Skip to Content Skip to Navigation
Join the email list!

Chris Smith: Words & Music

Instruction: Guitar tunings 01

(Chris Smith)
2005-10-21
My basic premise in making the Celtic Backup book non-tuning-specific (and in providing accompaniments on the CD in an array of tunings and instruments) was to emphasize that the principles behind improvised accompaniment remain the same across instruments. However, see below discussion regarding strengths/weaknesses of various tuning choices (speaking guitar, now)). I would encourage you, no matter what tuning you settle on, to build your own personalized preferred voicings in that tuning based on the Celtic Backup principles.*

For the book's "15-point Plan" (fifteen different approaches to accompanying the same 8-measure phrase from "Wind that shakes the barley"), as much as I remember how I conceived it at that time, the priority would be to ensure that you can get open-string drones in useful keys: e.g., the root and/or 5th degree of the scale on the fundamentals G, D, A, and E. So, a tuning that gives you, respectively, G-D, D-A, A-E, and/or E-B as open strings helps make these open-string drones especially feasible.

Strictly for accompaniment, I personally prefer to use some kind of tuning which supports low (6th-string) D and (5th-string) A, as that gives me root/5th in D, the 5th of D (and lets me play bass runs that lead up to the 6th-string/5th-fret G, approaching the fundamental of below), gives me the root of A. It also mimics the low D bass drone of the pipes. So, for me either DADGBE or DADGAD is preferable.

Here are the advantages, as I see them, of the above two tunings:

DADGBE:

Has the advantage of permitting a very triadic/chordal approach (familiar fingerings, full 3-note triads) while also supporting the low D-A drone strings. So we can have moving or droning bass lines under triads. Best for D major/minor, G major (can use the low drones the most). Less good for A mix/min (can use the low A drone some). Less good for E minor (can’t use the low drones at all).

Permits the adaptation of familiar triadic fingerings to omit the 3rds from chords. So, a D chord without the 1st-string F#, a G chord with the 2nd-string B altered to a 3rd-fret D, and so forth. Calls for quick thinking and conscious choices from the player in order to avoid adding a “triadic” flavor to tunes which don’t require it.

I tend to use DADGBE myself because I like the flexibility of being able to shift from a very droning/modal orientation to a very triadic one within the course of a single accompaniment.

Best exemplar: Arty McGlynn (my very favorite Irish-style guitarist, but one who I like primarily for his rhythmic and textural sense).

DADGAD

Has the very major advantage of providing useful drones on treble as well as bass strings. Readily permits the incorporation of root-5th treble drones (in D), 5th-2nd treble drones (in G), 5th-4th drones (in A). Still rather problematic for E (many DADGAD players will capo at the 2nd fret and play D minor/modal fingerings to get E minor).

Has the additional very major advantage of really supporting the contrapuntal approach laid out in Celtic Backup. You can play moving lines above, below, or even between low and/or high drones. Really is the best solution I know for making the 6-string guitar “behave” in a bouzouki-esque fashion. Very good overall for counterpoint.

I use DADGAD when I pick up the wife’s guitar in a session, and have come to appreciate its droning/modal/zouk-like characteristics much more over the years. Lets the instrument really function as very effective drone/percussion—takes it a long way away from triadic/”guitaristic” approaches.

Exemplars: Philip Masure (Belgium; http://www.folk.be/gara/): the most staggering DADGAD player I’ve ever heard. Philip, with whom and the Coyne Brothers I sessioned a couple of times in Liverpool, is absolutely frightening. Definitive DADGAD playing. Second-place: Randal Bays, who’s irritatingly brilliant at fingerstyle and accompanimental DADGAD guitar in addition to his fiddle virtuosity.

GENERAL/FINAL COMMENTS:

Think of DADGBE as a kind of “pianistic” approach, where you can have “right-hand” (treble) chords, of triadic or modal nature, over a moving "left-hand" bass line (McGlynn).

Think of DADGAD as a kind of “bouzouki/pipes” approach, where you can contrapuntal accompanimental lines moving above, below, or within drones.

*Having said that, I can also point you at Han Speek’s DADGAD guitar pages. Han is a great musician, a true gentleman, and very generous with his knowledge.