Open Tuning (Guitar Lesson)

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Randall Williams

Open Tuning

In this lesson Randall introduces the concept of open tuning. He will talk about how open tunings work as well as how they alter your chords and scales.

Taught by Randall Williams in Lessons with Randall Williams seriesLength: 31:48Difficulty: 2.0 of 5
Chapter 1: (02:03) Lesson Introduction Lesson Objectives

-Learn how to tune your guitar to open D tuning.
-Apply music theory concepts discussed in previous lessons to open D tuning.
-Play some basic musical excerpts in this tuning.
Chapter 2: (12:51) Open Tuning Definition of an "Open Tuning"

A tuning is referred to as an "open tuning" when the open strings spell a triad or a specific four note chord as Cmaj7. Alternate tunings such as drop D are not open tunings since they do not match this definition.

Tuning Down Vs. Tuning Up

Open tunings in which the strings are tuned down (open D and open G) are far more popular than tunings in which the strings are tuned up (open E and open A). Tuning the strings up puts additional tension on the neck that may cause it to bow after an extended period of time. A bowed neck can rarely be repaired. The entire neck must be replaced.

Open D Basics

When open D tuning is applied, all of the open string notes are part of a D major triad. Listed below is a breakdown of how each string is tuned in open D.

6th string: D

5th string: A

4th string: D

3rd string: F#

2nd string: A

1st string: D

Notice how there are three root notes within the open chord.

Tuning without the Tuner

It is possible to use a tuner to help you tune each of the strings. Unfortunately, this is only possible with a chromatic guitar tuner. A standard tuner will only allow you to tune the guitar to standard tuning. For this reason, it is important to learn how to adjust your tuning by ear.

Tuning by Ear

Follow the steps listed below to tune your guitar to open D.

Step 1:

The 6th string must be tuned down a whole step to the pitch D. Match the pitch of this string to the open fourth string. Many players find it helpful to use the harmonics at the 12th fret when tuning the sixth string down to D. Simply match the harmonic at the 12th fret of the sixth string to the harmonic at the 12th fret of the D string. 

Step 2:

The 3rd string is tuned down a half step to the note F#. An F# note is located at the 4th fret of the fourth string. Match the pitch of the third string to this note.

Step 3:

The second string must be tuned down a whole step to the pitch A. Match the pitch of this string to the pitch of the open fifth string. Once again, you can use the harmonics at the 12th fret of these strings to check your tuning. Either method is perfectly acceptable. Use whichever method works best for you. You may want to use both to double check your work.

Step 4:

The first string must be tuned down a whole step to the pitch D. Match the pitch of this string to the pitch of the open fourth string. The 12th fret method can be applied to this step as well.

Always tune up to the pitch. It will stay in tune better. Also strings have memory and will have a tendency to gravitate back to the pitch that it was previously tuned to.

Definition of a Triad

A triad is a chord built from three notes. A specific formula is used to determine which notes are contained within a certain triad. Randall applies this idea to the basic "open" D major chord.

To spell any chord, follow these basic steps:

1. Start with the Major scale corresponding to the letter name of the chord. For example, if you want to figure out the notes in C7, start by writing out the C major scale. Even if you are spelling a minor chord, you must start with the major scale of the chord name.

2. Determine the "triad type" of the chord. A triad is a chord containing three notes. It is also the base structure of any chord that contains more than three notes. There are four types of triads: Major, Minor, Augmented, and Diminished. Each of these triads is spelled using a different formula.

Major triad: scale degrees 1,3,5.

Minor triad: scale degrees 1,b3,5.

Augmented triad: scale degrees 1,3,#5

Diminished triad: scale degrees 1,b3,b5

Hierarchy of Chord Tones Clarification

In terms of a triad, the third is the most important note since it determines the quality of the chord (i.e. whether the chord is major, minor, etc.). The next important note is the fifth. The least important chord tone is the root.
Chapter 3: (09:00) Open Tunings and Chords Barre Chords

A major chord can be played by barring the first finger across all six strings at a single fret. Consequently, you must learn how to play the D major scale in a horizontal fashion along the sixth string. This will teach you where the roots of the major barre chords are located in open D tuning.

Key of D Major

Most songs are played in the key of D major when the guitar is tuned to open D. 

In relation to D major, the I, IV, and V chords are D, G, and A respectively. You've already learned that playing all of the open strings produces the I chord, D. By using the first finger to barre all six strings at the 5th fret, a G chord is formed. To play the V chord, A, simply slide this barre chord shape up two frets.

Diatonic Chords

At this point in the series, you should have the diatonic triads of the major tonality memorized. If necessary, review them below.


In relation to D major:

I - D
ii - Em
iii - F#m
IV - G
V - A
vi -Bm
viio - C#o

Remember that a bVII major chord is frequently substituted for the viio chord.

