• Zen Drone (‘Dulcimeric’) tuning •



Intriguing two-tone drone associated with writer, educator, and New York street-busker Philip Toshio Sudo, author of the cult-classic 1997 book Zen Guitar – aimed at providing a gateway to spontaneous improvisation for players of all abilities. I applaud his participative sentiments, and the immediacy of the tuning’s freedoms (…but you’ve gotta be careful not to shatter the calm by snapping the high-set 3str).


I guess patience is probably the key – although Sudo’s work teems with electrified, ever-present curiosity. He calls on us to find our own paths to katsu: ‘the roar of a person who knows what it means to be alive’…the sound of the divine spark within us all. Like the cry of a child or the howl of a wolf, it transcends language and culture”.


Sudo later became known for applying Zen insights to his experience of terminal cancer. In his words, “My main creative focus during this process has been on making music…I’ve been bringing my laptop [and] recording musical compositions while the chemo is being administered”.

Pattern: 7>5>7>0>5
Harmony: D5 | 1-5-1-5-5-1


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In the introductory chapter to Zen Guitar, Philip Toshio Sudo (1958-2002) outlines his eclectic creative blend: “My approach to the guitar brings in various teachings from the zen arts of Asia: martial arts such as karate and aikido, brush-style calligraphy, samurai swordsmanship, and the Japanese tea ceremony…Follow the samurai maxim that says, ‘From one thing, know ten thousand things’.”


His book mixes ideas from these ancient arts with apt insights from modern-age guitar icons (I gotta say, a truly stellar selection: e.g. Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Joni Mitchell, John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, Chet Atkins, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Allan Holdsworth, Frank Zappa, Neil Young, Stone Gossard, Carlos Santana, George Benson, Pat Martino, Joe Pass, Johnny Winter, Steve Vai, SRV, Andrés Segovia, and “Edward van Halen”).



Sudo’s descriptions span football-field analogies (“when a quarterback gets blitzed…hesitation will get him sacked”) to musings on the mindset of music (“wield your axe with beauty and virtue, and carry a noble heart…”) and collaborative creative ideals (“there is a macho attitude…players sport a gunslinger mentality, swaggering in their talent…but music is not a competition”).


Zen Guitar‘s ‘Tuning’ chapter doesn’t actually mention DADAAD – or any other specific note-set at all (Sudo’s connection to the tuning arises mainly from his tuition work). Instead, he calls on us to focus our attention on sound itself: “Tuning means learning to hear…try closing your eyes and listening with the ears of a blind person. Lessen your reliance on one sense, and the other senses will grow stronger…A player must be clear of internal static such as impatience and frustration, otherwise the spirit frizzles like a radio slightly off-dial”.


  • Zen Guitar Vision – Philip Toshio Sudo (1999):

“I began playing the guitar as a child in Japan, the land of my ancestors, and have continued playing in the U.S., my homeland…I’ve sought a way to blend the wisdom of East and West into a universal philosophy of life. The way I’ve found is Zen Guitar, [which] is nothing more than playing the song we’re all born with…The music is waiting there to be unlocked…”


Since Sudo’s passing in 2002, several of his students have recorded in DADAAD (e.g. Tomas Karlsson’s 2015 Zen Guitar Songs). It also turns up independently across a range of genres, many instances of which predate the book’s 1997 release – e.g. Dave Wakeling, who wound his way there as a teenager in the 1970s: “I’d tried to tune [to] DADGAD to play along with John Martyn tunes…I accidentally came up with DADAAD…and enjoyed the hypnotic drone…on my National Steel, for hour after hour”.


Wakeling put it to use on The (English) Beat’s Save it for Later – written in his bedroom prior to the band’s formation, and initially release-vetoed by bassist David ‘Shuffle’ Steele before becoming the band’s biggest hit in 1982 (while you might think the track’s title is a reference to this time-lag, Wakeling explains that, actually, it arises from “a dirty schoolboy joke”: ‘for later’=’fellator). Several other prominent North American artists have used the tuning too – e.g. Alex Lifeson/Rush (Hope), Stone Gossard/Pearl Jam (Let the Records Play), and Joni Mitchell (Carey‘s dulcimeric setup).


