Maybe you’ve heard of open tunings, but aren’t sure how they work or what can be beneficial about using them. Get a taste of these tunings by lowering your strings to open D minor, then playing a handful of chord shapes and applying them to a bluesy etude.
Get into the Tuning
Open D minor was used to excellent effect by one of my guitar heroes, the great bluesman Skip James, who created some beautiful, mournful music in this tuning. Like many open tunings, D minor can make things easier on the fretting fingers, as you can generally make greater use of the open strings than in standard tuning. In this lesson, I’ll show you how fun and satisfying it can be to play in open D minor.
To get started, lower string 6 a whole step, to D, and drop strings 3, 2, and 1 a step as well, to F, A, and D, respectively. Use an electronic tuner if needed. It might take a little while to get your guitar perfectly in tune in open D minor, but the end result is worth the effort when you hear that big Dm chord that the open strings form.
Learn a Few Chords
The beauty of open tunings is that they allow you to play a bunch of chords using just one or two fingers. In open D minor, for instance, as shown in Example 1, playing string 3, fret 1, gets you a D major chord. If you place your second and third fingers at fret 2 of strings 3 and 5, you’ll have a colorful-sounding Gadd9/B chord, as opposed to the basic open G. And moving your second finger over to string 4, fret 2, makes for an A11, rather than the regular open A7. Get to know these chord shapes well before moving on.
Play Some Fingerpicking Patterns
For the rest of this lesson, you’ll work on some simple fingerpicking patterns, sounding the bottom strings with your thumb and the upper strings with your index and middle fingers. Based on a D chord, Example 2 is built from an alternating bass line on strings 6 and 4, with a higher bluesy hammer-on, from the flatted third (F) to the major third (F#), on beats 2 and 4. To do these hammer-ons, pick the open third string, and use a hammering motion with your fretting finger to sound the F# at the first fret without picking it.
For the G chord (Example 3), place your third finger on the second string (instead of the third string, as in Ex. 1), for G7/B. The alternating bass line is maintained here, but the melody is more syncopated, with the notes falling on the “ands” of the beats. Since open D minor tuning has several pairs of octaves between the open strings 1 and 4, 2 and 5, and 4 and 6, you can create cool riffs involving parallel strings, as depicted in Example 4. Play the upper and lower notes with your second and third fingers, respectively.
Based on an A7 chord, Example 5 demonstrates a similar idea to Ex. 4, but instead of octaves uses major sixths on strings 1 and 3. [If you find terms like flatted third, major third, and major sixths intimidating, not to worry. You don’t need to know any theory to play through this lesson. —Ed.]
Play a Bluesy Etude
Now put everything together in a 16-bar study I call “Open D Minor Blues” (Example 6), which is actually in the key of D major. The second ending adds some new materials based on the previous concepts—in bar 10 there is a new octave position, on strings 4 and 6, and in bar 11 you’ll find sixths on strings 3 and 5, but this time minor, not major.
Of course, this lesson has barely scratched the surface of what is possible in open tunings. I’d encourage you to explore D minor on your own; while you’re at it, tune your third string up a half step, to F#, and you’ll be in open D major. Whether you’ve only been playing guitar for a short time or are more experienced on the instrument, experimenting with tunings like these can help expand your musical horizons.
Mary Flower is an award-winning guitarist, touring artist, and teacher based in Portland, Oregon.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.