Additional Chord Shapes

A key advantage of open tunings is the open, sustaining sound of the open strings. By playing barre chords all the time, you eliminate this interesting facet. Consequently, you need to learn a variety of new chord shapes in the tuning.

Alternate G Chord

Play the root on the sixth string. You can also play the root on the first string if you want to double it. If you leave this string open, the fifth of the chord, D, is included. The open fourth string is also the fifth of the chord. The major third is located on the third string at the same fret as the root. By leaving the second string open, the ninth is added to the voicing. Consequently, a Gadd9 chord is formed. The fifth string is typically muted within this voicing by lightly resting the second finger on it. Randall prefers to play the voicing with as many open strings as possible with the exception of the fifth string.

Note: Fretboard diagrams with proper left hand fingerings to all chords discussed in the lesson can be found under the "Supplemental Content" tab.
Chapter 4: (06:13) Chord Voicings and Open Tunings Aadd11

If you move the two finger version of Gadd9 up two frets, an Aadd11 chord is formed.

This chord contains A (root), C# (3rd), and D (11th). Notice how the fifth E is omitted from the chord. Since the root and the fifth are the least important chord tones, they are frequently omitted from voicings.

Additional D Major Chord

If this voicing is transposed to the 12th fret, a D major chord is formed.

Minor Chords

The G and A major voicings you have learned feature the root and major third at the same fret. Minor chords contain a minor third. Instead of fretting the major third with the third finger, fret the minor third with the first finger at the fret below to produce a minor chord.. Randall demonstrates this chord grip with a Bm7 voicing at 02:28. This chord contains the following notes: B, D, and A. The fifth, F#, is omitted from the voicing.


This chord uses the same grip as demonstrated for Bm. To play Em11, move this shape to the second and first frets. The chord contains the root, third, seventh, and eleventh. Once again, the fifth is omitted from this voicing.


C major is the bVII major chord in relation to the key of D major. If the shape used for the G and A chords is slid up to the 10th fret, a C6/9 chord is produced. This chord contains C, D, E, and A. The fifth, G, is omitted from the chord.


In this scene, the chord that Randall calls the iii chord, F#m, is actually a D major chord with the third, F#, played in the bass.

Practice Exercises

1. Harmonize the D major scale using the chord shapes discussed in this scene. Ascend and descend the scale to familiarize yourself with these voicings.

2. Take songs that you already know in D major that use simplistic voicings and play them using the voicings presented in this lesson.
Chapter 5: (01:39) Final Thoughts DADGAD aka Dsus4 Tuning

Another commonly used alternate tuning is referred to as DADGAD ("dad gad") or Dsus4 Tuning. The notes in this tuning form a D suspended fourth chord. DADGAD is great for playing in a variety of different keys, particularly D and G. Like Randall mentions, it's quite an ambiguous tuning since it doesn't contain a major or minor third of any sort. For a full lesson on this tuning check out Jim Deeming's Phase 2 Fingerstyle series.

Video Subtitles / Captions

Supplemental Learning Material


Member Comments about this Lesson

Discussions with our instructors are just one of the many benefits of becoming a member of JamPlay.

sendbahtsendbaht replied on November 23rd, 2014

very nice!

vortigernvortigern replied on August 11th, 2012

how is F sharp the third (note?) in the D chord ????

grburgessgrburgess replied on May 27th, 2015

The structure of the major scale is that it progresses as: tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone. So, in D, this would be: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#. Notice that it is a tone from D to E, then another tone to F#, since E to F is only a semitone, or 1 fret. And notice that F# then is the third note in this scale.

dewhonourdewhonour replied on September 18th, 2011

I enjoyed this lesson, but I didn't like the apparent difficulty in finding those minor chords. It occurred to me that I could simply change my tuning to true DADFAD tuning to make things easier. Minor Chords are just barred across one fret while Major Chords also finger the next fret on the 3rd string. I'm really excited about this discovery. Have you explored this? Are the set backs?

dallendouglasdallendouglas replied on October 11th, 2010

Randall, You art to be highly congratulated on this lesson set. I have a Dystrophy and have etroubel with hand strength,but so far I can play most chords. It is nice to know if the day comes I can move to this method. Since I 'am retired I have others in our Retirement Community that have shown an Interest in Playing. With this metod I can show them playing and have them singing in no time. I will send themn to Jam Play and your Instruction.but not all have computers.Congratulations on a jobe well done. I would like to see mor inf. on Useing a "Full" "Capo" . I purchase a "SPIDER" "CAPO" and will recive it soon. I see so many great uses for this lesson set. For others in much worse shape than me. Thanks Dennis Douglas,Canyonville,Oregon

jmarcjmarc replied on August 25th, 2010

thanks a lot for the great lesson and i hope you ll explain strumming and rythmm in another lesson . best regards

Randall.WilliamsRandall.Williams replied on August 29th, 2010

merci j - lesson 9 is a set of right hand lessons - amuses-toi bien!

lapsjunlapsjun replied on March 15th, 2010

Thanks Randall. Your lessons are very useful and you have a very clear way of explaining.

