Open Tuning Lesson: How to Play the Blues in DADGAD

As you play through these examples, you’ll get a good sense of the abundance of bluesy possibilities inherent in this tuning.

DADGAD—perhaps most commonly associated with Celtic music—is one of my favorite tunings. While I often use DADGAD in that context, I particularly enjoy playing blues in the key of D in the tuning. The blues can have an ambiguous tonality, and so DADGAD, in which the open strings form a Dsus4 chord—neither major nor minor—works perfectly for this purpose. Plus, because the top two strings are tuned down a whole step, it is easier to do bends than in standard tuning. 

In this lesson, I’ll show you some fingerpicking exercises based on some of my blues in DADGAD ideas. You’ll start by breaking down a simple lick and working through progressively difficult variations. Then you’ll expand on the lick in two different 12-bar blues examples, using approaches that are equally suited to accompaniment and solo work. As you work through these examples, I think you’ll get a good sense of the abundance of bluesy possibilities inherent in DADGAD.

Weekly Workout is a series of monthly guitar exercises made up of interesting technical workouts that will get your fretting- and picking-hand fingers working in different ways, and offer musical studies that will help you visualize and explore the fingerboard.

Week One: Learn This Simple Lick in D

The first lick you want to learn is fairly simple and works on the I chord (D7) in the key of D. As shown in Example 1, start with double-stops on strings 2 and 3, sliding into them from one fret below. I typically use my first and third fretting fingers, as I like to leave my second and fourth fingers available to grab other notes, but you can instead use your first and second or second and third fingers—whatever is most comfortable. 


As for your picking hand, you can play all of these examples straight fingerstyle, with your first, second, and third fingers on the upper strings and your thumb on the lower strings. I like to use a thumbpick for a bit of extra thump. In any case, to complete the lick from Ex. 1, pull off from the first-fret Ab to the open G string while simultaneously picking the open high D, then do another pull-off, from the third-fret F to the open D string (Example 2).

Now let’s stitch the lick together, first the double-stops and then the pull-offs, as depicted in Example 3. Note that I am fleshing things out with the addition of the low open D. If you’re a solo fingerstyle player, then you’ll want to keep that bass note moving. As demonstrated in Example 4, you could start by playing straight on the beat, and you can include the open A string for a denser bass texture. Try palm-muting these bass notes so that they don’t ring too much. Next, add the bass notes to the lick (Example 5). Note that on the accompanying video I play this pattern with straight, as opposed to swung, eighth notes. There are tons of variations you can do, both rhythmic and melodic; experiment with some of your own. 

Beginners’ Tip #1
To get into DADGAD from standard, all you have to do is tune your first, second, and sixth strings down a whole step. Any electronic tuner should make this easy.  

Week Two: Bringing in a Blue Note

This week, continue to work on the I chord lick, making sure that you can play everything cleanly and with both a straight and swing feel, and learn some additional variations. Example 6 introduces some triplets based on the root (D), seventh (C), and fifth (A) of a D7 chord. Also including these triplets, Example 7 brings in a blue note—F, the flatted third—in the bass on beat four of the first bar. 

Example 8 shows the most complex variation yet. This figure brings 16th-note melodic patterns into the fold, while also including some of the previous ideas, like the pull-offs to the open G string and the steady moving bass notes. Try using different rhythmic feels on this one—play it straight as written, or with swung 16th notes, more like how I play it in the video. Then, spend the rest of the week making sure that all of these variations are under your fingers and in your ears. 

Beginners’ Tip #2
In a straight rhythmic feel, eighth notes are played evenly. With a swing or shuffle feel, eighths are played long-short, at a ratio of about 2:1. Try these examples both straight and swung.  

Week Three: Applying it to 12-Bar Blues

Now it’s time to start thinking about the licks in the context of a 12-bar blues. Whether you’re using them to accompany singing or for solo guitar, a handy way of creating a great shuffle feel is to alternate between playing bass notes on the beat and the higher strings on the “ands,” as notated in Example 9


A full 12-bar blues, Example 10 is based on that same rhythmic feel. While the previous figures have all used just the I chord, this one also includes the IV (G) and the V (A). Note that on the IV, instead of using the typical seventh chord voicing, I am playing the top three strings open, making the chord not only easier to play but lending harmonic color, thanks to the suspended second (open A string). I also use the three open strings for the V, forming an equally cool-sounding A7sus4 chord. 

Beginners’ Tip #3
You can make the most of any bluesy lick by plugging it into the 12-bar form used in Examples 9 and 10. 

Week Four: Add Arpeggios and Change up the Bass Line

This week you’ll work with another 12-bar figure (Example 11), bringing back some of the arpeggios while changing things up in the bass—all while remaining in first position. In each IV chord bar, instead of playing the root note (G), try playing the third (B). This sounds especially good when the third is approached chromatically, i.e., the A–A#–B move starting at the end of bars 2 and 7. Note that I sometimes remove my palm mute from that B, like in bars 3 and 4, which provides a nice change of texture. 

There are some other new ideas introduced in this example. As shown in the second measure, playing the bass notes in eighths instead of quarters adds a sense of rhythmic drive. In bar 10, a slight bend on the F emphasizes the note’s bluesy character, and in the last measure, the fifth-fret natural harmonics reveal the characteristic suspended sound of DADGAD tuning. 

I often get lost jamming on these many variations when playing the blues in DADGAD. That’s the most fun part about it for me. I hope you’ve enjoyed this lesson and will continue to explore these concepts that work so well in this tuning.

Beginners’ Tip #4
The real magic happens when you have integrated these blues licks into your playing and can seamlessly string them together. 

country blues in dadgad guitar lesson music notation 1
country blues in dadgad guitar lesson music notation 2
country blues in dadgad guitar lesson music notation 3


This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Al Petteway
Al Petteway

Al Petteway was an acclaimed fingerstyle guitarist and guitar teacher.

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