Messing With Alternate Tunings: DADGAD

Most beginners and even intermediate players are afraid of tuning to anything that's not standard tuning or a downtuned variant - this article aims to help you break out of that.

Messing With Alternate Tunings: DADGAD
58
The prospect of using an alternate tuning often used to scare me, and when I'd hear about guitarists using funky tunings like CGCGCE or DADF#AE I would have trouble understanding why. I mean, standard gets you what you need, right? If you crave a little touch of heaviness you could drop down to Drop D or even D Standard if the drop got in the way of your riffing. That could go on to C# Standard, C, and so on - the key thing that I needed was the same intervallic relationship between the strings that I had grown so accustomed to.

It was Andy McKee's "Drifting" that opened my eyes to DADGAD tuning (and fittingly that's the tuning I chose to write about first) and after some deliberation I tuned my acoustic to it. It took me a while to get accustomed to how exactly I could use the tuning to create the same emotions that I could otherwise easily convey with standard, but after enough tinkering I discovered that it not only was capable of similar things, but even more on the side that standard tuning could not hope to achieve (or at least, without some seriously weird shapes!)

I'm writing this article, which I hope won't be the last of its kind as since then I've experimented with tons of different tunings, to help any curious guitarists wanting to try out a new tuning but unwilling to take the plunge due to the unfamiliarity of it all. Hopefully this will speed up the process of familiarizing yourself to a new tuning and creating whole new soundscapes with it in no time.

I'm going to assume a basic knowledge of standard tuning, as I'll try to explain things within the framework of that, as well as how intervals work because that makes things a lot easier to explain.

(One quick note - this is supposed to give a knowledge of the basics of the tuning, and is in no way in depth. I'm explaining the basics so that you can familiarize yourself with it and not feel totally lost, but I can't explain everything!)

Tuning to DADGAD

This part's pretty simple. You're only going to be dropping the 1st, 2nd, and 6th strings one step.
  • The 6th string, low E, is dropped one step to D;
  • The 2nd string, B, is dropped one step to A;
  • The 1st string, high E, is dropped one step to D.
Let's examine the tuning itself. Playing all the open strings at once forms a Dsus4 chord, which has the advantage of not being major or minor, unlike standard tuning. This allows you to make good use of open strings to establish a key or whatnot while making things as major or as minor as you please.

Basic Chords

You have three D's and two A's, which is convenient as A is the fifth of D - the odd one out is the lone G string, which, to me at least, forms the basis for the tuning. To understand what I mean, try playing this, and try not to strum too fast so that each of the strings can ring out clearly, especially the G string (and yes, that's an 11):

D|--0----------------------------------|
A|--0----------------------------------|
G|--11---------------------------------|
D|--0----------------------------------|
A|--0----------------------------------|
D|--0----------------------------------|

It sounds all whimsical and pretty, doesn't it? Well there's your D Major chord. That's a full triad with D, A, and F#, and you can play it with one finger! But there's got to be more than just that, right?

D|--0-------0------0---------------------|
A|--0-------0------0---------------------|
G|--10------1------2---------------------|
D|--0-------0------0---------------------|
A|--0-------0------0---------------------|
D|--0-------0------0---------------------|

That first chord is a D Minor (D, A, and F), which you will probably recognize. That second one, however, is absolutely menacing! Over there you've got a b5 on your G string. That last one, however, sounds like a fuller version of what all the strings played open sounds like. That's because it's nothing more than a D5 - you're playing three D's and three A's there. And there's one of the biggest advantages of DADGAD - being able to play fifth chords with six whole strings. This gives a full, rich sound to the simplest building block of rock music - the power chord. The shape is totally moveable, so do what you want with it. Play out a simple power chord-based progression from a Green Day song or something and notice how much richer it is when played with this shape.

Moving on; playing other major or minor chords that are not rooted in D is a chore for some people, but really shouldn't be that big of a problem once you get used to it:

D|------------------------------------|
A|------------------------------------|
G|--5------2--------------------------|
D|--7------3--------------------------|
A|--7------3--------------------------|
D|--7------3--------------------------|

That first chord is your run of the mill A Minor, with the second one being an F Major. These shapes are also moveable - the problem is, beginners usually have trouble with these as they entail holding down more than one string with a single finger. For example, for the F Major, I would use my middle finger to barre the third fret and my index on the second. The middle finger is curved just enough for the G string to have space to ring out.

