If you’re used to playing guitar in standard tuning and want to try something new, give open D tuning a try.  A new world will open up to you – playing all the open strings will result in a beautifully resonant and full-sounding D chord.  Just experimenting with a couple of easy movable chord shapes and hitting random open strings will instantly make you sound like a professional.  There’s no two ways about it, open D tuning just sounds amazing.

Open D is one of many alternative tunings and it’s been around for a long time.  Open tunings have long been used in Hawaiian music and are common in old acoustic blues music for example.  Players like John Fahey, Leo Kottke, Richie Havens, Joni Mitchell and, more recently, Laura Marling, Mumford and Sons and Ben Howard.

Some of the strings are de-tuned to achieve this:

Standard tuning:

E             A             D            G            B             E

Open D tuning:

D            A             D            F#           A             D

And this article will show you how to do it, depending on your level of skill and gadget access situation!

Method one – no gadgets but in possession of a good ear:

Assuming your guitar is in standard tuning, there are five steps below:

The guide notes are shown in red and the notes that need de-tuning are in blue.  The black one may or may not need tuning.

  1. The guide note is the open 5th The string that needs tuning down is the 6th string.  You want to get it so the 7th fret note sounds the same as the 5th open string
  2. The 5th fret/5th string is your guide note. The 4th string should sound the same if your guitar was in tune to start with, but it’s worth checking.
  3. Tune down the 3rd string so it sounds like the 4th string/4th fret
  4. Tune down the 2nd string so it sounds like the 3rd string/3rd fret
  5. Tune down the 1st string so it sounds like the 2nd string/5th fret

Method 2 – no gadgets, but in possession of a very good ear:

  1. Play the two open strings shown, back and forth. The 4th string is the guide, the 6th string needs to be tuned down, so that it is an octave lower than the 4th  A bit harder to hear than two notes that are the same.
  2. Same thing here – 4th string guide note. 1st string down so it sounds an octave higher than the 4th string
  3. As step two, but guide note is 5th string; tune 2nd string down to be an octave above.
  4. Not an octave – just tune down 3rd string to sound like 4th fret/4th

Pro method – no gadget, good ear and good harmonic technique!

Harmonics are shown with a circle below the note.

  1. Play the 12th fret harmonic on 6th Tune it down to sound the same as open 4th string guide note
  2. Play harmonic at 12th fret/4th string for the guide note, and tune down 1st string to sound the same.
  3. The 7th fret harmonic on the 6th string is the guide note for the 12th fret harmonic on the 5th string
  4. Play the open 2nd string and tune it down so it sounds like the 12th fret/5th string harmonic.
  5. Finally, play a normal 4th fret note on 4th string and tune down the 3rd string to sound the same.

Using a clip-on tuner with chromatic setting

If using a chromatic tuner or tuner on the chromatic setting, you’ll see that when tuning down from E to D (for example), your tuner will go from E to D#, before getting to D.  Likewise, when going from B to A, you will have to go past A# before getting to A.

To get back into standard tuning:

Using a non-chromatic clip-on tuner

To do this, you need to outwit the tuner, which is a bit more complicated.  But, comparing your brain size to that of the tuner, the odds are definitely in your favour

  1. Play the 6th string at the twelfth fret – the tuner will think that you’re playing the 4th (D) string and tell you it’s too high (sharp). Now tune the 6th string down a little at a time; keep checking the twelfth fret note with the tuner.  Tune the 6th string down sufficiently, and the tuner will be convinced that you’ve got the 4th string in tune.
  2. Next tune the 5th and 4th strings as normal.
  3. Now play the 3rd string at the 1st The tuner will tell you that the 3rd string is too high.  Tune it down, keep coming back to play the first fret until the tuner thinks that the first fret is actually the open 3rd string.
  4. Do the same thing as step 3 with the 2nd string, but playing the 2nd fret
  5. And, likewise, with the 1st string, use the 2nd

With a guitar tuner app

There are a lot of guitar tuner apps out there.  Mostly free, they offer standard tuning, but often you have to pay to get alternative tunings, so if you want to use this tuning more, it could be worth getting a paid version, or one that offers open D free.

If the app features open D, you’d just put it on that setting and use it like a normal tuning.

If it offers chromatic tuning, the “using a clip on chromatic tuner” section in this article will work fine.

A couple more points:

It is worth checking the tuning of all the strings again once you’ve put the guitar in Open D or back to Standard, as the tension may alter during the process of tuning all the strings down or up.

If the strings on the guitar are old the thinner strings may break when tuning down or up.  If this is the case, it’s time to buy a new set of strings!


Contact Phil for information about online one-to-one guitar lessons

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