop D

Here we will be playing some great songs in Open D tuning. Starting with standard tuning, which is (low to high) we have to change strings 6, 3, 2 and 1. Tune them down as follows:

  • E A D G B E
  • D A D F sharp A D

You can use string 4 (D) as a reference note to tune strings 6 and 1, then go back and tune string 3 down one semitone (one fret) and string 2 goes down one tone. Check it against string 5, it's the same note but one octave higher.

You might think that using this tuning is for more advanced players, but that's not really the case. When you get used to it it can be easier and can sound fuller than normal tuning.

D, G and A chords

When all strings are played open, you get a nice full D chord. This chord can also be played with harmonics at fret 12. Now any major chord can be played with a barre chord shape -

  • G is a barre at fret 5
  • A is a barre at fret 7

For playing guitar songs, the most important chords are the I, IV and V chords: D, G, and A. Using just these three chords, you can play literally hundreds of songs.

Barre chord shape


Big Yellow Taxi

Joni Mitchell's song Big Yellow Taxi is great in open D tuning. I've listed the chords in the chord pictures diagram - the 6 strings are the six vertical lines, the frets are horizontal lines.

  • The basic chords go G, A, D, twice through.
  • Try hammering on the E7 shape shown in chord picture 3 on top of the barre chord. This is also pictured below in the photo. Although not essential, this can add a lot of rhythm.
  • The E7 shape is also sliding around after the D chord, in the last chord grid.
  • Next, the descending chord shapes in the second line of chord grids.
  • Joni played this with a capo at fret 2 - but try moving the capo around to suit the best key for your voice, as it's very unlikely to be the same.
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Open D tuning chords


Big Yellow Taxi chord shape


Big Yellow Taxi

Dylan song: Simple Twist of Fate

One of Dylan's best story songs is Simple Twist of Fate, and again it's using Open D tuning. Looking at the chord diagrams:

  • Play chords 1, 2 and 5 from the second line of chord grids
  • Then G at fret 5
  • Then the Gm shape on the top four strings only
  • First chords again, chords 2 and 3 on the 1st line, sliding to open D

Other chords in Open D

Remember, any major chord can be played with a barre shape. If you look at the last two chords on the chord grids, they are using the minor shape. Kind of like an E chord, with a shift over one string. The complete set of chords in D is:

  • D, Em, F sharp m, G, A, Bm, C sharp m7b5, D
  • Also known as the harmonised scale of D
  • Most songs use chords in combinations from this list

Other songs in Open D

Paul Brady's version of the Lakes of Pontchitrain is another great song using this tuning, and there is a hub about it - it uses a lot of the same chord vocabulary that we have been looking at on this hub. if you are playing solo guitar with a singer, this is a great tuning as it has so much ring and sustain from all the open strings, plus you have the option of playing harmonics at fret 12 and fret 7. You can also play harmonics above fret 5, but these tend to be weaker.

Open D can also be used for blues, and slide guitar in the Elmore James style. If you use a capo at fret 2, that will change the key to E, which is very useful for playing many blues tunes.

Major scale

The D major scale can be used for playing melody lines, and it's the same pattern on strings 1 and 6, as they are both tuned to D.

  • Frets 12, 11, 9, 7, 5, 4, 2, 0

Creative uses of the tuning

Try to work out songs you already know in the Open D tuning, and experiment with picking patterns and moving chord shapes up and down the neck. For instance Bm can be played with the minor shape at frets 8 and 9, and the m7b5 chord is just up two frets from that, E7 shape.


Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on March 05, 2014:

Thanks a lot - if anyone wants to suggest songs in open D, please feel free. It's a really great sound for guitar, and the reduced string tension means you could go up a string gauge if you want a powerful tone.

nuffsaidstan on March 05, 2014:

I love playing in open D tuning Jon and this is a brilliant hub full of ideas of how to use it, well done.

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