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Watch the Intro to DADGAD Tuning online guitar lesson by Tony McManus from The Celtic Journeyman

The next tuning concept is DADGAD tuning. It’s easy to get bamboozled by tunings; lists of letters- it looks like algebra and they can intimidate the student. The thing to do to lessen that intimidation is to get your head around how the tuning relate to one another. How do they relate to standard tuning? Do they relate to standard tuning? If not, do they relate to something you already know? Is it an open chord? Is it close to being a chord? If not, how is it altered from a chord? What’s the nearest chord to it? Those questions can “tame” guitar tunings. If you just see a list of letters you think “what does that mean? It’s just a strange looking word”.

Well, how did it come about? Let’s tune to that- very attractive sound! The history of this guitar tuning goes all the way to.....1964! It’s one of the few concepts in guitar that can be traced back to one individual. This tuning was invented by Davy Graham who was a UK player of mixed origin- his father was Scottish and his mother from Guyana in South America. So, he grew up with a very eclectic mixture of music rattling around his head. He was an innately gifted guitar played in standard tuning- a great chord/ melody player. Davy went off to explore the world and before there was a hippy trail to Asia he did it! He went to India, North Africa, Pakistan etc. and came back with a ton of music and a frustration that standard tuning wasn’t quite doing it. He couldn’t get standard tuning to work with some of the music he was hearing. So, he had this brilliant idea- he came up with DADGAD. So how does it relate to something you’re familiar with? If you’re not familiar with this tuning you may be familiar with this- all I did was take the 3rd string down to F# and you have straight open D tuning. That’s way older than 1964! Lots of the old blues guys used that tuning. Singer songwriters would be lost without open D! I’m a huge Joni Mitchell fan and she used it extensively- though I don’t. It doesn’t really seem to suit Celtic music and it didn’t suit a lot of the music Davy was hearing either and nor did standard but he had this great idea. You have a very “happy” major third right in the middle of this string of notes....but Celtic music is ‘miserable’ so you don’t want a big happy major third in the middle. If you went down another step you’d have open D minor. Davy didn’t go in that direction- he went the other way. It’s not a happy major third and not a sad, lonesome minor third. It’s a perfect fourth and there’s no particular emotion attached to that interval- it’s not happy or sad but whatever you want it to be. It doesn’t tell a story for you....you can tell your own story.

So, Davy came up with this idea- DADGAD and started arranging all sorts of what would now be called “World Music” as if there’s music coming from Venus and Saturn. He arranged music from India- “Sita Ram” was one of his big “hits” in the 60s.

DADGAD spread like wildfire and quickly, lots of players of different genres were using this tuning for wildly different purposes. Whether you know the tuning or not you’ve probably heard it. Here’s the most famous lick ever in DADGAD- Kashmir! Jimmy Page got the tuning from Scottish guitarist Bert Jansch. There’s probably lots of stuff in this tuning you’ve heard and not realised it’s in DADGAD.

It’s very useful. You can play in the major key and very easily you can swap to D minor. Very often you’re using open string as they just sit there and ring. There are chord voicings in this tuning you won’t get in Standard so it’s a very useful tool. The danger is that it’s easy to slip into playing in clichés. So, we’ll look at some interesting arrangements in this tuning without falling into standard patterns.