Open Tunings Made Easy for Your Acoustic Guitar Playing

Discover these 5 cool approaches you can use to sound great instantly, using open tunings on your guitar.

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Tuning your guitar to something other than standard tuning tends to be avoided by a lot of guitar players. The common misconception is that by doing so you have to learn the guitar all over again. This is simply not true. Alternate tunings will open up a whole new world of possibilities for your guitar playing and creativity, and are much easier to play in than you may think.

Today, we will be looking specifically at open tunings. This is when you tune certain strings of your guitar to different pitches so that when you strum them open, you sound a chord.

For example, if I tune the 6th, 3rd, 2nd, and 1st strings of my guitar to a D, F#, A, and D note respectively, I will end up with an open D tuning. This is due to the fact that all my open strings are now notes that make up a D chord.

D chord = D F# A

Open D tuning (low to high) = D A D F# A D

*Notes bolded are those that have been altered from standard tuning

In addition to open tunings there are also modal, instrumental, and dropped tunings. These are collectively known as "alternate tunings."

Let's have a look at 5 things you need to know about open tunings to get you up and going, and sounding great with them straight away!

1. No, You Do Not Have to Learn the Guitar All Over Again

For some time I believed playing in a tuning other than standard, was basically like having to learn to play guitar all over again. As a result, I avoided playing in alternate tunings for years.

How wrong I was. Don't make the same mistake I did!

Fact is, a lot of tunings are still closely related to standard tuning. Take open G for example:

Standard Tuning - E A D G B E
Open G Tuning - D G D G B D

As you can see, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings remain the same in open G tuning as they appear in standard, so effectively 50% of the fretboard remains unchanged. So if you are playing in an open G tuning, many things will still be familiar to you on the fretboard and won't feel anything like starting your guitar playing all over again.

Open tunings also make things easier to play, not harder. Try playing a song that is in an open tuning, exactly the same only in standard tuning and you'll see what I mean. These tunings are working for you and open up, pardon the pun, a whole new world of sound you won't ever get in standard tuning alone.

Let's take a look at a bar chord in Open G tuning:


As you can see, all you need to do is bar a single fret. This allows you to do some things that would be very awkward to do in standard tuning, such as this shuffle pattern:


There are also some cool embellishments you can apply to this chord that would be impossible to do in standard tuning, like this:

2. One Open Tuning Is All It Takes

Becoming familiar in one open tuning makes it that much easier to become familiar and efficient in others. This is because open tunings closely relate to each other. There's always another open tuning not far from the one you are playing in.

Case in point, Open D and DADGAD tunings:

Open D Tuning - D A D F# A D
DADGAD Tuning - D A D G A D

* DADGAD tuning is also sometimes called Dsus4 tuning

There is only one string that is different between these 2 very commonly used open tunings. So anything you learn in an Open D tuning can very easily be adjusted to be played in DADGAD tuning.

Consider these 3 chords in Open D tuning:


You only need to slightly adjust these chords to play them in DADGAD tuning:


So a progression in Open D tuning such as this one:


Is going to be very similar to a progression in DADGAD tuning such as this:

3. You Can Be Up and Sounding Great in Open Tunings Straight Away!

I'm assuming you already have basic techniques down such as strumming, chord changes etc. If not, you are going to find standard tuning hard to play in too, not just open tunings. However if you do have at least some basic technique, you can sound great instantly in an open tuning.

As I said earlier, open tunings are designed to make certain things easier to play on your guitar. They make what is impossible, or at least very awkward, in standard tuning, very possible and easy to play in an open tuning.

Here is a little bit of DADGAD tuning for you to show you what I mean:


Playing/improvising a single line melody on the top string while droning the low D string in DADGAD tuning sounds great! You could noodle around on this idea forever coming up with some cool melodies against the drone of the D string. Natural harmonics also sound great in open tunings as you can hear at the end of the example above.

