DADGAD guitar: Everything you ever wanted to know

Everything you ever wanted to know about DADGAD guitar


So what is DADGAD?

DADGAD tuning is an alternate guitar tuning where the strings are tuned to D-A-D-G-A-D from low to high. It’s particularly popular among “Celtic” musicians. DADGAD has an ability to produce rich, open chords and resonant drone notes. These are characteristic of traditional Celtic music. This tuning offers a unique harmonic palette that compliments Celtic melodies. It creates a lush, atmospheric sound ideal for both accompaniment and solo playing. It lends itself to evoke the spirit of Celtic music more so than standard tuning. This is what makes it a favourite choice among guitarists within the genre.

How to tune your guitar to DADGAD.

Follow along with this great old video where Ian Stephenson shows you how to tune your guitar to DADGAD.

Why does DADGAD suit Celtic music so well?

DADGAD tuning is favoured in Celtic music for its unique sound characteristics that perfectly complement the genre’s rich heritage and traditional melodies. Here are some key reasons why DADGAD tuning is preferred by Celtic musicians:

Rich, Open Chords:

  1. DADGAD tuning allows for the easy formation of lush, open chords with rich harmonic textures. The tuning’s intervals create chord voicings that resonate deeply, providing a full-bodied accompaniment that supports Celtic melodies and traditional tunes. DADGAD tuning facilitates chord voicings that are inherently rich and resonant. 

Resonant Drone Notes:

  1. One of the defining features of DADGAD tuning is the presence of open drone strings, particularly the low D and A strings. These drone notes provide a continuous, resonant backdrop that adds depth and ambiance to Celtic music, mimicking the sound of traditional Celtic instruments like the bagpipes and fiddle.

Modal Possibilities:

DADGAD tuning lends itself well to modal playing. This allows musicians to explore a variety of modal scales found in Celtic music. From the haunting sound of the Dorian mode to the melancholic tones of the Mixolydian mode. This modal flexibility enhances the expressive potential of melodic lines, allowing guitarists to convey a wide range of musical expressions.

Fingerstyle Friendliness:

  1. The tuning’s configuration facilitates fingerstyle playing. Making it well-suited for intricate melodic embellishments and rhythmic accompaniment patterns. Guitarists often utilise fingerstyle techniques to evoke the ornamentation of traditional Celtic music. Guitarists can effortlessly blend chords and melodic passages, creating dynamic and nuanced performances that captivate listeners.

Atmospheric Ambiance:

DADGAD tuning imparts a distinct atmospheric quality to Celtic music. Evoking images of misty landscapes, rolling hills, and ancient Celtic folklore. The tuning’s open, resonant sound creates a sense of spaciousness and depth. It enhanes the emotive power and storytelling aspect of Celtic melodies.

DADGAD has a unique sound. Including rich chords, resonant drones, modal possibilities, fingerstyle friendliness, and atmospheric ambiance. It is an ideal choice for capturing the essence and spirit of Celtic music. Its versatility and evocative qualities have cemented its status as a beloved tuning among players of Celtic music worldwide.

Your first DADGAD chords

Now you’ve tuned your guitar, Ian Stephenson walks you through your first DADGAD chords.

What do players think of DADGAD?

But don’t just take my word for it – I asked well some of the best musicians I know about their DADGAD world:


Jim Moginie

“DADGAD is a mystical drone and I’ve always thought the more open strings and close harmonies you have, the better.”


John Smith

“DADGAD is a different world. It makes a guitar behave differently. It moves the air in a way that is more mysterious, more romantic, especially when you take the whole thing down a semitone. Musically, it offered access to a wide landscape that standard tuning does not contain. As soon as I discovered DADGAD, my love affair with the guitar deepened and became more fascinating, more rewarding.”


Adam Brown 

“I find the openness of the tuning really helps shape moods and emotions and is such a useful tool to create euphoric, deep soundscapes almost effortlessly. It has the ability to hold strong rhythmic strumming and in the next moment plucked melodies. The usefulness of the low D drone for such things is second to none and is something I have always loved.”

Denny Bartley

“Overall, the advantages of DADGAD tuning for creating rich, resonant chords and melodic lines lie in its open chord voicings, extended harmonic range, modal flexibility, and fingerstyle friendliness. These characteristics make DADGAD tuning a versatile and expressive tool for guitarists seeking to explore new sonic possibilities and enrich their musical repertoire.”


Seth Tinsley

Listening to what musicians say about the tuning begs the question – “what inspired you to play in DADGAD rather than standard tuning? Seems like a good reason to post some more superb music…

Why DADGAD in the first place?

