Messing With Alternate Tunings: DADGAD

author: Aays date: 01/07/2013 category: guitar techniques
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Messing With Alternate Tunings: DADGAD
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):


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?


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:


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.


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:

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:


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


(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:


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 myself about the relationship between the G and A strings:


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:


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.


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.


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.


Those are D, A, and G respectively. And now, on to the last section...

Advantages and Disadvantages of DADGAD

  • 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).
  • 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!
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