Open D tuning is an unforgettable and practical alternate tuning. In general, alternate tunings can do wonders for your creativity on the guitar. That’s why I’m showing you how to play in open D tuning.
Open D tuning can be difficult to play in, especially if you’re new to guitar. I’m going to address three major issues when it comes to open D tuning:
- How to tune your guitar to open D tuning
- What to play once you’re there
- Chords for open D tuning
By the end of this lesson, you’ll know exactly what you need to practice to be able to play in open D tuning.
Originally published on October 3, 2018, this article was republished on August 19, 2022.
What Is Open D Tuning?
Open D tuning is an alternative tuning with open strings tuned to the following notes, from low to high: D, A, D, F#, A, and D. It uses the three notes of a D major Chord: D, A, and F#. It allows you to play full-sounding chords by fretting only a few strings, and it’s a popular tuning for playing with a slide.
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How to Tune to Open D Tuning
Before I show you any chords, licks, or tricks to playing in open D tuning…we have to get there first.
You want your guitar to start in standard tuning, which is — from low string to high string — E A D G B E. You can use a clip-on tuner to get to standard tuning, but if you don’t have one of those, check out this lesson on standard tuning here.
Open D tuning has your guitar tuned in this order — from low string to high string — D A D F# A D. The “pound” or “hashtag” sign indicates that the F is an F sharp, meaning it is a half-step higher than an F natural.
How to tune to Open D:
- Tune the low E string to a low D
I covered a bunch of different ways of tuning to a low D in my drop D tunning lesson. But for now, use the open D to tune the low E string down to a low D (if none of this makes sense, check out this drop D tuning lesson!).
- Leave the A and D strings as they are
The A and D strings remain the same for both regular and open D tunings, so don’t worry about changing them.
- Tune down the G string to an F#
In open D tuning, your G string is tuned one half-step down to an F#. You can use a tuner or match the pitch of my guitar in the video lesson to get an F#.
- Tune down the B string to an A
The quickest way to get the B string to an A is by checking it against the open A string (the second thickest string).
- Tune down the high E string to a D
Just like above, the easiest way to tune down the high E string is to check it against the low D string or the open D string.
You’ll know that your guitar is in open D tuning when you can strum all six strings and it creates a full, humongous D chord. If anything is off, individually check each string again.
Familiarize Yourself on the Fretboard
Open D tuning can be incredibly disorienting the first time you play a major scale. In alternate tunings, it often feels like you have to relearn the fretboard all over again.
What if you can shorten the time it takes to relearn the fretboard?
One of the quickest ways to start moving around on the fretboard in open D tuning is by playing the major scale on just one string.
In this example, we’re going to just play the D major scale on the high D string.
- Start by playing the open high D string.
- Place your index on the 2nd fret and pick only the high D string.
- Index on the 4th fret.
- 5th fret.
- 7th fret.
- 9th fret.
- 11th fret.
- And finally, the 12th fret.
Congratulations! You just played a major scale in open D tuning! I know you were just going up and down the neck, rather than across the neck, but what if I told you there’s a way to make this scale a more musical exercise?
Fortunately, there is!
Just by playing all six strings as you play the scale, you can create a more musical exercise.
Additionally, you can play around with different strumming patterns, different orders in which you play the scale, and even write your own song! The opportunities are seemingly endless in open D tuning!
Open D Chord Shapes
Before I dive into specific chords for open D tuning, I want you to play around with open D tuning.
“But Tony…I want to start playing some chords right away!”
Look, I hear you, but I want you to just let the creativity flow at this point. That’s why I’m going to show you two chord shapes, rather than a handful of specific chords.
The great thing about these chord shapes is that they can be applied up and down the fretboard, without having to change the shape — similar to power chords!
The Staggered Shape
If you’ve seen my open G tuning lesson then you’re somewhat familiar with the staggered shape.
To make the staggered shape, fret the 2nd fret of the A string with your middle finger. From there, fret the 1st fret of the F# string with your index finger.
The great thing about the staggered shape is that you can move this shape up and down the fretboard — just make sure to maintain the shape! Some frets may not sound as good as others, so just try exploring on your own.
The Inline Shape
The inline shape will use the same strings as the staggered shape. However, the inline shape will have both fingers on the same frets.
Start by placing your middle finger on the 5th fret of the A string. From there, place your ring finger on the 5th fret of the F# string.
Just like the staggered shape, the inline shape can be moved up and down the fretboard.
Combining the Staggered and Inline Shape
After you’ve explored both the staggered and inline chord shapes for open D tuning, you might have noticed that one chord shape sounds better than the other on a specific fret.
I’m going to show you a super cool chord progression you can use for these different shapes.
- Start by playing all of the open strings.
- Make the staggered shape with your middle finger on the second fret of the A string.
- Move the staggered shape up the neck by two frets so your middle finger is on the 4th fret of the A string.
- Make the inline shape on the 5th fret (like the example earlier).
- Move the inline shape up two frets to the 7th fret.
- Place your middle finger on the 9th fret of the A string to create the staggered shape.
- Move the staggered shape up another two frets so your middle finger is on the 11th fret.
- Finally, make the inline shape on the 12th fret.
The great thing about this sequence of staggered and inline chord shapes is that you can play around with the order.
For example, you can play just back and forth on the 5th and 7th frets. You can even throw the staggered shape down on the 4th fret.
How to Improve Your Playing in Open D Tuning
Now that you’ve gone through this lesson, I want to recap how you can practice and improve on your open D tuning guitar playing.
Remember to start by tuning your guitar to open D tuning:
D A D F# A D
From there, be sure to play the major scales on all of the open D strings. You have a high, middle, and low D that you can play that scale on. As you play the scale, make sure you strum all the strings to get a more musical exercise.
Finally, practice the staggered and inline shapes. I know all of this seems like a lot to worry about, especially on top of practicing in standard tuning.
I’m not going to go super in-depth about this topic here, but I want you to know that you can spend just 10 minutes a day doing super-focused practicing, and you will see results.
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