Blues Guitar Institute

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How to play in Open D Tuning: A step-by-step guide for blues players

Lesson ID: TB409

Learning slide guitar in Open D can be confusing.

Your go-to licks and riffs in standard tuning won’t work and the chords are completely different. Yet, this tuning has a unique sound that’s perfect for blues players. With the right approach, anyone can master the basics.

Here’s a simple plan to help you get started with less confusion and more bluesy goodness.

Let’s dive in.

Step 1: Tune to Open D

Open tunings produce a big, full chord just by strumming across all six strings. This means that you can barre across the strings at any fret and get a nice sounding chord. This makes open tunings perfect for slide playing because the slide is a barre!

To play in Open D, we need to tune the strings to the notes of a D Major Chord: D F# A.

From low to high, we’ll tune to: D A D F# A D

Of course you can use a tuner, but here’s how to tune to Open D if you’re coming from Standard Tuning:

  • Lower the 6th string from E to D
  • Leave the 5th string tuned to A
  • Leave the 4th string tuned to D
  • Lower the 3rd string from G to F#
  • Lower the 2nd string from B to A
  • Lower the 1st string from E to D

You can also tune strings relative to each other using the open 4th string as a reference pitch strings 6 and 1.

Use the open 5th string as a reference for the 2nd string.

Finally tune the 3rd string to the F# at the 4th string, 4th fret.

Then strum across all six open strings. You get a big D Major chord and now you’re ready to start sliding!

Step 2: Find the Hotspots

In Open D tuning, there are a few spots on the neck to focus on when you’re getting started. These spots – I call them hotspots – are perfect for playing chords and creating bluesy riffs and licks.

Here are the hotspots:

  • The Open Strings (easy, but so useful!)
  • 12th fret
  • 5th fret
  • 7th fret

Remember that the open strings produce a D Major Chord. That means that you can barre across the strings at any fret and get a different major chord. The chord name is the name of the note at the 6, 4th or 1st strings.

If you play at the 5th fret hotspot you’ll be playing a G Major chord. The 7th fret hotspot is an A major and the 12th fret hotspot is a D Major.

This gives us everything we need to play along with a basic 12 Bar Blues Progression.

The 12th fret and open strings are interchangeable because both are D Major chords. Use this! Mix up the measures over D by switching between these two hotspots.

Keep this in mind too:

You don’t have to play all six strings.

Some slides aren’t even long enough to do this, but that’s OK!. Playing three or four strings from a hotspot sounds great and can help you sound more musical when you’re jamming.

Bottom line: Focus on these hotspots for a no-fail way to get started with the blues in Open D Tuning.

Step 3: Add the Bluesy Notes

The hotspots are great, but they don’t sound bluesy on their own. We can change this by adding two notes to the hotspots – the minor 3rd and minor 7th intervals.

💡 Need a crash course in intervals? Try this guide:

Intervals – The #1 Reason You’re Lost on the Fretboard

Good news is, you don’t have to stray far from the hotspots to find these intervals and get that bluesy sound.

To find the minor 3rd from a hotspot, move your slide down one fret on the 3rd string. Or you can move up three frets on strings 6, 4 and 1.

To find the minor 7th, move down two frets on strings 6, 4, and 1 or up three frets on strings 5 and 2.

The notes at each hotspot sound good together. But get a bluesier sound by mixing in the minor 3rd like this:

and the minor 7th like this:

These embellishments are a perfect stepping stone to the next step in your Open D slide journey. The fun part!

Step 4: Create Your Own Licks

Noodling on the guitar gets a bad wrap sometimes. But it isn’t bad at all – it’s fun and can lead to some creative discoveries.

We can encourage creative moments with what I call focused noodling. Noodle but with a clear goal.

Here’s an example.

Pick a hotspot and play freely while mixing in the two embellishment notes. Get familiar with the sounds. See what you can create. Noodle! But stick to just one hotspot at a time to get to know the moves and sounds that you like.


rinse and repeat.

Move your focused noodling to other hotspots. Next, expand to using two hotspots.

The key is to start small and then expand your focus as you get familiar with each spot.

GOAL: To create licks that you can use surrounding each hotspot.

Listen to Great Slide Players for Inspiration

If you’re stuck or feel like you don’t quite have the sound you’re looking for, look to the greats for inspiration.

Try these:

Find what you like and try to incorporate it into your Focused Noodling sessions. And remember, it’s important to learn other’s licks but keep creating your own.

I hope this lesson jumpstarts your journey in Open D. But there’s something underneath all of this:

Good slide technique.

If you need a little help, then you should check out BGI’s free guide: 5 Simple Steps to Better Slide Guitar.

When you are ready, there are two ways I can help you:

Back Porch Blues Course:  A proven system to fingerpicking the blues.  This step-by-step course guides you through building fundamental fingerpicking skills.  Plus, you’ll learn three levels of a delta blues style performance study to put your new skills into action.

Become a myBGI Member: Membership comes with access to Back Porch Blues plus over 70 step-by-step courses.  Get proven results with one of myBGI’s structured Roadmaps.

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