  • Let The Records Play – Pearl Jam (2013):

“Not one for faking,
Kneeling, his healing,
He lets the records play,
There’s wisdom in his ways…”


Speculative DADAAD ancestries: As mentioned, Joni and Stone Gossard are both quoted prominently in Zen Guitar: I wonder if Sudo originally picked up the tuning from one of them? And Gossard, in turn, has often covered Wakeling’s Save it for Later as part of Pearl Jam’s live medleys: maybe this is where the lineage leads? From there, I guess the next step back would be to whichever Martyn track sparked Wakeling’s innovative mis-tuning. Well…he mentions having found DADAAD “when I was a teenager“, (i.e. before he turned 20 in Feb 1976). And, of John Martyn’s pre-1976 songs, at least 8 are in DADGAD (e.g. Bless The Weather) – as well as 11 in nearby DADDAD (e.g. London Conversation), and at least one in DDDDAD (The Gardeners).


Fortunately, Wakeling provides further clues in a 2020 interview: “I tuned my guitar to what sounded about right [on] Solid Air…a tuning called BADGAD, which is in blues as well – but I tuned the G string up to an A, so it was all Ds and As. Someone told me that’s a bagpipe tuning”. [n.b. ‘BADGAD’ is surely an aural mis-transcription of DADGAD: the former isn’t “all Ds and As”, or prevalent “in blues” – see Funky Avocado. And the DADGAD-bagpipe connections remain mysterious…]. While Solid Air features several DADAAD-adjacent tunings (e.g. Over the Hill is in DADF#AD), only The Man In The Station and When It’s Dark are in exact DADGAD. And, given that the latter track was only added to later reissues, we now have a single prime suspect. Thus, my money (if, as someone who spends his time musing on such puzzles, I had any to wager) would be on The Man In The Station as the source of Wakeling’s DADAAD inspiration. Martyn, in turn, picked up DADGAD directly from its inventor Davy Graham – who developed it via jamming with oud [fretless lute] players in North Africa. The oud’s 4ths-based layouts in turn descend from…well, see my Oud page).


This lineage is unashamedly speculative, and in any case somewhat pointless – Wakeling himself describes a much hazier creation process (“I wish I could be more scientific, but I’d just tune the guitar until something sounded nice“). I’ll ask him sometime: but sometimes it feels more fitting to follow some impulsivity with these things…I guess that’s kinda what Zen might be about?


  • Save it for Later (tuning tale) – Dave Wakeling (2007):

“I got a phone call at 11am…’Hello Dave, this is Peter Townshend here and I’m sitting with David Gilmour, and we’re trying to work out your song ‘Save It For Later’…They presumed it was DADGAD…I had to explain that I’d made a mistake and it was…DADAAD. He laughed and said, ‘Oh, thank heavens for that! We’ve been breaking our fingers trying to get our hands around these chords!'” (Dave Wakeling: also check out Townshend’s take)


Steel-string acoustic guitarists often prefer to transpose downwards, chiefly to sidestep 3str tension issues. Jamie Woon goes a whole-tone lower (CGCGGC) on Robots, as does fellow British singer-songwriter Ben Howard on multiple tracks – including The Wolves (cp.3), The Fear (cp.3), Seven Bottles (cp.3), Old Pine (cp.5), and Three Tree Town (cp.5).