Denny Bartley

“I mostly got into DADGAD through playing Irish trad. It suited the modality of the tunes. I was also a huge admirer of Dick Gaughan, who did his songs in it. I would have been more involved in rock type of music before that, and of course, Jimmy Page had dabbled in the tuning also. “


John Smith

“My dad sat me down with a cassette of ‘Bert and John’. That was my way in. Hearing their inventions and adventures in DADGAD completely changed the way I thought about my approach to guitar. That, and Roll Away The Stone by Kelly Joe Phelps are two examples of DADGAD records that have really shaped the way I play.”


Adam Brown

“DADGAD tuning is that it’s the only one I have ever known, or played in, and for me, DADGAD is my standard tuning. My background in music is purely based in Irish and Scottish traditional music. I play rhythm guitar and I’ve always loved the drone of DADGAD especially as a lot of the tunes from the tradition are in favourable keys for DADGAD such as D, G, Dm, Am and so on. I also play with pipes a lot in Scotland that have an A drone running throughout the music which really compliments the tuning and ties the two instruments together. 


Seth Tinsley

“I first got introduced  DADGAD through the playing of Pierre Bensusan. His music opened up a whole new world for me of what a guitar was capable of. Initially his use of the tuning was to mimic the sound of open course instruments used in traditional Irish music like the cittern and bouzouki but he ended up taking it so far beyond the usual limitations of open tuning.”


Jim Moginie

“I first heard open tuning with Nick Drake and John Martyn. In Australia Shane Howard uses it brilliantly his music sounds so timeless and natural, but had an unresolved thing, a Celtic thing which is great for accompanying a singer.”

The Importance of the Right Guitar for DADGAD:



Now I wish this were a “one size fits all” answer, but it isn’t. The musicians in this article all play different guitars, and only a couple of them play mine. Choosing a guitar for your music is a deeply personal matter. But in the next few paragraphs I hope to put flesh on the bones of what questions you need to consider when choosing a guitar for playing DADGAD.

From a player’s perspective, the choice of guitar significantly shapes the DADGAD experience. Each guitar model brings a unique feel and sound to the tuning. For example, a player might prefer a dreadnought for its full lows, to provide the bottom end often lacking in folk and Celtic music, whereas a smaller-bodied guitar might offer a more intimate, nuanced sound for intricate fingerstyle arrangements. Do you play as a solo artist or with others? Are you a percussive player or a tune player, or both? Where are you in the mix? Ultimately, selecting a guitar that resonates with your playing style enhances the pleasure and expression found in exploring the versatile world of DADGAD tuning.

Essential Features to Consider:

  1. Tonewood Selection:

Again, if only this were a one size fits all response. But tonewood selection is one of the important levers a luthier has to pull when creating the perfect guitar for a customer who plays in DADGAD. But all of these factors (body size and soundboard design) are connected and interrelated. 

Sometimes a customer who is familiar with my work comes to me with a very specific idea in mind – a Model C-SS in Indian rosewood and European spruce. Or an S-HO in cedar and flamed jarrah. But there are also times when a customer and I have to really have a conversation about what will work best for them. And tonewood is always part of that conversation.

  1. Tonal Character and body size:

Body shape influences the tonal character of the guitar by shaping the distribution of frequencies across the sonic spectrum. Different body shapes emphasize certain frequencies while attenuating others, resulting in distinct tonal signatures that suit different musical styles and preferences.

   –  Traditional Dreadnought guitars often have a rather muddy or boomy bottom end, which can really cause problems with DADGAD. Yet my Dreadnought guitars (Forster Model D-SS and D-SK Adv) typically exhibit a balanced tonal response with a strong low end, pronounced midrange, and crisp highs. This balanced tonal profile makes dreadnoughts versatile instruments suitable for a wide range of playing styles, from flatpicking to fingerpicking.

Here is my Model D-SS, tuned to DADGAD.


– Concert and OM (Orchestra Model) guitars (my Model S-SS and S-HO) feature a more focused midrange with slightly scooped lows and sparkling highs. These guitars offer clarity and articulation, making them well-suited for intricate fingerstyle playing and solo performances where each note needs to be heard with precision. That said, Ian Stephenson plays his Model S with a pick, and he sounds superb. 

Here is my Model S-SS tuned to DADGAD

   – Jumbo guitars (Forster Model C-SS and C-HO) produce a rich and full-bodied sound with a pronounced low end and extended sustain. Their large sound chambers and wide waists enhance bass response and resonance, making them ideal for players who prioritize warmth and depth in their tone.

Here is my Model C-HO, tuned to DADGAD

   – Mini-dread guitars (Model E-SS and E-SK Adv) have a distinctive vintage charm with a balanced tonal response and a pronounced midrange. Despite their smaller size, a wide waisted parlour guitar can deliver surprising volume and projection, making them wise choice for a DADGAD player who wants a physically smaller guitar without compromising too much on the bottom end. 