If this is far too problematic, you can also use all four fingers, with the index on the second and the other three fingers on the third. Whichever works for you. I wouldn't want to impose anything because whatever gets a better sound and is more comfortable generally works out in the end.

Scales

A good way to give you a feel for the intervallic relationships between the strings is show you how the good old fashioned A Pentatonic Minor shape looks transposed directly:

D|------------------------7-10----------|
A|-------------------7-10---------------|
G|---------------5-7--------------------|
D|-----------5-7------------------------|
A|-------5-7----------------------------|
D|--7-10--------------------------------|
There are obviously more ways to play this so that the hand stays in the same position, but with this I can get my main point across - the notes on the 1st, 2nd, and 6th strings are 'moved' forward two frets. Playing a scale shape should be done with this in mind. Worth noting is the fact that the G and A strings are merely two semitones apart - so when playing a legato run and moving across those two strings, I usually just jump to the next position to avoid playing the same note twice accidentally. It's not at all necessary, again, but just a handy little thing to know when attempting to improvise.

Here's the same pentatonic played in the 7th position alone:

D|------------------------7-10----------|
A|---------------------10---------------|
G|-----------------7-9------------------|
D|------------7-10----------------------|
A|-------7-10---------------------------|
D|--7-10--------------------------------|

At the same time, this is how I would play an A Natural Minor scale:

D|--------------------------------7-9-10--|
A|-------------------------7-8-10---------|
G|---------------------5/7----------------|
D|---------------5-7-9--------------------|
A|---------5-7-8--------------------------|
D|--7-9-10--------------------------------|

(Note the slide on the G string - this allows my left hand to get in position for the runs on the A and D strings. This also involves a little rolling motion from the G onto the A string, and if you haven't gotten than down it's definitely worth practicing)

Here's an A Major:
D|-----------------------------------9-11--|
A|---------------------------9-11-12-------|
G|---------------------6-7/9---------------|
D|---------------6-7-9---------------------|
A|---------5-7-9---------------------------|
D|--7-9-11---------------------------------|
There are many different ways to play this - mess with the shapes and go with what's comfortable and sounds best to your ear. Remember that this is just a starting point and not a strict guideline!

Lastly, this is a tiny pentatonic based lick that I used to remind myselfabout the relationship between the G and A strings:
D|------------------------------------|
A|------8---8-10b-/8---8--------------|
G|--5/7---7----------7---7-5/7--------|
D|------------------------------------|
A|------------------------------------|
D|------------------------------------|
It's simple and yet is a good way to remember through the way they sound how those two strings were related (seeing as that was the hardest thing to wrap my initially-alternate-tuning-phobic head around at first).

Sample DADGAD Riffs

One of the most famous DADGAD songs would be Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir". Jimmy Page was a huge fan of the tuning, and recorded a full-on guitar instrumental called "White Summer" in DADGAD which is worth checking out for more insight on the tuning. It's a great song both to listen to and to dissect, but something like that is beyond the scope of this article for now.

Here's one of the riffs from "Kashmir", showcasing the use of open strings that DADGAD allows:
D|-12--12--10--10--7--7--5--5--3--3-------------------|
A|-0---0---0---0---0--0--0--0--0--0-------------------|
G|-12--11--10--9---7--6--5--4--3--2-------------------|
D|-0---0---0---0---0--0--0--0--0--0--3--2--0----------|
A|----------------------------------------------------|
D|----------------------------------------------------|
This iconic riff has a D5 running through it in the form of the open D and A strings, while a descending minor scale is played on the high D string. That coupled with the descending chromatic on the G string gives a really cool, sort of middle eastern feel, while the constancy of the D root in the open strings allows it to resolve nicely with that final D note.

Here's another one - this one's a snippet of Andy McKee's "Drifting", and while he plays it with his left hand over the neck and his right hand tapping out some of the notes, this one riff is equally possible with a pick and still sounds similar.
D|--------------------0--0-0--0--0------|
A|--------------------0--0-0--0--0------|
G|------------11\9p0--9--9-9--9--9/11---|
D|----9/11/12---------0--0-0--0--0------|
A|--------------------9--9-9--9--9------|
D|--/9----------------0--0-0--0--0------|
While the song itself is largely in the key of E, what makes this little bit special is the Dadd9 near the end, which sounds rich and full with all the open strings ringing out. It's a pretty amazing sound that standard tuning simply cannot achieve.