As with many of his tunings, Howard often combines it with a ‘partial capo‘ – e.g. leaving the 6str ‘unpressed’ on Everything (p/cp.3) and Diamonds (p/cp.7) – or the 1+2str, e.g. Further AwayI Will Be Blessed, and Under the Same Sun (all p/cp.5). Doubtless many more uses beyond those above (unfortunately, I can’t trace any Zen-tuned Nirvana tracks…)


  • The Wolves – Ben Howard (2011):

“The rest-stroke and free-stroke…represent two contrasting ways of ‘bringing attention to bear upon its object’. [This] may be applied [to] Zen meditation, where paying attention is, as it were, the name of the game. In particular…to the practices of conscious breathing and deep listening…” (Ben Howard: not, bizarrely, the British singer-songwriter, but an American poet, professor, and Buddhist scholar of the same name I found via speculatively googling ‘ben howard zen’ – author of acclaimed books spanning Irish literature to Rinzai philosophy, and also a keen performer and teacher of the classical guitar…)

—More Zen Guitar (get the book!)—

Imperfection (p.164): “Sometimes the note bent slightly below-pitch earns more impact than the one dead-on; or the squeal of unexpected feedback has just the right character: [like] the crooked twist in the stem of a flower, the asymmetrical line of the handcrafted bowl, the knot in the piece of wood.”


Playfulness (p.74): “Watch the way a toddler makes a toy out of a piece of trash. It’s a process of pure creative imagination, using whatever means are available. With a beginner’s mind you can lose your bearings, and let your openness lead you to new ones. Study what your ears tell you.”



Performance (p.167): “Treat each audience with each person as something precious. In the tea ceremony, host and guest call this ichigo ichie [‘one time, one meeting’]…Though we may perform the same song 10,000 times, each is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence…You cannot give anything less to the moment than your total spirit.”


Unhesitancy (p.58): “When you catch yourself thinking, ‘I’ve got to get around to fixing that thing’, get out the tools and fix it…Start with one task – however small – and get it done, then proceed to another…A famous Zen teaching illustrates the attitude required for this kind of discipline” [n.b. the teaching in question is Joshu Washes the Bowl, a legendary koan (paradoxical anecdote) from the great 13th-century collection The Gateless Gate]


  • Ramsay’s meditations (2010): like my site, an Anglo-Indian fusion

“Dojo’ is a Japanese word meaning, literally, ‘Place of the Way’…A good dojo is like a school, practice hall, and temple rolled into one. The aim is to train body, mind, and spirit together…You can make a dojo anywhere…a bedroom, basement, garage, porch, or street corner will serve just fine. All that’s required [is] the proper frame of mind…” (P.T. Sudo, 1958-2002)

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6str 5str 4str 3str 2str 1str
Note D A D A A D
Alteration -2 0 0 +2 -2 -2
Tension (%) -21 0 0 +26 -21 -21
Freq. (Hz) 73 110 147 220 220 294
Pattern (>) 7 5 7 0 5
Semitones 0 7 12 19 19 24
Intervals 1 5 1 5 5 1
  • 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!


—Associated tunings: proximities of shape, concept, context, etc…


—Further learnings: sources & info to delve further in…

  • Philip Toshio Sudo: read more in an enlightening interview with Dr. Patrick Miller (“I haven’t read any books related to cancer specifically, other than the wonderful volume of poetry Fuck You, Cancer by Rick Fields, who wrote from an Eastern philosophy perspective…”) – and aside from the famous Zen Guitar, see his other books, including Zen Computer (“ancient principles of Zen philosophy appl[ied] to the modern science of bits and bytes”), Zen Sex (“filled with classic Japanese erotic prints and poetry on love-making”), and Zen 24/7 (“mundane details of life contain zen’s profound truths, if you’re of the mind to look for them…”)
  • Zen-tuned songs: see Peter Hack’s pristine tab of Joni Mitchell’s Carey on her official website (“the same tuning used by Dave Wakeling [on Save It For Later]…the story, related by Pete Townshend, goes that neither he nor David Gilmour could figure out when they were attempting to learn the song off the recording…this resulted in them calling up Wakeling…”).

Header image: Zen Guitar’s musings on mastery

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…”

(Guitar World interview)

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