Here is the Model E-SS, tuned to DADGAD

In summary, the body shape of a guitar significantly influences its projection and tonal character, shaping the instrument’s sound and responsiveness to different playing techniques. By understanding the sonic characteristics associated with different body shapes, you and I between us can choose a guitar that best suits you rmusical preferences and playing needs, ensuring an optimal playing experience and sonic satisfaction.

But everything I’ve said about body size is also true for soundboard topography – the three dimensional shape the soundboard is in. A flat top reacts differently from an SS soundboard, an SS reacts differently from the cylinder top HO soundboard.

The same again applies to tonewood selection – Soundboard material is probably the most significant tonewood decision the player and maker have to consider. Old European spruce is not aged Western red cedar, Western red cedar is not torrefied sitka, they all have different strengths, weaknesses, applications and uses.

What scale length suits DADGAD?

Again, it all depends…but scale is one of the more interesting levers to pull here – essentially, given the same set of strings and tuning, the longer the scale, the greater the tension. Also, the greater the tension, the more accurate the intonation. I’ve made guitars for DADGAD on every scale from 24.75″ (the shortish Gibson scale) to 660mm – the long Classical guitar scale, and they all worked. But that was only because we married the scale to how the customer played and what sound they wanted. In general I lean towards the longer scales for DADGAD or other “dropped” tunings, but that’s mainly because my guitars tend to be loud –  shorter scale guitars are more inclined to have slightly compromised intonation as you climb the neck, and guitars of high monopole mobility (loud ones) those intonation errors are clear for all to hear. The improved intonation of a longer scale and higher tension is a pragmatic way to combat this.

Optimal Sound Quality:

  1. The right guitar will produce a balanced, resonant, and full-bodied sound in DADGAD tuning. This isn’t as common as you might think. Open strings are of little use if the bass overpowers, is muddy, or distracts because of poor intonation. Neither am I talking about a perfectly even response. A perfectly even response comes with its’ own issues – a lack of magic, a lack of character. I played a guitar once that did indeed have a perfectly even response. It had all the thrill and emotional content as a trip to the Post Office. So be careful what you wish for! But also, is the sound optimal for how you play? Are you a highly percussive player? Or do you leave a lot of space, preferring to compliment rather than provide a basis for others to play over? These are things we need to consider. In the end, you want an instrument that speaks to you, that inspires you. That sings. 
  2. Comfort and Playability:

  3. Choose a guitar with a body shape and size to compliment your own physicality. This is important. If you’ve shoulder issues, can you play a large guitar for a long time? If you prefer to hold the guitar at an angle when playing will too small a guitar body cause issues? If you’re like me, and you’re 5 foot 6″, you might need an arm bevel if you want a large guitar like the Model C-SS with its hefty lower bout and corresponding bottom end? Are you working with a luthier who understands how to manipulate materials, body sizes and soundboard designs accordingly? Consider comfort and playability before a build begins. If you get that right, you can focus on expressing yourself musically and less on physical limitations.
  4. Inspiration and Creativity:

  5. The right guitar should inspire creativity and spark your musical imagination. it should encourage you to explore new sonic territories and push boundaries. Whether you’re composing original music, arranging traditional tunes, or improvising spontaneous melodies, a guitar that resonates with you on a personal and emotional level cultivates a deeper connection to your music and fuels your artistic expression in DADGAD tuning.

Once you’ve got to know each other, the tunes should just fall out the instrument. That’s what we’re aiming for. 

  1. Long-Term Satisfaction:

  2. Investing in a high-quality guitar that meets your specific needs and preferences is the best route to long-term satisfaction and enjoyment. A well-crafted instrument not only withstands the test of time but also grows with you as a musician. It evolves in resonance and character with each passing year. By choosing the right guitar for playing in DADGAD, you’re making an investment in your musical journey. You’re laying the foundation for countless hours of joyful playing and exploration.


In conclusion

The importance of choosing the right guitar for playing in DADGAD tuning cannot be overstated.  Optimal sound quality to suit the music in your mind and heart. Playability that removes prior hinderances, that fosters inspiration and long-term satisfaction. The right guitar serves as a trusted companion and indispensable tool in your musical endeavours. Select a guitar that resonates with your musical vision and enhances your playing experience. Embark on a transformative journey filled with creativity, expression, and musical fulfilment. 

Choosing the right guitar for playing in DADGAD tuning is paramount to unlocking the full potential of this unique tuning and enhancing your musical experience. 


Well, I hoped you’ve enjoyed this article, the videos and quotes from some amazing musicians. If you have, please spread the word and share. I’d really appreciate it if you did.