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Open D Guitar Tuning

Jon's an ex guitar teacher and pro guitarist. He loves writing about how to play jazz.Also uses different tunings.

Guitar in Open D Tuning

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 it 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", and "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.


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.

Reading the Chord Chart

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.

Guitar chords in open D tuning

Guitar chords in open D tuning

Harmonised Scale Material

At the end of the chord chart, there is a harmonised scale that 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.

You could also use the full shapes, kind of E7 shape with the bottom note moved down one string or both in the same fret. These follow the same pattern as the 2-note chords. As shown, "one" and "bright" above.

More Tuning Information

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 articles. 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.

Further Application

You can just use this material as a way of discovering open tunings. A good approach is to reassemble the chords and try some songwriting, or arranging well-known songs such as Amazing Grace.

The basics are to establish all the chords in the harmonised scale, seven different chords in all—three majors, three minors, and one half-diminished. In the key of D:

D, Em, F sharp minor, G, A, Bm, C sharp m7 flat 5.

Suggested Songbook

Joni Mitchell is probably the leading exponent of different tunings for guitar. Highly recommend the songbook Joni Mitchell: Complete So Far (Hal Leonard)

Although there are some inaccuracies, the book contains a huge amount of information useful to guitarists and songwriters.