For most guitarists, alternate tunings are associated with the blues – the open G, open E and open D tunings that can be the perfect set-up for slide playing. While most of these tunings have been popularised by electric and acoustic players over many years, DADGAD tuning is somewhat different.
The origins of DADGAD – say it as a single word – are not even that clear. DADGAD was popularized by British folk guitarist Davey Graham, some saying he discovered it on a trip to Tangier in Morocco in the early 1960s, and it likely existed in North Africa and elsewhere for many years.
It’s not a “blues” tuning at all, it is what’s called a “modal” tuning. DADGAD is usually associated with fingerstyle folk playing, but it can do much more as we’ll see. Even if you use it rarely, DADGAD is a fantastic tuning to have in your armory.
Retuning your guitar to DADGAD is easy. From the standard EADGBE, you simply standard tune the first, second and sixth strings down a whole step (two frets). Strike all open strings and you will get a Dsus4 chord. That may initially feel like an odd place to start playing, but DADGAD offers many possibilities that can help you write new music and rejuvenate your sense of melody.
Here are some examples of DADGAD players in action, and they are more diverse than you might think.
Davey Graham is acknowledged as bringing DADGAD to a wider audience, but he certainly didn’t “invent” it. Yet Graham’s DADGAD tuning made an impression on many aspiring guitarists who were listening to his ’60s recordings, including Jimmy Page and Paul Simon. Graham’s most-famous use of DADGAD was on his arrangement of traditional U.K. folk song “She Moves Through the Fair.”
Other British folk acoyltes of the 1960s such as John Renbourn, Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy soon adopted DADGAD on some songs. Simon took note of the English folk style: his version of the traditional “Scarborough Fair” is almost identical to Martin Carthy’s and Simon also co-opted DADGAD tuning for later songs, notably “Armistice Day” from his Paul Simon album.
Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page was certainly listening to Graham and the other “baroque folk” masters. Page had played versions of “She Moves Through the Fair” while in The Yardbirds and later recorded the same basic tune as “White Summer” in Led Zeppelin.
Jimmy Page calls DADGAD “my CIA tuning” by which he means Celtic / Indian / Arabian. It’s an apt nickname, as the tuning can offer the pipe-like sounds of Scottish and Irish music as well as the drones of North African, Indian and Arabian musics. “I was well aware of a lot of ‘exotic’ music in the late ‘60s,” Page told this author. “I had a sitar and got interested in modal tunings, Arabic music. Jeff Beck would come round and listen. I wasn’t just listening to blues, I was trying to find all sorts of new ways for my playing.”
And, later, Page certainly developed more originality as a DADGAD player. Proving DADGAD is not just for folk, one of Led Zeppelin’s most-menacing tracks, “Kashmir,” is played in DADGAD tuning.
Think DADGAD is too old and folky? It doesn’t have to be. Slipknot’s “Circle” is in DADGAD, even if it sounds completely unlike Slipknot because of it.
DADGAD is not for every guitarist. Neil Young, for example, favors the more simple double-drop-D (DADGBD). And it is only the brave who will tune their guitar to DADGAD permanently. And if you expect to rip a blues-rock pentatonic solo in DADGAD, you better have elastic hands.
Even so, DADGAD is a tuning that can help you and your guitar sound like new. Go explore…