By Mark Hanson
In the late '50s, English fingerstyle patriarch Davey Graham developed one of the most attractive and versatile alternate tunings for guitar: DADGAD, commonly pronounced "Dad Gad." Davey invented it while living in Morocco to facilitate his playing with "oud" players. (An oud is a short-neck, Middle Eastern, lute-like instrument. To read about it, visit the Oud Home Page). Upon his return to England, the tuning quickly gained popularity among British guitarists playing traditional music, among them John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, and Jimmy Page. Later, DADGAD became the tuning of choice for great French fingerstylist Pierre Bensusan.
One of DADGAD's main attractions for guitarists is the rich, harp-like sonorities that can be produced with relatively easy chord fingerings. Since it does not explicitly state a modality (as D major and G major tunings do, for instance), DADGAD can be used to play in a variety of keys and modes.
The open strings of DADGAD produce a D suspended-fourth chord (root-fourth-fifth). The third of a D scale (F or F#), which would peg the tuning as major or minor, is missing from the open strings. Because of that, guitarists can use DADGAD as easily in the key of D minor as D major. It is an effective tuning in the key of G, and also works well for modal tunes and pieces with independent treble and bass lines.
To produce DADGAD from standard tuning, lower your sixth string one whole-step from E to D. Also lower your second string a whole-step from B to A, and your first string a whole-step from E to D. To make sure your guitar is in tune in DADGAD, match the seventh fret of the bass string to the open fifth string; match the second fret of the third string to the open second string; and match the fifth fret of the second string (already tuned down) to the open first string.
Scales in DADGAD
An initial disadvantage of any alternate tuning for standard-tuning players is that the chord and scale fingerings are different from standard. Some alternate tunings, such as Drop-D, are only slightly altered from standard and don't take much effort to learn. Others are a bit further away from standard, and consequently may take a bit more work.
If you have trouble fathoming alternate tunings, it may help you to think of the four bass strings of DADGAD as the same as Drop-D tuning. Or, if you prefer to compare DADGAD to standard tuning, the chords and scales on the third, fourth, and fifth strings are the same.
The two treble strings in DADGAD have the same relationship to each other as they do in standard tuning and Drop-D: a perfect fourth (five frets) apart in pitch. They are simply tuned one whole-step lower than standard. Any fingerings that you use in standard tuning will have to move two frets higher on the two treble strings in DADGAD to produce the same sound.
If you approach DADGAD in this manner, at least you will have a familiar basis from which to work. But don't get too hung up on trying to produce standard-tuning sounds with an alternate tuning. Likely, there will be times when you will want your voicings to sound the same as standard tuning, but the beauty of alternate tunings is the opportunity they provide to create new chords and new voicings, and to play scales with harp-like sustain. By being open to new chords and voicings, you will be able to take fuller advantage of an alternate tuning.
Keys of D Major and D Minor:
D Major and D Minor Scales
First we'll learn first-position scales for D major and D minor in DADGAD tuning. A bit later we'll work on a G major scale as well. Practice these until the positions are firmly in your brain and fingers.
You will notice that both of these scales use all of the open strings. The G major scale does also. This will prove to be very convenient as you start building chords from these notes.
I have diagrammed a variety of chord fingerings in DADGAD for the keys of D major and D minor. In the key of D major, the main chords are D, Em, F#m, G, A, and Bm. In the key of D minor, the main chords are Dm, F, Gm, Am, B-flat and C.
For each chord, I have shown the fingering for a triad (root-third-fifth), plus harmonically rich variations that are easy to finger in this tuning. Perhaps some of these fingerings will inspire you to compose a tune or two!
There are limitless variations on these fingerings, of course. I have diagrammed just a few to get you started. After you master these, experiment with fingerings of your own. With a little effort, you will find some very rich chords that are easy to play.
Key of G Major:
G Major Scale
After you have spent some time with D major and D minor, get accustomed to the key of G. First work on the scale. Again, notice that you use all of the open strings in this tuning.
Next, work on the chords. The main chords in the key of G are G, Am, Bm, C, D, and Em. The following chord diagrams show several G, C, and D fingerings that work well in DADGAD. You have already seen several other fingerings for G, C, and D in the chord diagrams for D major and D minor. Diagrams for the other chords of the key of G (Am, Bm and Em) also can be found in the D and D minor diagrams.
Oftentimes in a minor key the sixth and/or seventh notes of the scale may be played one half-step higher than normal. This takes you into the realm of "Dorian" mode, and melodic and harmonic minor. Explaining these in depth is beyond the scope of this article, but I will show you D dorian (a D minor scale with the B-flat note raised to a B-natural) to prepare you for "Twin Sisters." I have also included diagrams of the chords you will need for "Twin Sisters."
This is the first 20 measures of my fingerstyle guitar arrangement of "Twin Sisters," a tune that Doc and Merle Watson recorded on Doc And Merle Watson Down South. Doc flatpicked the tune, while Merle played clawhammer banjo. Merle used "mountain minor" tuning, the banjo's equivalent of DADGAD. The tune is in D dorian, using a B-natural instead of a B-flat. The full arrangement can be found in The Art of Solo Fingerpicking, available through Accent On Music, distributed by Music Sales.
Variations on DADGAD
Englishman Martin Carthy produced a lower-tuned version of DADGAD to better match the range of his singing voice. It is EADEAE (lowest pitch to highest), commonly called "A-pipe" tuning. The relationships of the five lowest-pitched strings of Carthy's tuning are the same as the five highest-pitched strings of DADGAD. All the fingerings are identical, but moved one string lower. Once you have learned your chords and scales for DADGAD, it is a relatively easy matter to play in A-pipe tuning as well.
Another interesting variation on DADGAD can be produced using the Third-Hand capo. This elastic-band style capo allows a guitarist to create the DADGAD sound from the open strings without retuning any strings. The Third-Hand capo has six individual cams, which allow the player to capo individual or groups of strings, while leaving other strings to vibrate from the nut.
To produce a DADGAD sound without retuning, capo the third, fourth, and fifth strings (G, D and A) at the second fret. Leave the first, second, and sixth strings open to the nut. This actually produces EBEABE, which is the equivalent of DADGAD capoed at the second fret.
The advantage of using the Third-Hand capo is that your scale fingerings and chord forms do not change from standard tuning, but you still have the advantages of the altered-tuning sound from the open strings. Essentially, you are still playing in standard tuning, but with the advantages of DADGAD-like open strings. Fingerstylists Chris Proctor and Harvey Reid, among others, use the Third-Hand capo to great effect.
Thorough discussions of alternate tunings are included in two books available through our company, Accent On Music. The Complete Book of Alternate Tunings and Alternate Tunings Picture Chords both contain substantial amounts of information about DADGAD and dozens of other tunings.
Selected DADGAD Recordings
Pierre Bensusan: "Four A.M." and "Last Pint" Spices
John Renbourn: "A Maid That's Deep In Love" A Maid That's Deep In Love
Peppino D'Agostino: "The Genie" Acoustic Spirit
Jimmy Page: "Black Mountain Side" Led Zeppelin
Martin Simpson: "Garryowen" When I Was On Horseback
Michael Hedges: "Ragamuffin" Aerial Boundaries
Chris Proctor: "704" Travelogue
Third-Hand Capo "DADGAD" Tunes
(Standard tuning, with the Third, fourth and fifth strings capoed at the second fret)
Harvey Reid: "Suite For The Duchess" (I'm not sure which CD)
Chris Proctor: "Mountaineer Creek" Travelogue