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Anyone interested in learning about alternate tunings should seriously consider starting with the blues, which has a history of songs playing on the guitar using open tunings.
Open D tuning, for example, is so common that it has its own name among blues players: Vestapol tuning.
Open tunings, in contrast to the Standard tuning of E A D G B E, play a full chord when all the strings are played.
Open D, which is the tuning we’re going to examine today, is tuned D A D F# A D, and when all six strings are played, they produce a D major chord.
Let’s look at why open tunings in general, and open D in particular, are used, and then take a look at five classic blues songs, along with tabs, that are played in Open D tuning.
What Is Open D Tuning?
As I noted earlier, when you strum all six open strings on a guitar tuned to Open D, you produce a D major chord.
One advantage to open tunings is that you can use a single finger to play any major chord. Just like learning barre chord shapes allows you to play pretty much any chord in any position on the neck, using an open tuning makes chord playing much more intuitive.
But while some folk musicians, like the legendary Ritchie Havens, used Open D tuning and primarily played rhythm, blues players chose an open tuning for a different reason.
Just like a single finger across all six strings can play any major chord, combinations of strings can be played with just one finger. That makes both slide and fingerstyle guitar much easier.
In addition, the three lowest strings can be used for a bass line, grounding the song in the correct key while the top three strings can be used to play the melody and harmony.
The range of possibilities offered by an open tuning like Open D gives players a chance to create the right sound for the song they’re working on.
Let’s examine five blues classics that are played in Open D. The first is a fingerstyle piece, while the other four are slide pieces.
And if you’d prefer to listen, you can check out the full playlist on YouTube or listen on Spotify:
Vestapol – Elizabeth Cotten
In the last half of the 19th Century, as the guitar was becoming a more popular instrument, a song was written that became the Victorian equivalent of a smash pop hit.
Named after a nearly year-long siege during the Crimean War, “The Siege of Sevastopol” was a piece for guitar written specifically for a guitar tuned to Open D.
The instrumental was popular among many white Victorians, but its influence went well beyond that. Stefan Grossman, a guitarist and blues historian, saw Elizabeth Cotten play the song in the 1960s.
By then, though, the long title had been shortened twice. First it was called Sevastopol, and finally, it was called Vestapol.
In this video, Grossman himself shows how to play the song, which has become one of the most well known country blues songs, to the point where Open D tuning is still sometimes called “Vestapol tuning.”
Check out the tab online.
Ramblin’ On My Mind – Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson is perhaps the most famous of the Delta blues musicians. In part, that’s because of his short, tragic life and the mystery surrounding his death.
The other part is because his music is so vibrant that when it was rediscovered in the 1960s, it captivated a new generation of musicians, and influenced an entirely new genre.
But set aside any preconceived notions you might have about deals with the devil, mysterious talent, and a death rumored to be everything from bad whiskey to syphilis to strychnine poisoning. Instead, focus on the music itself.
The contrast between the rhythmic pulse of the bass line with the gliding, smooth tones of the melody drive the song along.
This video offers a lesson based on an arrangement of Johnson’s recording of Ramblin’ On My Mind with added licks based on “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” which is itself the source of the song we’ll cover next.
You can see the tab here.
Dust My Broom – Elmore James
One of Elmore James’ most well-known and iconic songs is a cover of Robert Johnson’s “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.”
But it’s hardly a note for note rehash of the original. It’s much closer to the difference between Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along The Watchtower” and the Bob Dylan original.
The source is a great song, but the cover takes what was good about the original and expands it, making it into a new creation entirely.
Johnson’s version of the song is full of raw energy, with just his voice and his guitar creating the entire soundscape. James’ version isn’t just energetic, it’s electrifying — and electrified.
His switch from the acoustic blues of the Mississippi River Delta to the electric blues of Chicago drives the song to a new level.
This video gives a rundown of how James played on the track.
Here’s the tab for the song.
Spoonful Blues – Charley Patton
Charley Patton is a name that’s far less well known than Robert Johnson’s, but his influence is at least as far reaching. In many ways, the recordings that Patton made up through his death in 1934 have become the prototype for a country blues song.
Like most acoustic blues performers, Patton played guitar because it allowed him to take the place of multiple instruments at the same time while still being portable. Unlike many later blues musicians who played in bands, Patton, along with many other itinerant guitarists of the same time, was his own accompaniment.
To help keep time, and to drive his songs forward, Patton would hit the body of his guitar, using it as both a melodic and percussion instrument.
Patton mostly played in Open G tuning — also sometimes called Spanish tuning — but one of his most famous songs, Spoonful Blues, is in Open D tuning.
This video gives some insight into how the song is played and the setup for slide.
Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground – Blind Willie Johnson
The nickname “Blind” was fairly common among blues players at the turn of the 20th Century. Among the most famous were Blind Lemon Jefferson, who recorded multiple albums and Blind Willie McTell, who ended up having a song written about him by Bob Dylan.
One of those players, Blind Willie Johnson, might take some exception to being categorized as a blues musician. After all, the blues is the devil’s music, and Johnson was a preacher, something he’d wanted to be since childhood.
That shows in the choice of song, too. The song “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” developed from an 18th Century English hymn, “Gethsemane.”
The title comes from the hymn’s first line, “Dark was the night, cold was the ground / on which my Lord was laid.”
But Johnson’s version doesn’t have lyrics. He uses his guitar, along with moans, shouts, and cries to get the point of the hymn across without speaking a word.
Johnson’s virtuoso work on the song has inspired innumerable musicians, including Ry Cooder, and has been launched into space.
This video gives an overview of a number of slide techniques that are essential when playing the blues while giving you a good understanding of how to play “Dark Was The Night.”
The tab is here.
Blues musicians certainly aren’t the only ones who take advantage of Open D tuning, but there is a long and rich tradition of open tuning being used by blues players.
Not only does it make playing chords far easier, with a six-string option available for every major chord just by barring the fretboard, It also helps fingerstyle players balance between low end and high end while also balancing the rhythm and the melody.
These songs are just a few examples, but the techniques you’ll learn by mastering them will set you up to pick up even more blues songs even more quickly. If you want to mix things up, you can also check out our other list of songs including a broad collection of songs in C sharp!
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.