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How To Tune A Guitar To Drop D

As a student, we generally are introduced to the most common guitar tuning E-A-D-G-B-E. It's very useful because everyone knows it across all musical styles and a huge amount of chords have been developed over the last 100 years or so. 

drop D tuning blues guitarThat said, some pro artists use many other tunings, in which they might re-tune one or more strings up or down. Sometimes the tuning results in a pleasant chord when all the open strings are strummed, and sometimes not. A common feature of these tunings is that normal chords just don't work, so we need to learn different structures.

Open D is a common tuning for playing many blues and folk songs, and a great way to get into it is to first of all experiment with drop D. The bass E string is simply tuned down two steps so that it plays a D note when picked. It's a lovely low note, but not too low that the string buzzes against the frets, for example. Now if the thumb alternates between the Bass E string and the normal D strings, a drone effect is set up which is very appealing when combined with the melody on the trebles.

Blues players would change the tuning of their guitar to add effect and vary their output to keep their audiences interested. Some guitarists always played in a particular tuning, others pas backwards and forwards between tunings. Joni Mitchell once said she used about 50 tunings in her act, while the legendary Son House almost always kept his national steel guitar tuned to open G, which he played with a completely unique flailing bottleneck style.

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To start off this short study of the use of drop D tuning in acoustic blues guitar finger picking, I play a short interpretation of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues”. It’s not too much like the original, except for the tuning, but it does demonstrate how we can adapt picking techniques to our particular style.

Dropping the bass string two steps down from E to D completely changes the flavor of the music and also gives us some flexibility in chord fingering. For example, we don’t have to fret the bass E when playing a D major chord, which frees up fingers for more interesting work around the other strings.

The dropped D note also gives us a low, low note to punctuate the blues sound and counter balance the melody. Done in the right way, it has a powerful effect and has also been used extensively in traditional and modern folk songs by many well known artists.

willie mctell - 12 string drop d tuning guitar
 kingWe can hit the bass string and let it ring, use a monotonic thumb technique (where we just strike one bass with the thumb) or alternate our thumb strokes and damp the basses in a Travis picking style. Whichever style we play, it’s necessary to adapt the chords in some cases. For instance, when playing G7 it sounds discordant if we hit the bass E open, or if fretted on the 3rd fret like we normally would, so we just don’t hit it at all.

We could also move up the fret board to form a G and fretting the bass E on the 5th fret – its just a matter of choice and depends upon the style of the song you are playing. (These chord variations are shown in the video at 1m:40s.) We can play any A chord shape we like, but without hitting the bass E note.

At 2m:50s I play an instrumental in dropped D tuning taken from the playing of Stephan Grossman – it’s interesting as the basses walk up and the trebles walk down! At 3m:34s I show how to drop other strings to form open D and then play a low down blues by Blind Blake ‘Down The Country’.


How To Tune The Guitar To Open D
When playing a gig, I want to vary the style and the flavor of the songs I play so that the audience keeps their interest, and I do this my changing the rhythm, the genre within the blues (i.e. slow blues in E versus swing or ragtime) and also by using different tunings. Some songs absolutely have to be played in open tuning, like the old bottleneck standards of Son House or Robert Johnson - they just wouldn't work if the tuning wasn't in open G. Checkout the MP3 for Son House's 'Death Letter' below:

Death Letter in Open G Guitar Tuning.mp3

Likewise with open D - some songs only work in this tuning. Normally, I would start off a gig with 3 or 4 songs in normal tuning, a slow one first and finishing with a swing or ragtime before moving on to an open tuning. There are many songs of all styles in drop D guitar tuning, so I'll take the bass E string down a couple of steps choose one slow and one fast song, before going down to open D, which means tuning 3 more strings down.

Open G Guitar Tuning ChartOpen D is good for bottleneck - not so good as open G, but there are plenty of other songs to choose from. I generally start with a Blind Blake song called 'Down The Country' which is a slow delta blues sound. After this I might play an original composition and then finish off with a fast ragtime style tune, to end with an exciting sound. 'Police Dog Blues' by Blake is such a song, and I often play this (if I've got the chops that day!).

So here's how it's done (refer to the diagram on the left) - as in drop D tuning, the bass E string is tuned down to D, while the A and D strings are left as they are. Tune the G string to F#, the B string down to A, the high E string down to D and you are ready! Strum the open strings and you should hear a very pleasant chord which is basically 'D'.

It's a great tuning to play around with and create new sounds, but you need to realize that none of the chords that you learned for normal tuning will work, so you'll need a whole new set of chords. That said, with just 3 or 4 chords you can play some great songs - have fun with it!

Here's a decent article I found on HubPages talking about open D tuning - it's got some chords as well, which is pretty cool:

Guitar Open D Tuning, Guitar chords

Open D tuning on guitar is D, A, D, F sharp, A, D, low to high. To change from standard tuning, strings 6,1 and 2 are lowered by a tone (or 2 frets) and string 3 is lowered by a semitone (1 fret)

It's handy to sound the open 4th string (D) as a reference note. If you take the pitch a little lower, then bring back up to pitch, the guitar will stay in tune better.

So many great songs are played in this tuning, Joni Mitchell songs such as Big Yellow Taxi, You Turn me on (I'm a radio), Peoples' Parties, Morning Morgantown. Here we'll be looking at how the tuning is used in Irish music, and specifically how Paul Brady plays The Lakes of Pontchartrain - but many of the chords can be used for different Irish songs.

I needed to learn this song in a hurry for a gig, so first I looked on YouTube for the Paul Brady version, and then found a great chord lesson by Paul Goulet, that breaks down the chord arrangement. I have followed it fairly closely in the chord chart below, but it's not exactly the same.

Guitar Chords in Open D Tuning

Chord chart info

The chord shapes follow the Paul Goulet tutorial fairly closely. here is the structure - the A section is followed by two B sections, then one more A section to finish - this is one verse, and then the whole thing repeats, with an optional link so you can prepare for the next verse.

Harmonised scale material

At the end of the chord chart there is a harmonised scale which you can use to create fills in this tuning, or to play parts of the tune. Although it's hard to visualise, the middle two strings 4 and 3 have not been changed from standard tuning, so standard patterns like this will work. Each group of two notes is a mini -chord that works with the open strings.


The video tutorial here is in the key of D - Paul Brady uses a capo in fret 3, which means the song is in F - too high for me to sing, and it's difficult even in the key of D. Paul Brady does fantastic and probably unbeatable versions of classic Irish songs. Check out other clips from the BBC TV Transatlantic Sessions.

More info on tunings

The 1,4 and 5 chords in D are D, G, and A or A7. You can play these chords really easily by playing all the strings open, then barres at fret 5 and fret 7.

Open D tuning is very close to DADGAD, which is also widely used in Irish music and by contemporary acoustic players such as Pierre Bensusan and Lawrence Juber. It's only string 3 that is one semitone higher, but that small change is enough to make switching between the two tunings a bit tricky. On balance, I think it's worth using both tunings because they each have benefits in terms of chord voicings, and each has a unique sound.

If you want to try open G tuning, check out some of my other hubs. This tuning can be seen as similar in many ways to Open D - you can transfer many of the chord shapes across one string, as the root note is now usually on string 5 instead of string 6.

Author:  Jon Green

Article Source: https://hubpages.com/entertainment/Guitar-Open-D-Tuning-Guitar-chords