Randall.WilliamsRandall.Williams replied on September 2nd, 2009

Thanks everybody. Stefano and Buffy, there's a "right hand" series coming - it's not just fingerpicking, but rather an organic approach to the right hand as a continuum - where picking and strumming are the *same* motion.

cecilrhodes08cecilrhodes08 replied on September 9th, 2009

Picking and strumming at the same time... sounds cool. Isn't that a bit in the whole John Mayer "Stop This Train" vein of things?

stefano ottolinistefano ottolini replied on September 2nd, 2009

Splendida lezione, Randall. Aspetto la prossima: non vedo l'ora! Anche a me piacerebbe una lezione di Randall sul fingerpicking.

stefano ottolinistefano ottolini replied on September 2nd, 2009

Another great lesson, Randall. Thanks!!!

buffy136buffy136 replied on September 2nd, 2009

your a funny guy Randall :) thanks for this lesson what are the chances that you make a lesson on finger picking..

peterpaulpeterpaul replied on September 1st, 2009

Love your lessons Randall, great job. hope to see more soon.

jboothjbooth replied on September 1st, 2009

Will probably be around 2 weeks (if not a bit more) for the next one. Filming is going to be pretty heavy for the next two weeks with out of town instructors but I'll try to get another Randall done during downtime.

jesusmesdeuxjesusmesdeux replied on September 1st, 2009

I couldnt wait any longer for an other Randall Williams' course. Thank you guys!

jaybirdjaybird replied on September 1st, 2009

Keep it comin!! I can't get enough. Thanks

Lessons with Randall Williams

Found in our Beginner Lesson Sets

Randall Williams is a dynamic, powerful, classically trained acoustic musician who interest is found in the dynamic and relevant world of folk. One of Randall's specialties includes the style of cut or partial capo.

Lesson 1

Useful Music Theory

In his introductory lesson, Randall Williams discusses music theory in a useful and practical context. This knowledge will be required for his future lessons.

Length: 26:39 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lesson 2

Music Theory Part #2

Randall Williams returns with the second part of his lesson on useful music theory. In this lesson, he talks about using a capo, ornamenting chords, and the minor scales.

Length: 36:38 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lesson 3

Open Tuning

In this lesson Randall introduces the concept of open tuning. He will talk about how open tunings work as well as how they alter your chords and scales.

Length: 31:48 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 4

Open Tuning Part 2

Randall Williams returns to the world of open tunings to talk about open d, open g, and open c. He also give tips on slide guitar and playing in these tunings.

Length: 41:30 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 5

Partial Capo for Total Beginners

In this lesson Randall introduces the partial capo (using a short-cut capo by Kyser) and talks about how it can make the life of a beginner easier.

Length: 12:46 Difficulty: 0.5 FREE
Lesson 6

Partial Capo Part 2

In this lesson Randall returns to the world of the partial capo (or cut-capo). He covers additional right hand techniques and a few sample songs.

Length: 18:00 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 7

Partial Capo Part 3

Randall returns to the world of the partial capo. In this lesson, he talks more about playing songs and chords. He also introduces a second capo.

Length: 9:41 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Lesson 8

Partial Capo Part 4

Randall returns with the fourth part of his partial capo for total beginners lesson set. Randall introduces more right hand patterns and talks about playing with a disability.

Length: 11:28 Difficulty: 0.5 Members Only
Lesson 9

Randall's Toolbox

Randall Williams shares his technique toolbox in this lesson. He explains over twenty different rhythmic patterns that can be applied to a chord progression.

Length: 27:38 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 10

Randall's Toolbox Part 2

Randall shares part two of his toolbox mini-series.

Length: 25:47 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 11

Partial Capo Techniques

Randall Williams shares many new ideas in part one of his Partial Capo Techniques mini-series.

Length: 38:25 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 12

Partial Capo Techniques Part 2

Randall Williams shares part two of his fantastic Partial Capo Techniques mini-series.

Length: 16:30 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 13

Partial Capo Techniques Part 3

Randall shares part three of his Partial Capo Techniques mini-series.

Length: 19:29 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 14

Partial Capo Techniques Part 4

Randall Williams continues on to part four of his exciting Partial Capo Techniques mini-series.

Length: 29:34 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 15

Partial Capo Techniques Part 5

Randall concludes his Partial Capo Technique mini-series.

Length: 32:08 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 16

Exploring Songs Part 1

Randall Williams explains and performs the song "Causeway" by Daithi Rua.