4. Start With Drop D Tunings

A great way to ease yourself into playing in open tunings, is to start with drop D tunings. Drop D tunings involve dropping either your 6th string down to a D note, or your 1st string down to a D note.

Three of the most commonly used open tunings, open G, open D, and DADGAD all have the low and high open strings dropped down to D notes. So by playing around in a drop tuning first, you become familiar in part with these open tunings.

This makes the transition over into open tunings much easier.

5. Symmetrical Open Tunings

There are many more open tunings to consider than the ones we have looked at in today's article. Many of these are quite symmetrical making scale runs and licks fall nicely under your fingers, so that they are easy to play.

Take the following tuning for example:

Csus2 Tuning - CGCGCD

Notice there are only 3 strings to learn here, C, G, and D. Compare that to the 5 strings you have to learn in standard tuning E, A, D, G, and B. This makes this tuning easier to play in straight away than standard tuning.

You just have to become a little familiar with it, and because it's quite symmetrical, it's not hard.

Here are some ideas to get you started in Csus2 tuning:

1.


2.


Use a backing track in the key of C while playing around with the ideas above. This will help give you some context as well as inspire your creativity.

Hopefully you can now see that open tunings are not as intimidating to play in as they may first appear. To totally ignore them is to leave a lot on the table as far as the potential of the sounds you can get from an acoustic guitar.

Don't feel you have to specialise in open tunings to use them either. You may use them extensively, however you may only choose to use them here and there if you prefer. Whichever way you go, you'll be glad you decided to opt in to the world of open tunings for your acoustic guitar playing.

About the Author:
Simon Candy is a guitar instructor from Melbourne, Australia. Always in high demand, Simon runs his own guitar school teaching a number of styles including rock, blues, jazz, and fingerpicking guitar. Simon also helps and trains many guitar players around the world with online acoustic guitar instruction.

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23 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Blind In 1 Ear
    i've been getting used to the idea of open tunings lately. i used to not like how i had to relearn certain things, but as was stated in here, it's not actually as bad as one might initially think. i still prefer standard in terms of soloing capabilities and obviously the ability to play in all keys easier and playing with others, even slide i mostly play in standard so i can just pop it on when i feel like it. i think for writing single guitar instrumentals, acoustic ones especially, open tunings are far more useful. i just wish i started using them more years ago. on the bright side though, it's something new and fresh for me now.
    Simon Candy
    Thanks for your thoughts You can most definitely play/jam with others in an Open G tuning even if they are in standard tuning, so don;t need to isolate it to instrumental/solo playing. Easy enough to change key in Open G Tuning too, so I would't limit yourself with it if you are keen to get it into your playing. The more you use it, the better you will get with it
    LittleMartin549
    I have previously fiddled around with drop D tuning on my electric, and thought it was cool, but i am more of an acoustic guitar guy. I tried out the Open D Standard tuning, and it is a ton of fun! I spent a few hours yesterday working on it, and i can play most standard chords, along wth several suspend chords and minors, and have been working on transposing songs. Great Article!
    Simon Candy
    Great to hear LittleMartin549. Alternate turnings are great fun and addictive. Have fun with them and thanks for reading the article!
    NeoMvsEu
    Technically, 000200 is just D5, not D major. D major requires a major third, so 004200, 000204, 000790, etc. could work to incorporate the whole D major chord sound.
    razorkosza
    cool article I love different sounds but mostly play in half step down or standard
    beatboy65
    Good article-- demystifies open tunings, which seem quite intimidating before you try them. Open G and D are nice as you are tuning down and not stressing the strings by tuning up. As an aside open G and A tunings are sometimes called 'Spanish tunings'. Open D is sometimes called 'Vestapol tuning' - these names are found on blues guitar sites.
    Simon Candy
    Thanks Beatboy65! Yes, Open G is also known as Spanish tuning and predates all the blues players of early last century. Back to 1830 I believe with "Spanish Fandango"