• OVERVIEW •
Resembles a Standard-tuned ‘0-2-2-2-0-0’ Esus4 shape in terms of interval structure. Neither major nor minor, DADGAD’s ambiguous open-chord resonance offers up incredible versatility, ideal for exploring the musical variety of many global traditions. Regardless of what you play, there’s always a certain fundamental stability to the tuning’s character, partly arising from an abundance of parallel octaves (6-4-1str=D, 5-2str=A) – useful for double-stops and powerful vertical melodies (i.e. going up and down the neck rather than across the strings).
Popularised by Davy Graham in the 1960s (…DADGAD’s dad?), who developed it via jamming with oud (fretless lute) players while travelling North Africa, before bringing his ideas back to the folk scenes of the British Isles. (n.b. The tuning’s nickname of ‘Celtic’ refers to its expansive facilities for playing Celtic folk rather than its geographical origins: although who knows which artists may have used it there in the more distant past? Many tunings have been independently discovered multiple times…).
Harmony: Dsus4 | 1-5-1-4-5-1
• TUNING TONES •
• SOUNDS •
Famously associated with Davy Graham (1940-2008), the most globally-minded innovator from Britain’s ‘folk revival’ of the 1960s. Graham’s friend, fellow folk fingerpicking legend John Renbourn, eloquently describes the tale of the tuning’s inception: “Davy was recorded live at the Troubadour in Earl’s Court, shortly after he had got back from Tangier [Morocco’s northernmost city]. In North Africa, he’d come up with a new tuning, more compatible with the music of the oud: DADGAD. He [explored] the modal characteristics of the old Irish air – the arrangement unfolding from a slow beginning, and then drawn out, and danced with, only to be put back gently and reverently…”.
Witness this history in action with Graham’s 1963 performance of She Moved Through The Fair below, live on BBC TV’s Hullabaloo show – cited by some as DADGAD’s first major public showcase. (n.b. His guitar is actually tuned ‘down a tone’ to CGCFGC, but the 2fr capo restores things to DADGAD). Later, he would expand the piece into various globally-inclined medleys (e.g. She Moved Thru’ the Bizarre/Blue Raga).
- She Moved Through The Fair – Davy Graham (1963):
“I found that studying languages and music was the same thing. One should always learn another language, to release yourself from thought patterns in your own language. Speaking English, which is a forest of metaphor, is to some extent a mixed blessing. Every time you breathe out, some of your thoughts pass into the void, where they’re picked up on by those around you. Those thoughts aren’t always understood when you’re in another country…”
Subsequently used by many other folk-inclined British artists from Graham’s era onwards: e.g. Nick Drake (Far Leys/Sketch 1) and John Martyn (Bless The Weather, Man in the Station, When it’s Dark, Lay It All Down, Fine Lines, Make No Mistake, Spencer the Rover, Knuckeldy Crunch and Slipplidee-Slee) – whereas guitarist and mandolist Martin Carthy adapted it to D-A-D-E-A-E).
Also famously borrowed by another Graham acolyte, Jimmy Page: transpositions appear on Kashmir, Midnight Moonlight, Black Mountain Side (a, umm, very faithful imitation of Bert Jansch’s Blackwater Side), and White Summer, -1 (not much of a surprise, given that it’s just a rework of Graham’s She Moved Through The Fair from above).
- Sketch 1 (‘Far Leys’) – Nick Drake (~1972):
More recent British DADGAD explorers include steel-string Leeds wizard Jon Gomm (on his inventive cover of Radiohead’s High and Dry, -2), and peg-twirling Devon songwriter Ben Howard (on In Dreams, Am I in Your Light, Wildest Moments, and most of Noonday Dream).
Also used by countless Celtic folk artists (e.g. Dáithí Sproule & Mícheál Ó Domhnaill), as well as by many steel-string icons – including Oklahoma virtuoso Michael Hedges (Ragamuffin), Canadian composer Erik Mongrain (The Silent Fool), Oregon thumb-slapper Justin King (Knock on Wood), Kansas star Andy McKee (who used it for his multi-layered viral classic Drifting), and French-Algerian star Pierre Bensusan (who rarely tuned to anything else).
- High and Dry – Jon Gomm (2017):
It also turns up on Dave Kushner’s This Life (the Sons of Anarchy theme), and Al Petteway Sligo Creek (used to summon nature vibes as the theme for PBS’ National Parks: America’s Best Idea) – plus Sungha Jung’s much-viewed arrangement of The Titanic’s title song (My Heart Will Go On, cp.3), and Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers’ setting of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here.
Other instances include Jamie Bell’s Jazz DADGAD project, songwriting duo The Civil Wars (Barton Hollow), Scottish alt-rockers Del Amitri (Tell Her This, cp.6), post-hardcore group Unwound (Below the Salt), and multi-instrumentalist Mike Kinsella (The Sad Waltzes Of Pietro Crespi).
And a few more (thanks to Dipanshu’s list), from various popular styles: Niall Horan (Black & White), Slipknot (Circle, cp.2), Meadows (The Only Boy Awake, cp.3), Steel Panther (That’s When You Came In), and Ed Sheeran (Photograph: although in some live shows he uses E-A-D-E-B-E to minimise mid-set retuning: the same as for Nick Drake’s Road).