Length: 8:24 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 17

Exploring Songs Part 2

Randall Williams takes a look at his original song "Stronger For Your Flame" and offers a wonderful performance.

Length: 10:18 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 18

Exploring Songs Part 3

Randall Williams shares an inspiring, original song called "Draw the Line."

Length: 6:06 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 19

Exploring Songs Part 4

Randall Williams shares his beautiful original tune, "Praying for Land" in this lesson.

Length: 7:50 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 20

Exploring Songs Part 5

Randall Williams teaches his original song "Ghost in the Machine."

Length: 9:37 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 21

Exploring Songs Part 6

Randall Williams shares his touching original song, "I Will Come For You."

Length: 8:38 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 22


After sharing many great tunes in his Exploring Songs mini-series, Randall Williams says a few words about performing.

Length: 10:29 Difficulty: 0.5 Members Only
Lesson 23

Short Form Songwriting

Randall Williams creates a song with you from scratch in this fascinating lesson about short form songwriting.

Length: 31:18 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Lesson 24

Singing with the Guitar

Randall Williams presents his introductory lesson on singing with the guitar.

Length: 10:36 Difficulty: 1.0 Members Only
Lesson 25

Singing with the Guitar Part 2

Randall explores more singing topics in this lesson. He provides sample exercises and encourages you to sing along.

Length: 26:15 Difficulty: 0.5 Members Only
Lesson 26

Exploring Songs Part 7

Randall Williams shares another beautiful original tune called "Guatemala" in this lesson.

Length: 6:55 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 27

Songwriting Part 1

Randall Williams continues his exploration on songwriting. In this particular lesson, he focuses on musicality and the creative process.

Length: 14:39 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 28

Songwriting Part 2

Randall Williams continues his discussion on musicality and creating songs.

Length: 23:34 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 29

Songwriting Part 3

Randall continues his discussion on songwriting in part 3 of his songwriting mini series.

Length: 21:06 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Lesson 30

Songwriting Part 4

Randall Williams concludes his mini-series on songwriting in this lesson.

Length: 13:24 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only

About Randall Williams View Full Biography He felt that classical music lacked the inclusiveness of folk music, and that the inevitable division between performer and audience was unbearable. And so Randall returned to the world of traveling with his guitar, writing songs in train stations and sleeping on couches, then singing and playing on street corners, cafï, and pubs. For a time he lived aboard a 20' sailboat that he bought for $800, teaching himself how to sail by single-handing through the Baltic and North Seas with his guitar sleeping in the berth beside him at night. He wrote a book about the trip, which begins with the story of almost getting squashed by a tanker before dawn one morning in the North Sea.

He moved to North Africa, then set off across the Sahara by hitching with locals - bouncing through a minefield on the way that made his mother have bad dreams. He loved the adventure, but he missed the music.

In 2005, Randall returned stateside to scrounge up a career as a performing songwriter, hoping it wasn't too late. So far, it hasn't been. As the "Partial Capo Guy," Randall has written two books for Hal Leonard, recorded a DVD for Kyser Musical Products, and given workshops at some of the biggest festivals in United States. As a performer, Randall has been a finalist in the Founder's Title and Mid-Atlantic Song Contests, A regional finalist at Kerrville, a showcase artist at Northeast and Midwest Folk Alliance, and at the International Folk Alliance in Memphis, and an Audience Favorite at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. His 2007 live release, "One Night in Louisiana" made a respectable dent in the folk DJ charts (One single, "Lebanon," was #8 in May,) and he's generally a nice guy to have around, capos or not.

Randall is as much at home in a Bangkok slum or a Senegalese village, at the Kennedy Center in D.C. or the Fine Arts Palace in Brussels sandwiched between a twitchy orchestra and a full house, or shoeless on the floor of your living room. Randall has sung in a dozen languages in over 35 countries.

Lynne Andrews: "When Randall left the confines of classical music largely behind, they lost a great talent, but the world gained a good friend - a friend who will tell its stories with grace, compassion, humility and humor."

Randall began playing guitar seriously in 1988, and played his first open mic one year later. Randall kept playing and learning more and more. Randall began teaching guitar in 1992, while studying musical composition, analysis, and performance. Randall got his undergraduate music degree in 1996, then studied flamenco for about a year (1997) before beginning studies at the royal conservatory of music in mons, belgium.

From 1998 to 2001, Randall studied voice, analysis, and harmony at the conservatory, with classical guitar lessons on the side for about 6 months. Randall's undergraduate study and the conservatory courses added a degree of musical structure to his improvisational ability, and gave him a strong music theory base. He recieved the premier prix for concert singing from the conservatory in 2001.

Randall's most recent discoveries: how to build a structure for creating chords in open tunings, and learning how to structure placement of partial capos in standard and alternate tunings.

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