A Tuning of a Different Color

Standard tuning—E, A, D, G, B, E , low to high—is just that: standard. New guitars come off the assembly line in standard tuning, and most guitars stay parked there for their lifetime. Guitarists, however, have always been rule breakers, so there’s a long history of creative players retuning the instrument to suit their musical needs and whims. Jazz-guitar pioneer Carl Kress, Hawaiian slack-key master Ledward “Led” Kaapana, the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, and contemporary singer-songwriter David Wilcox are among the many players who have found alternative tunings to be rich compositional resources, offering harmonies and timbres that are simply unavailable in standard tuning.

With some tunings, when you strum all the strings at once you hear a simple chord. Open D—D, A, D, F#, A, D, low to high—is one such “open” tuning. Others, like DADGAD, suggest more ambiguous sonorities, due to the absence of a defining major- or minor-third interval. With no gravitational pull towards a key center, such tunings don’t offer the immediate gratification of an open tuning, though they may ultimately be more useful because of their adaptable nature. Fingerstylists Laurence Juber and Pierre Bensusan, for example, both play extensively in DADGAD, using the tuning in every key imaginable.

Less common than DADGAD is its cousin, D modal—D, A, D, G, B, D. (This tuning is also sometimes known as “double-dropped D” or “double-down D.”) John Renbourn, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and Adrian Legg are among the players who’ve composed and arranged pieces in D-modal tuning. D modal is very much a best-of-both worlds option. It’s partially an open tuning, with a G major triad on the top three strings, and another G triad on strings two through four. The bottom three strings tell a different story. Tuned D, A, D, they imply some sort of D tuning.

D modal, then, can be thought of as both a G tuning and a D tuning, yet not quite one or the other. As a finger-friendly bonus, the middle four strings are tuned the same as in standard, so many familiar chord forms still work. That levels the learning curve substantially.

The following examples well help get you acquainted with D modal, in a variety of musical settings. The first five are intended to be played fingerstyle, while the final two should be played with a flatpick. Note that a few different keys are explored here—D and G, and D minor as well. As you get to know the tuning better, and begin using it for your own compositions and arrangements, be sure to try it in keys beyond D and G. If you have a spare guitar, consider dedicating it to D-modal tuning. Always having a D-modal guitar handy—one that doesn’t require frequent tuning and retuning—will make it easier to spend time with your new best friend.