Some of the most interesting players around — from Mississippi John Hurt to John Fogerty to Ry Cooder to Jimmy Page to Slayer’s Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman — have used Open D, Dropped D and D-A-D-G-A-D tunings. So let’s take a quick look at the “D” family of alternate tunings and some of their applications, and feel free to plug in and fly as we go.
But before we do, here’s a suggestion for those about to embark on a journey into the world of alternate tunings — especially if you’re unsure of your speed and accuracy in changing tunings and making them stick.
The Gibson Min-ETune is a valuable tool for quick tuning and staying in perfect pitch. The lightweight compact device is a highly efficient robot tuner that can set the pitch of all six strings in seconds and delivers 80 to 100 tunings on one charge. And in addition to standard tuning, the Min-ETune™— which mounts on the back of any guitar’s headstock — can hold a dozen alternate tunings including six slots you can program for favorites like Open E (Derek Trucks’ favorite), Open G (Keith Richards’ go-to) and Open D (Ben Harper’s primary tuning.)
First, let’s investigate Dropped D. Consider it a gateway tuning to Open D and D-A-D-G-A-G (commonly referred to as “dadgad”). This is a no brainer if you’re already playing in standard tuning. Simply drop the lowest string to a “D” instead of an “E” note and you’re ready to rock. If you’re playing single notes, it opens up a more powerful low register for the guitar. If you’re playing chords, triads can be played on the lower three strings of the guitar simply by barring them with one finger. And if you’re daring, you can barre the entire set of six strings across the fretboard with one finger to push the envelope on tonality and find the low ‘n’ sweet spots or chords with interior contrast.
There’s obviously the option of playing regular barre chord shapes with the root note on the fifth string. Another cool move that adds a mysterious vibe is to do just that while also hitting the unfretted D string above to create hip droning sounds that come in and out of harmonic agreement. Good examples of dropped D at work are Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” and Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick.” Check them out to get the sound of dropped D in your ears.
Then, move on to Open D by changing the “G” string in standard tuning to an “F#,” the “B” string to an “A” and the high “E” to a high “D.” Now hit the strings while they’re open, without fretting any of them, and you experience why open tunings are called “open.” In any open tuning, striking the open, unfretted strings of your guitar will create the chord that those strings, and therefore your guitar, is tuned to. Open E is tuned to an E chord, Open G to a G chord and so on.
What’s cool about open tunings is that anywhere you lay your finger across all the strings creates a chord. And you can play single-finger triads anywhere across the neck using various combinations of strings. What’s cool about Open D in particular is that the strings are slack enough to hang and resonate deeply, creating a low powerful sound, and yet have enough tension to play searing leads with singing notes. To be absolutely clear, Open D is D-A-D-F#-A-D. Place a capo on the second fret and you’re in Open E.
Open D is a favorite of Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard, who used it to record the main rhythm guitar track on “Even Flow.” A little experimentation reveals that staples of guitar playing like pentatonic blues boxes also work in Open D, although they require shirting the position of some notes.
There are also plenty of variations on Open D tuning, ranging from the D-A-D-F-A-D minor tuning used by country bluesman Skip James of “I’m So Glad” fame to all of the variants used by open tuning genius Joni Mitchell to D-A-D-G-A-D, our next stop for this primer. This tuning is sometimes called Celtic tuning, alluding to its origins in the British Isles. Ry Cooder and Keith Richards have employed this tuning, although Keith’s mostly an Open G man, but the granddaddy of D-A-D-G-A-D tuned rock songs is Led Zeppelin’s epic “Kashmir.”
What’s hip about dadgad is that the open chord created is suspended, so it’s neither major nor minor, which makes it sound unfamiliar and therefore intriguing. Like Open G, dadgad is trickier than Dropped D or Open D or Open E for negotiating around the neck. Also, simply barring all six strings and moving up and down the neck in dadgad doesn’t always reward the ear. The upshot is that, like working on anything cool and new on the guitar, effort and exploration is the key to mastery in open tunings.