Octaves

This might seem like a bit of a redundant section, as anyone could figure out where to find octaves in minutes, but since it'll take me a second to type up and just might help someone out there I might as well include it.
D|--0-------5--------------------------|
A|------0------------------------------|
G|------2---0--------------------------|
D|--0----------------------------------|
A|------0------------------------------|
D|--0----------------------------------|
Those are D, A, and G respectively. And now, on to the last section...

Advantages and Disadvantages of DADGAD

Advantages:
  • allows for heavy usage of open strings for a richer sound to even the most basic chords;
  • scale shapes are not all that different from standard, and the 'shift' on the altered strings is always two frets forward, so it's not that hard to get used to;
  • the relationships between the strings make this a great tuning for percussive fingerstyle guitar techniques, allowing you to play power chords with a single finger, and also to play slap harmonics that form an actual great-sounding chord (for example, try playing the 12th natural harmonic on the four higher strings).
Disadvantages:
  • chords beyond the basic triads, such as Maj7's, m7b5's, and so on might take a while to figure out and generally require some extraneous stretching.
That's all for today, folks. Let me know if it helped, or if it sucked so hard that you flipped a table and felt an urge to wrestle with an oversized walrus. This is my first article and constructive criticism is absolutely welcome. Hopefully if enough people find this helpful I might make more, as I've been messing with a whole ton of alternate tunings for a while and would love to share what took me some time to figure out. Thanks for reading!