- Joy Spring – Jamie Bell (2018):
DADGAD’s balanced open-string harmony also makes it an ideal base for guitarists who explore even further from the norm: such as Mike Dawes’ lap-tapping techniques, Alan Miller’s ‘bowed guitar’, featuring an extra set of 13 sitar-like ‘sympathetic’ strings, and Scott Walker’s droning fretless design, fitted with a buzzing ‘contact bridge’ – which, like the jawari of the Indian tanpura – ‘grazes’ the edge of the string as it oscillates, altering its overtone profile and harmonic properties.
Also see my full World of Tuning article on what happens when you tune to DADGAD, capo at 11fr, and then pluck on ‘both sides of the bar’: summoning some ethereal, microtonal magic from what is effectively now a 12-string harp (Double-siding: a DIY harp-capo hack). Other DADGAD oddities include an instrumental entitled Interconnectedness: embedded as one stage of the mysterious multi-step cryptographic puzzle known as CICADA 3301 (for more musical cryptography, see my article on ‘spelling-derived melodies’: Alpha-melodics: the hidden sounds of words).
- Bowed Guitar Demo – Alan Miller (2015):
—Geometric sustenance [warning: chord theory]: DADGAD’s ambiguous stability is underpinned by the ‘balance’ of sustained-chord harmony. A so-called ‘sus’ chord is one where the 3rd degree has been replaced with either a 2nd or a 4th – i.e. the tones immediately above and below it (think about Emaj, with tones ‘1-3-5’, as ‘0-2-2-1-0-0′, vs. Esus4, ‘1-4-5’, as ‘0-2-2-2-0-0′: the maj. 3rd, raised by a semitone, becomes a perf. 4th).
Chords are classed as major or minor depending on the character of the 3rd – meaning that sus chords, which have no 3rd, fall into neither category. See this with Standard‘s open-position A & D shapes:
- Asus2 (=1-2-5): x-0-2-2-0-0
- Amin (=1-b3-5): x-0-2-2-1-0
- Amaj (=1-3-5): x-0-2-2-2-0
- Asus4 (=1-4-5): x-0-2-2-3-0
(sus2/min/maj/sus4 shapes in A & D)
Sustained harmonies also present other balance-contributing quirks. A sus4, made of tones 1-4-5, is essentially ‘a root + a perfect 5th above + a perfect 5th below’. After all, 4ths are like ‘upside down’ 5ths (hence going down 7 frets – a perfect 5th – gives the same note as if you’d gone up 5 frets – a perfect 4th – i.e. a 6str 5fr A tone becomes an E whether you add 7 to reach 12fr, or subtract 5 for the open string).
Further ambiguity is added by the fact that all sus2 chords can be seen as ‘modal’ rotations of sus4 chords: if you treat the sus2’s 5th as your new root, you get a sus4 chord starting from that note. Naturally, the same is also true in reverse (i.e. if you make the sus4’s 4th the root, you get a sus2). On the fretboard, you can see this in the overlapping shapes of Esus4 and Asus2 (0-2-2-2-0-0 vs. x-0-2-2-0-0), or Asus4 and Dsus2 (x-0-2-2-3-0 vs. x-x-0-2-3-0): each pair just reshuffles the same three notes (E-A-B = A-B-E and A-D-E = D-E-A). Thus, DADGAD is both Dsus4 and Gsus2.
But, as ever, don’t stress over theoretical abstractions – such things become clear through internalising the sounds…just go forth and explore!
- Drifting – Andy McKee (2006):
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• NUMBERS •
- See my Tunings Megatable for further such nerdery: more numbers, intervallic relations, comparative methods, etc. And to any genuine vibratory scientists reading: please critique my DIY analysis!
• RELATED •
—Associated tunings: proximities of shape, concept, context, etc…
- Open Dm (this with 3str -2): the minor sibling
- Ead-Gad (this with 6str +2): the ‘no-drop’ cousin
- Papa-Papa (this with 3str -5): a dyadic relative
• MORE INFO •
—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…
- DADGAD horizons: check out more in the tuning with a well-selected song list from Pick Up The Guitar, plus a focused rundown from Fretterverse – and also check out my other DADGAD-relevant connections within the World of Tuning project, including the Altered-tuned Artists listings for Nick Drake, John Martyn, Jimmy Page, Jon Gomm, Ben Howard, Michael Hedges, Andy McKee, and Erik Mongrain (somehow, I can’t trace Joni Mitchell ever having used it), and the capo-harp microtonal tricks in the Double-siding article (Fred Frith: “Everything musicians have learned and known over the years – all of their technical resources – are in a dialogue with the things they are discovering…as if it was the first time…”)
- Davy Graham: as a fellow globally-inclined British guitarist, I can only marvel at the life and works of this great innovator: start with his 1965 Folk, Blues, & Beyond album and the 1978 Complete Guitarist compilation, and learn more about his erudite creative approach in the aforementioned interview with his friend and collaborator John Renbourn – plus an overview from Charleston Classical (“Graham became very active in mental health [activism] through the organisation Mind. He had…seen many of his friends and colleagues go down a path without the help they needed. Graham wanted to be a participant in making a change of his own. He could also speak…many languages, including Gaelic, French, Greek, and Turkish…”)
Header image: Davy Graham (DADGAD’s dad) in the 1960s
George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!
“An intrepid guitar researcher…”
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