The Big Daddy of Alternate Tunings

DADGAD tuning comes with its own mystical vibe. Maybe it's all those droning D's, providing lovely harmonic accompaniment to the A's and the G. If you're ever trying to write a song and you get stuck, play around with this tuning. It can really be inspiring, and it's fun to hear new sounds spring from familiar fingerings.

It was only thirtysomething years ago that the hauntingly beautiful DADGAD tuning was developed by English fingerstyle guitarist Davey Graham. To date, a French virtuoso by the name Pierre Bensusan has made the most recordings in DADGAD, playing entire concerts and albums, including Spices and Solilai in the tuning.

You may be more familiar with Led Zeppelin than Bensusan, and that's okay, because Jimmy Page loves this tuning, too. Check out "Black Mountain Side" on Led Zeppelin I to hear Page's adaptation of the English traditional song "Black Water Side" in DADGAD.

So how do you get there?

Well, first drop your 6th string (the lowest string) to D. To do it without a tuner, simply hit your fourth string, which is already at D, and drop your 6th string an octave below it. Now you're in dropped-D, a favorite tuning of Soundgarden, Nirvana, Helmet -- all those heavy dudes.

That's another cool thing about DADGAD -- it still lets you hammer out with those heavy one-finger power chords you can play in dropped-D. For guitarists who haven't figured this out yet: dropped-D allows you to play barre chords that normally require all five digits with just one finger. For example, that A barre, which would be played in standard tuning like Diagram 1 , can be played in dropped-D like Diagram 2. So easy, yet so gnarly.

But let's get back to DADGAD. After you drop your 6th string to D, drop your 1st string from E to D as well. Match all three D's-the 6th string, the 4th, and the 1st. Now all you have to do is tune the 2nd string down from B to A. Strike the open 5th string and tune the 2nd string an octave higher; or, play an A on the 3rd string, 2nd fret, and match the 2nd string to that pitch. Voilà! DADGAD in three easy moves.

How To Go From Standard Tuning To DADGAD

1. drop the 6th string from E to D 2. drop the 1st string from E to D 3. drop the 2nd string from B to A

To get an idea of DADGAD's melodic potential, try the simple move outlined here in Diagram 3 strings like those shown here are commonly heard in DADGAD playing because the open strings provide chord tones. They can aid you in creating some amazing melodies and harmonies that sound complex yet can be played very simply.

Hammer-ons and Ringing 

The same goes for fingering chords in DADGAD. Simple chord shapes yield some beautiful sounds. For instance, the shape you would use to form a C chord in standard tuning becomes Cadd9 in DADGAD. The standard open D becomes D9. Just one finger on the 3rd string, 2nd fret, becomes a huge, ringing D5. Try moving this chord See Diagram 4, which is Cadd9 when played on the 2nd and 3rd fret, around the neck. It sounds very Zeppelinesque at the 5th and 6th frets and downright fairy-dusty at the 9th and 10th frets. Play around, make up your own chords -- Page didn't hit 'em all.

Speaking of playing around, this is a great tuning for jamming in the key of D. The D Major Scale is a little weird in this tuning Diagram 5, but all the D's available make it easy to improvise and surprise yourself while still staying in key (if you get stuck, you've got three open Ds to hit!). Try something nutty like this raga-sounding scale Diagram 6 over a minor or a bluesy jam in D. Don't forget that the 5th, 4th, and 3rd strings are the same as they would be in standard tuning, so you can throw in licks from your rock and blues fingerings as long as you stick to those strings. Remember, too, that you can use this tuning in other keys simply by slapping on a capo. Capo on the 2nd fret, for example, and you're in E major.

If you really take to this tuning, invest in Pierre Bensusan's book The Guitar Book. And check out recordings like "Peg Leg Speed King" by Michael Hedges (on Breakfast In The Field) and "Woman From Donori" by Stefan Grossman (Snap A Little Owl). You won't be disappointed, and you're playing will take one giant leap forward.

Debra Devi is the lead singer/guitarist for the rock band Devi. []

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