Open Tuning Part II – Here There Be Monsters

You do remember learning about the olden days, back when people thought that the world was flat and maps of the then-known world contained the above phrase at the edges, don’t you? It always seemed to me that “here there be monsters” could easily be substituted for any of the Surgeon General’s admonitions and not a lot would be lost in translation.

But I digress…

The point in bringing this up is to stress the importance of writing things down. Those of you who have been reading these columns know I tend to chant “write things down” over and over like a mantra. “Write things down.” A terrific example of the usefulness of this advice is when you are messing about with open and alternate tunings.

Perhaps it’s easier for you to remember the really olden days, back when you were just starting to learn the guitar. It may or may not have been difficult to memorize the standard chord fingerings, but you undoubtedly had access to chord charts of one sort or another. Imagine if you had to start from scratch each time you picked up the guitar! Well, unless you have books or charts for open or alternate tunings, that’s precisely what will happen. If you have the foresight to make yourself a map you won’t find yourself wrestling monsters each time you change tuning. Even though they may seem mysterious and foreboding, open and alternate tunings are fun. “Map making” is not hard; it takes but a moment of your time and, most importantly, will help you to develop your theory skills. Really. Here’s how:

The Lay Of The Land

For the sake of simplicity, we’re going to work in just one of the numerous open tunings we discussed in the last column. And since I get to choose, I pick Open D. I’ll wait a bit ’til you get in tune.

Open D tuning

Ready? Okay. First, we’re going to take a piece of paper and make a map of the Open D tuning. Across the top will be the frets and down the left column will be the newly tuned strings (open fret). We’re going to fill in the notes in their proper places and, to make it a tad more legible, I’m going use only the notes in a D major scale. I am also going to add the flatted seventh, which is C natural (as opposed to C#, which is the major seventh) for reasons that will hopefully become clear later on. When I’m done, it will look like this:

Map of Open D tuning

If you took the time to fill in all the notes (as we have in the 5th, 7th and 10th frets), then you’d see a major chord down each fret. Remember our capo discussion? This is an excellent demonstration of what we were talking about. If we put a capo on the seventh fret, we are now in Open A tuning. What about Open F#? Right, fourth fret. Amazing stuff, isn’t it?

Now, before we go figuring out our chords, we have to take another brief theory lesson. Remember our scale? Let’s see the D major scale:

D Major scale

Whether you’ve been playing for ages or just started learning the guitar a few days ago, you’ve probably noticed that certain chords keep popping up over and over again. “Why is that?” you might ask. Well, believe it or not, theory pretty much dictates what chords usually show up in any given key. I say “usually” because, as we know, theory is not a be all and end all. It simply examines what has happened in the past, what chord usage has traditionally been acceptable. Since anything goes in real life, it’s good to have a secure place from which to start.

The primary chords that one will use in a given major key will be major chords of I (the root or tonic), V (called the dominant) and IV (the subdominant). Secondary chords include the minor (and occasionally major) chords of II, III and VI. Also included in this group is the major chord with its root being the minor seventh of the scale. Occasionally, especially in rock, pop and country music (just to mention a few genres), you will run into a major chord based on the flat seventh of the major scale whose key you’re playing in. For our particular example in open D, this would be C major. You’ll read more about this in the upcoming lesson, A Before E (except after C).

So, playing in the key of D major, these are the chords we are most likely to come across:

D Major scale chords

(Two things I want to mention here – first, as usual we’re covering a lot of ground and it’s bound to be a bit confusing. That’s okay. Anything we brush on, we’ll be going over in depth in the (relatively) near future. Secondly, one thing that will be hard to avoid brushing against here is what I tend to call embellished chords. These are your run of the mill major chords with an additional note or two, usually the sixth or second (or ninth, as it is more often called). Open tuning lends itself to finding chords that are just a tad off beat. Sometimes it is necessary to work with what your guitar will give you. We’ll explore this in a bit…)

Okay, back to our guitars! I know the make up of a D major chord (I, III, V = D, F#, A), and since I know just how far I can stretch my hand, I can find a lot of different ways to put one together in Open D tuning. What I am going to do now is simplicity itself – I’m going to throw together a “do-it-yourself” tab chart. First, I go to the “map” we’ve made and pick out the notes I need (when I first started doing this, I’d actually circle to notes I wanted). Then I create my tabs by taking these notes (actually the frets at which they occur) and putting these in a separate chart. On the left column, I once again list my open strings. The right columns, read downward, will give me various sounding D major chords. You’ll notice that, again for the sake of simplicity, I’m leaving the three bass strings open in order to focus my exploration on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd strings.

D Major chords

On the last chord, I could also play the 12th fret of the 1st string, but again, I prefer the sound of this voicing. Likewise, since I enjoy the droning effect of the D’s and A’s, I also tend to play the 3rd chord with an open first string. It’s your call.

I’ll also put together tab charts for the other primary and secondary chords. Since I like to use open D’s and A’s, some of my chords will be embellished chords, such as Em7 and Bm7, which benefit from the open strings. Now, if I pick and choose from the various charts I’ve made, I can see that it’s pretty easy to form the chords I normally would use in any song in the key of D. Here are a few of the ones I use a lot:

Primary and Secondary chords

Reaping The Rewards

How about we try out a couple of songs? Well, just like when first took up the guitar, it’s best to start with something relatively easy and then work your way towards pieces that are more difficult.