58 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    TheNameOfNoone
    This is pretty good. Why don't you do an article about Fripp's standard tuning? It would be interesting to see what you can get out of it. I tuned my guitar to his tuning once and I could only play experimental/noise shred...
    Aays
    Definitely will do, been meaning to get on New Standard for a while. Glad you liked the article!
    theogonia777
    The key to New Standard (CGDAEG) is that you have to almost approach it as if it were a mandocello or octave mandolin, since it is basically tuned like those two (CGDA and GDAE respectively). Basically any sort of chord voicings and scale shapes from the mando family (or violin family, if that tickles your fancy) work in New Standard. Try that, and once you get the hang of it, you can work the highest string into your chord voicings.
    TheNameOfNoone
    I never played mandolin or violin...
    theogonia777
    What I'm saying is that you could at least try looking up chord/scale charts for mandolin, and that would be a good place to start, since there is relatively few resources out their for playing New Standard, but there are plenty for playing other string instruments that are tuned in 5ths. And because of the similar tunings, many of the same tricks and licks will work on both instruments.
    iommi600
    Sonic Youth taught me all I know about alternate tuning. Seriously though, great lesson.
    xonty
    Great article, really useful I always loved DADGAD since I first heard Kashmir and White Summer/Black Mountainside
    joestrong
    Hey this is a really interesting article! I think I'll probably refrain from this as I want to continue practicing my standard E tuning at the moment, but I'm sure I'll give this a go when I'm ready for it
    Mind_Reader7
    Why're you knocking CGCGCE? I use that tuning 99% of the time. Open tunings are the bomb
    Aays
    Not knocking it at all, I've had one of my guitars tuned to Open C for about two months now. Gotta love me some Devin Townsend
    unicornicopia
    I tuned my guitar to EAC#C#AE the other day and it's great to mess around in. Another really fun one is BEBEBE, check out From The Morning by Nick Drake.
    howamidriving?
    playing with alternate tunings is a great way to get away from coming up with the same stuff over and over. like someone said above it can be like playing a new instrument. i find it pretty liberating
    Krautschädl91
    This is the best article I've read on this site thus far. You took your time and got your point across brilliantly! I'd have never thought that anything would get me to stray from standard (or dropD) and that first section of the article also described my feelings towards different tunings: why hussle myself learning new relationships, what are the benefits? But after reading this, I'm totally stoked to try DADGAD on my 'coustic this very weekend!! Cheers mate
    jay3213
    When I first started playing around with tunings, it was like I was playing a new guitar each time.
    snixer724
    Yep, exactly what I want to do after reading an article on different tunings. I want to buy clothing.
    bigkel23
    This is the first lesson Ive read on UG in years where the poster hasnt had the shit kicked out of him saying it was rubbish! Respect
    Clarkinator
    I've only messed with this tuning a couple times, but it sounds really cool. This lesson has me itching to explore it further. The only open tuning I use somewhat often is open D, I just find it easier after years and years of playing in standard and drop D. I think that is a good tuning to use to bridge into the other open tunings, at least it was for me. Plus, capo the second fret and you've got open E.
    watfordkev
    When I tried open tunings it shocked me to hear how plangent and beautiful it sounded, and made me think that acoustic guitars in particular really are meant to be tuned more empathically than EADGBE...
    Paul_96
    This one's pretty good. Kashmir by Led Zeppelin is a great (actually simple) song to practice playing with this certain tuning.
    SHartsell
    If you play guitar and never played in any tuning other than standard then you need to branch out a little from Taylor Swift
    riskyhabit
    All that the song "Drifting" did to me was make me pretend my acoustic was a pair of bongos!
    joshua orrego
    nah i appreciated this article. in fact i wish there was more articles on DADGAD tuning. im doing a lot of these covers and im writing my own song in this tuning...itheres a lot of prettiness in this tuning but im not completely familiar with it
    krm27
    Very good article, even for relative beginner like me, opened my eyes to why people stray from standard tuning. Still, probably be some time before I try it myself. Actually, open tunings are peaking my curiousity as well as tuning to all fifths (or even all fourths). I look forward to reading more from you on the different options.
    bendeschaad
    Good article. Another altered tuning often used by Keith Richards of the Stones: low to high E to D; A to G; D, G, B all stay regular and high E down to D. Gives you an open G chord. Us old musicians would try to get the sound of Richards on 'Honky Tonk Woman' with standard tuning. Only later did we figure out he tuned to an open G. Also used it on numerous other Stones songs i.e Tumbling Dice.
    RutvikGuitar
    Nice one! But i felt you should have included a mention of davy graham.....father of DADGAD tuning
    zackfeld52
    Very cool lesson. I've always been a bit alternate tuning-adverse, but I've found some really cool tricks with this one. I love being able to use it to get a fuller sound out of power chords, but it has made some new songs in my repitoire much easier and in some cases, better sounding. I personally have been using the same tuning but a full step up (EBEABE), but I think in the future, I'll stick to the step down to take advantage of drop D tuning.
    Virtuosofreak
    It's a great introduction to Alternative guitar tunings. The greatest thing about this article is that it makes you more interested in trying out alternative tunings. It's well thought out,it's got very good examples,and it is very informative. Mostly,the first,and often the ONLY alternative tuning that a beginner/intermediate guitarist will get acquainted with and really use will be a Drop D/Drop C tuning,which differs very little from the standard tuning. Only some will be courageous enough to go try it on their own. I, personally, was in the middle of both,because i thought about it,and knew,that to a some degree,the standard tuning was limiting. But,after reading this article,I've become more curious,and willing to try out the DADGAD tuning. This article does wonders. I were asked what guitar lessons are the most worth putting your money in,then i'd say it's this one. So, it's a 10 from me. Great job,dude!!!!
    nanonun
    Nice article. Simple and to the point. Read some of the comments and one pointed out guitar(s). You definitely need more than one guitar for alternate tuning. Makes life simple.
    Octavarium85
    DADFAE is also a really cool tuning. I found out about that one from Opeth's Ghost Reveries album.
    Aays
    That's a great album and an equally awesome tuning! I LOVE Opeth and it always makes me happy when they're mentioned by basically anyone. I'm slightly more inclined to Dadd9 (DADF#AE) though (but that's just me)
    xijack
    that's almost the same as vestapol except for the e note, is it better for chords?
    Aays
    It allows you to play a Dadd9 chord open and any add9 chords with a single finger. Really useful when it comes to percussive acoustic guitar. I hope to cover it in a later article since it's one of my favourite tunings
    TheMetalMan94
    Haha as I was reading this I was like wait... isn't this the tuning Jimmy Page uses a lot then I read the part about him. Great lesson man I hope you make more!
    Patrijz
    Tremonti made me familiar with open tunings with Alter Bridge. I think he mostly uses 'open D5' (or B5 on his solo record), which would be DADADD I guess. I love how it can sound, but I feel that he tends to over-use the open top strings.
    tinyhands2
    Thanks for posting this. I haven't strayed away from Standard except for Drop D,C, and B. I've always seen people playing weird tunings but never wanted to try it myself until now. Also thanks for all the different bands who use them (in comments), it's nice to hear them and see how the guitar sounds.
    pb15994
    Justin King often uses a DADGAD tuning too. You should check out "Knock on wood" and "Phunkdified" if you like that tuning.