We’ll begin with Bob Dylan’s Shelter From The Storm. It’s very straight forward – 4/4 time and just three chords.

As I said, the song is in 4/4. Each verse is sixteen measures – four sets of four which correspond to the four lines of lyrics in each verse. I like to repeat the last three measures between the verses to break it up. The chord pattern for each verse (with the “inter-verse” break in parenthesis) is as follows:

D – – – / Dmaj7 – – – / G – – – / D – – –
D – – – / Dmaj7 – – – / G – – – / G – – –
D – – – / Dmaj7 – – – / G – – – / G – – –
D – – – / Dmaj7 – – – / G – – – / D – – –

( Dmaj7 – – – / G – – – / D – – -)

These are the chords I will use in Open D tuning:

Open D tuning chords

First, let’s put together a strumming pattern, perhaps something like this:

Example 1

When I play this, I usually play the second D chord (the non-open one) as the first chord and the open D chord to end the first and fourth lines of the verses. This allows me to start a descending bass line on the 5th string, playing the bass note on the first beat of the measure (I hope you’re bearing with me, because it’s a lot easier to show someone than to write it out!). Visually, one verse would look something like this:

Shelter From The Storm part 1

Shelter From The Storm part 2

Shelter From The Storm part 3

Shelter From The Storm part 4

Shelter From The Storm part 5

Shelter From The Storm part 6

Shelter From The Storm part 7

Shelter From The Storm part 8

Shelter From The Storm part 9

Now this tablature is very basic. I fingerpick a lot, and even when I use a pick I tend to arpeggiate (not a verb, I know) more than I strum. But for now, just get the feel of where the chords are and how they sound. Pretty nice, huh? If you want to get the lyrics to all ten verses, just Google the song title.

And For Those Of You Who Want A Challenge?

This is my take on Shawn Colvin’s take on Every Little Thing She Does is Magic by the Police, done in open D tuning . The introduction consists of arpeggios of Dmaj7 (with the sixth (B) added) played over a walking bass line of G, A, G, D, which looks (and sounds) like this:

Intro pattern part 1

Intro pattern part 2

And here’s a good place to make another note, tab is a great and useful tool, but one should never pass up the opportunity to learn how to read music. Yeah, I know-“So-and-so’s a bloody great guitarist and he can’t read music-blah, blah, blah.” All I’m saying is that anyone can live in a foreign country without speaking the language. But if you want the fullness of the experience, then buck up and learn to converse with the locals in their dialect. You’re likely to find the little things that occasionally slipped past you, like rhythm patterns.

Back to the song – The verses are a slight variation from the introduction, as you’ll see in the following example. For a bit of a dramatic flair, the verses close with a “turnaround,” starting with the open D and then shifting what would be an Amaj7 chord in standard tuning to get Em7 (xx2120) and Dmaj7 (004340) up the neck, using our standard tuning A chord shape on the fifth fret to get G (xx5550) and then coming back down again to the open D major chord. And because that doesn’t seem quite dramatic enough, let’s add another D major chord, produced with the 12th fret harmonics, as an exclamation point!

Verse pattern part 1

Verse pattern part 2

Verse pattern part 3

Verse pattern part 4

Verse pattern part 5

Verse pattern part 6

Verse pattern part 7

Verse pattern part 8

Now, on with the chorus! Using our open D tuning to get voicings of Asus4 and D chords way up the neck, you can double the melody line, which puts a bit of punch into the chorus. By the bye, there’s a bit of anticipation going on here, with the D chord coming in slightly before the first beat of the following measure.

And this is probably a good place to mention that this notation is simply meant to be a starting point. As you’ve no doubt read in many of the song lesson articles here at Guitar Noise, be they “Easy Songs for Beginners” or on the “Songs for Intermediates” page, I’m not concerned with you getting this down precisely. You might even hear me take a few liberties with the rhythms in the MP3 examples in this lesson. Have fun with these arrangements and come up with ways to make them your own.

The chorus ends with a Bb based arpeggio (feel free to call it Bbmaj7(add6) if you’re a stickler for these things). then a C6/9 arpeggio. Both of these arpeggios use the same rhythm from the verses. Finally, a repeat of the same turnaround used to herald the chorus brings this section to a close.

Chorus pattern part 1

Chorus pattern part 2

Chorus pattern part 3

Chorus pattern part 4

Chorus pattern part 5

Chorus pattern part 6

After the first chorus, we then go to the second verse and repeat the chorus again. When we come to the Bb on the second chorus, we stay on the arpeggio for an extra measure (or however long you’d like) and then move on to the bridge, which is simply a build-up of the Bb and C arpeggios used at the end of the chorus. This leads into the turnaround again and then a final chorus. Here’s a “cheat sheet” of sorts to help you out:

Cheat sheet part 1

Cheat sheet part 2

Cheat sheet part 3

Cheat sheet part 4

Cheat sheet part 5

Whew! That was a bit of a workout, eh? I hope that you’ve had some fun with this lesson. As mentioned in the first part of this introduction to open tunings, we’ve a number of song lessons that use them. You should try to make it a point to fool around in one a bit sometime, if for no other reason than it will make you think a bit about chords, how they’re formed and what notes go into them.

And don’t forget to write things down!

Until our next lesson…

Peace